December 22, 2014
Final Reports
San Mateo Courts - Civil Grand Jury

2002 Report:

Oversight of Charter Schools

Summary | Background | Findings | Conclusions | Recommendations| Responses

Summary:

The right to charter schools was created by act of the California Legislature. Charter schools are designed to operate independently from existing public school district structure in order to improve learning opportunities for students, to encourage the use of innovative teaching methods, and to provide "vigorous competition within the public school system to encourage improvement. It was anticipated that specific goals with measurable outcomes would be established by the charter issued by the supervising school district.

In San Mateo County there is no common vision of oversight and or agreement over monitoring. This may result in poor academic outcomes and financial problems for some charter schools. This is detrimental to the goal of improved education for charter school students.

The Grand Jury has made a series of findings and recommendations for improving relationships between chartering districts and their charter schools.

Issue: Are chartering school districts in San Mateo County and the County Superintendent of Schools effectively carrying out their oversight responsibilities?

Background:

Investigation

Recent concerns raised about how well charter schools are monitored and the recently published State Auditor's report pointing out significant weakness in the manner in which four prominent counties in the state carried out oversight, prompted the Grand Jury to conduct a study to assess how chartering districts in San Mateo County are carrying out their responsibilities in this regard.

The Grand Jury interviewed County Superintendent of Schools staff, past and present charter school administrators, professional managers of for-profit and not-for-profit charter schools, and a former state legislator.

The Grand Jury reviewed relevant documents, including Charter School Law, school charters and accompanying memoranda of understanding (MOU), the November 2002 California State Auditor's report, the state achievement performance index (API) scores for each charter school, and other school and district reports.

Charter schools

Charter schools are considered public schools and may provide instruction in any grades kindergarten through twelve (K-12). A charter school is usually:

  • created and organized by a group of teachers, parents, community leaders or a community based-organization
  • authorized by an existing local public school board or county board of education
  • Charter schools are established to operate independently from the existing school district structure. They are designed to:
    • improve learning and increase learning opportunities for all students
    • encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods without the constraints of traditional rules and structure
    • provide "vigorous" competition within the public school system to encourage improvement
    • provide educational programs for meeting measurable pupil outcomes in a performance-based accountability system

Specific goals and operating procedures for a school are detailed in a charter and an MOU agreed to by the district and the charter developers. Charters are issued for five years, after which they may be renewed or revoked. Charter schools vary in structure, governance, educational focus and operations.

Independent charter schools are incorporated for profit or not-for-profit and are governed by appointed or separately elected boards. Dependent charter schools are governed by the board of trustees that provides the charter. Either may be a new school, a "startup", or a previously established district school, a "conversion". Appendix A contains a table describing the existing charter schools. Note, that neither the County Superintendent of Schools nor the California Department of Education has chartered a school in San Mateo County.

Charter School Law prohibits a district from chartering a school outside district boundaries, or renewing a charter of an existing charter school, if the chartering district and the charter school do not normally serve some of the same school age population. For example, this will preclude an elementary district chartering a high school as occurred in the past. Current district and school charters that are not compatible with these requirements will end on January 1, 2005, or upon expiration of a charter that was in existence on January 1, 2003, whichever is later.

By law, chartering districts have the primary responsibility to oversee charter schools to ensure they are held accountable for operating in a fiscally sound manner, that they are making progress in reaching student, program and organization goals and objectives stated in their charters, and that they operate in compliance with applicable laws. Neither the law nor the California Department of Education provide clear guidelines for how this should be done.

Districts are authorized to inspect or observe a school at any time, make reasonable inquiries regarding financial records and other operations, collect fees for supervisory oversight costs, and renew or revoke charters.

Findings:


Chartering districts and charter schools:

  • Do not share a common definition of oversight. Some personnel define oversight as monitoring and reporting; others as management and supervision.
  • Disagree significantly about how schools should be monitored. Charter schools fear overly rigid monitoring will reduce independence and flexibility. Districts fear activities will drain resources and energies to the disadvantage of the parents and pupils they serve.
  • Communicate very little about their respective oversight responsibilities and the expectations they have for student performance and its measurement.
  • Are not taking advantage of the opportunity provided to exchange information about innovative teaching methods and programs to adopt best practices.
    Chartering districts have not:
    • Adopted written policies to guide ongoing oversight activities and the renewing or revoking of charters.
    • Negotiated charters and MOU's that always include school and student performance goals that are measurable, the types and frequency of academic data charter schools must submit, the manner in which the district will review academic data, and steps that it will take to resolve oversight concerns.
    • Designated a staff person to coordinate oversight activities and provide a liaison to the schools they charter

