Oversight of Charter Schools
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
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?
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 are considered public schools and may provide instruction in any grades kindergarten through twelve (K-12). A charter school is usually:
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.
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.
The following characteristics
of district oversight exist:
The County Superintendent of Schools:
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.
do not provide adequate oversight of charter schools.
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
To be effective, oversight must include: