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Charter School Accountability and Opportunities for Collaboration

January 24, 2019 Download this report as a PDF »

Although charter schools have existed in many parts of the country for decades, such schools are relatively new to Washington. Voters passed the state’s charter school law in 2012. The earliest of the currently operating charter schools opened in the fall of 2015.

The purpose of the audit was to examine whether Washington’s charter schools have the foundations in place to help ensure they are accountable to the public. We looked at several key issues:

  • Have charter schools enrolled the types of students identified in their charters
  • Have they complied with certain state and federal requirements
  • Do their charter agreements include appropriate performance frameworks

In addition, we looked at the extent to which the charter schools and traditional schools work together.

 Report Credits Report Number 1022692

State Auditor’s Office contacts

State Auditor Pat McCarthy
360-902-0360, Pat.McCarthy@sao.wa.gov

Scott Frank – Director of Performance Audit
360-902-0376, Scott.Frank@sao.wa.gov

Shauna Good – Principal Performance Auditor
360-725-5615, Shauna.Good@sao.wa.gov

Tania Fleming – Senior Performance Auditor
360-725-5627, Tania.Fleming@sao.wa.gov

Nancy Patino – Performance Auditor
360-725-5360, Nancy.Patino@sao.wa.gov

Kathleen Cooper – Director of Communications
360-902-0470, Kathleen.Cooper@sao.wa.gov

To request public records
Public Records Officer
360-725-5617, PublicRecords@sao.wa.gov

Key Results

This performance audit asked four questions:

  1. Have charter schools enrolled the types of students they intended to serve?
  2. To what extent do charter schools, traditional schools and school districts collaborate and coordinate?
  3. Are charter schools complying with teacher certification requirements and government transparency laws?
  4. Do performance frameworks in charter school agreements align with laws and leading practices?

The results were mixed, which is not surprising given newness of the entire charter school system in Washington. The tabs in this Featured Report presentation explore each in turn. You can also read a two-page summary (PDF) about our work.

It is worth noting that, during the course of the audit, charter schools made efforts to address some of the problems found as a result of this audit.

Background

Charter schools are tuition-free, publicly funded schools available to all children from kindergarten through high school age. Washington’s 10 charter schools served about 2,400 students during the 2017-18 school year. In 2016, the Legislature directed the Office of the Washington State Auditor to evaluate the frameworks used to ensure charter schools are held accountable for the academic outcomes of their students. The audit reviewed the frameworks to see if they comply with state law and leading practices, but did not evaluate student academic outcomes. This audit also evaluates whether charter schools have the foundations in place to ensure they adhere to government transparency laws. Finally, it looked at the extent to which these schools collaborate with districts and traditional schools.

Student
enrollment

The Charter School Act emphasizes serving at-risk students. Charter schools varied in their enrollment of certain groups of at-risk students. When compared to the rest of their local school districts, almost all charters enrolled higher percentages of low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities. Most enrolled a smaller percentage of English language learners. About half of all charter schools enrolled a more diverse student population than the local school district.

Three issues explain why some charter schools lagged in enrolling at-risk students. First, they have limited influence on enrollment. Second, they are still not well known. Third, they cannot fully use resources such as weighted enrollment preferences. As a separate issue, two charter schools were unable to provide data for certain types of students they intended to serve.

Collaboration

Collaboration among charter schools, districts and traditional schools can gain efficiencies and other benefits for students and their families. However, there are challenges to broader cooperation. Charter schools that were authorized by the local school district had the most-developed relationships with the district. We found less collaboration between charter schools and traditional schools when an organization outside the school district served as the charter’s authorizer.

Compliance

Charter schools are subject to many of the same laws and requirements that apply to traditional schools. They must meet state and federal teacher certification requirements, and follow Washington’s transparency laws. Based on the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s limited review of teacher certifications, charter schools have complied with state and federal requirements.

Charter schools largely complied with specific requirements in the Open Public Meetings Act. The most common issue we found involved training for all board members within 90 days of assuming their role. Charter schools met some, but not all, basic requirements of the Public Records Act. While all schools trained and appointed a public records officer, seven of 10 schools did not establish or publish procedures on how the public could request public records. None of them provided a statement of costs, an index of records or a list of exemptions.

Performance frameworks

The Charter School Act requires that performance frameworks include specific performance indicators, measures and metrics. Frameworks must also provide for a way to identify academic performance by different student groups. Leading charter school organizations suggest using common indicators for academic outcomes and mirroring state and federal requirements, among other things.

We found performance frameworks maintained by both of Washington’s charter school authorizers align with state laws and leading practices.

Recommendations

We recommend the Legislature:

  • Consider amending statute to allow the charter school authorizer to approve school admission policies and weighted enrollment

We recommend charter schools:

  • Establish all procedural requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act

We recommend charter schools and their authorizers:

  • Continue exploring opportunities for weighted enrollment preferences in admissions policies as allowed by law
  • Track and measure enrollment of targeted student groups as allowed by law