The following characteristics of district oversight exist:

  • Staff members are uncertain about their oversight authority, roles and responsibilities.
  • Monitoring is informal, haphazard and narrowly focused on fiscal management to the neglect of other areas defined in charters, particularly students' performance, health and safety.
  • Assessment of academic programs and student performance for the purpose of oversight is limited primarily to reviewing the published results of Academic Performance Index (API) tests. Broader goals and objectives required to be delineated in charters ("Measurable Pupil Outcomes") are not considered.
  • Information about school operations is not obtained in a timely manner, if at all. Required annual independent financial audits are not always obtained.
  • Direct verification of charter schools' compliance with their charters and the law is limited to information provided by the charter schools.
  • District administrators can not say with certainty that all staff members are properly credentialed have had required background checks, or that all applicable laws providing for the safety and health of children are being followed.
  • Assessment of academic programs and student performance for the purpose of oversight is limited primarily to reviewing the published results of Academic Performance Index (API) tests. Broader goals and objectives required to be delineated in charters ("Measurable Pupil Outcomes") are not considered.

The County Superintendent of Schools:

  • Provides services to all public schools in the County upon request.
  • Does not on its own initiative routinely gather information from districts or charter schools for the purpose of oversight. Reviews of budgets and spending occurs only to the degree that charter school finances are managed by districts.
  • Does not have the information it needs to assist districts to prepare successful charters or carry out effective oversight.
  • Was granted authority on January 1, 2003 to request that charter schools provide information on how they operate; and to carry out investigations of schools based upon written complaints by parents or other compelling information.

Has yet to define how and under what circumstances it will carry out oversight responsibilities now allowed by recent changes in the law.

For example, the Redwood City School District failed to exercise its oversight responsibility in a timely manner to address financial and student performance difficulties at Aurora High School. At the beginning of the school's third year of operation, staff at Aurora High School charter school indicated to the Redwood City School District concerns it had about its financial operations and its ability to provide an academic program for the students. As a result, the district asked the County Superintendent of Schools to review the school's financial operations and decided to become more involved in monitoring the activities of the school. The district indicated it was surprised to learn that the school was experiencing difficulties.

Existing charter high schools plan to seek charters within the Sequoia Union High School District. The Sequoia High School District and charter school managers have incompatible opinions about how these charters should be structured. The primary areas of concern include authority and accountability, funding, the use of facilities and the cost of oversight.

Conclusions:

Chartering districts do not provide adequate oversight of charter schools.
When an adversarial relationship exists between chartering districts and their charter schools, it hinders their ability to effectively work together.

The potential for divisive public discourse and costly legal battles in the next year between the Sequoia High School District and petitioning charter high schools is high, and is not be in the best interests of the public or its students.

To be effective, oversight must include:

  • Explicit district approved policies that define oversight, assign responsibilities, and describe practices and procedures that provide for ongoing monitoring and reasonable and deliberative renewal or revocation of charters.
  • The designation of a responsible administrator in each district to coordinate oversight activities.
  • Open communication channels between the chartering district, the charter schools, and the County Superintendent of Schools..


Recommendations:

    1. Chartering districts should, no later than February 1, 2004:

      a. adopt written policies regarding its oversight responsibilities

      b. adopt and implement procedures to provide effective ongoing monitoring of its charter schools to ensure they operate in compliance with charters, MOU's and the law

      c. adopt and implement procedures for reasonable and deliberative renewal or revocation of charters

      d. appoint a district administrator to coordinate oversight activities and act as a district spokesperson when communicating with the public and charter schools

      e. amend charters and MOU's to include relevant newly adopted district policies and practices

    2. The Redwood City Elementary School District should, while it has oversight responsibility, provide much closer monitoring of Aurora High School to ensure that it is operating in a fiscally responsible manner and is meeting the needs of its students.

    3. The Sequoia High School District and charter high schools must begin immediate, good faith negotiations to provide new charters for existing charter high schools in a manner that is beneficial to the community without setting preconditions that cannot be met.

    4. District and charter schools should use the opportunity provided by oversight to exchange information about innovative teaching methods and programs, and adopt best practices.

    5. The County Superintendent of Schools should take a more proactive role in providing oversight of charter schools by:

      a. collecting and distributing best practice information about oversight

      b. assisting districts to develop and implement oversight policies, procedures and practices

      c. taking the lead to bring districts and charter schools together in an appropriate forum to exchange information and resolve oversight issues

    6. By September 1, 2003, the County Superintendent of Schools should develop policies and practices for carrying out its oversight authority and provide these to districts, charter schools, and the public.
Responses
© 2014 Superior Court of San Mateo County