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NEA’s Letter to the House on the Success and Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10)

April 08, 2014

Dear Representative:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA), and the students they serve, we wish to offer our views on the Success and Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) introduced by Chairman Kline (R-MN) and Ranking Member Miller (D-CA), scheduled for mark up today. While this bill includes some improvements to existing law, it falls short of what is needed to ensure greater accountability and transparency.

NEA supports high-quality charter schools that operate in a manner that is transparent and accountable to parents and taxpayers; ensures equity and access; and solicits and benefits from input from parents, educators, and the communities they serve. We caution, however, that charter schools are not a panacea for solving all education challenges.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools, so they should be held to the same school accountability standards as traditional public schools, including those in ESEA and other federal requirements. We believe there should be clearer requirements for annual independent financial audits for all charter schools. States should require charter schools to disclose publicly all funding sources (public and private) and of such, funding amounts, student and teacher attrition rates, and student demographic characteristics.

The best studies of charter schools to date, including the 2013 national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, have yielded mixed results with regard to student achievement. Charters come out ahead of, the same as, or behind traditional public schools in terms of student growth depending on the subject area, the demographic characteristics of individual students, and the length of time a school has been in operation.

Specifically regarding H.R. 10, we would like to draw your attention to a few specific provisions of the legislation that NEA is pleased to see included in the bill:

Charter Authorizer Accountability: We are pleased that H.R. 10 includes a provision for state oversight of charter authorizer performance, including revoking the power of charter authorizers where the performance of the schools they authorize is persistently poor. Charter authorizers have the power, conferred to them by state charter laws, to approve, disapprove or close charter schools. When they do a poor job of vetting initial applications, or renewing charters without high enough standards, students, parents, communities and taxpayers can be faced with the prospect of potential school closures. Yet, current federal law does not require states to take responsibility for tracking how charter schools fare or hold their authorizers accountable.

Weighted Lotteries: Including weighted lotteries in H.R. 10 is a positive step toward providing another tool to those charter schools that wish to address under-enrollment of “educationally disadvantaged students.” Nationally, charter schools under-enroll students with disabilities, especially those with severe disabilities, and English language learners. Also, they are more segregated than other public schools by family income, ethnicity, or race (UCLA Civil Rights Project, 2010; National Education Policy Center, 2010). While we see the inclusion of weighted lotteries as a good first step, this provision, and the bill as a whole, does not go nearly far enough in addressing under-representation and segregation issues in the charter sector.

Alternatively, there are a few issues that are of particular concern to educators which this legislation does not address:

No Mandatory Disclosure and Reporting: There is no requirement for public disclosure or reporting on student discipline policies and behavior codes, student and teacher attrition rates, or teacher qualifications. Also lacking are reporting requirements of the charter document itself and any performance agreements in effect, and existence of parent contract requirements — all information which parents and taxpayers should have ready access to.

No Independent Audit Requirement: The language in H.R. 10 referencing independent audits does not actually require that all charter schools in states benefiting from federal charter assistance undergo annual independent audits or make audits available to the public. This is in addition to the broad waiver language already in the bill. The lack of financial accountability and transparency in the charter sector, that a real independent audit requirement would help address, is a major concern. It greatly hinders attempts by parents, communities and taxpayers to have ready access to how much private funding some charter schools receive and how long that commitment is for, compensation packages for charter school administrators, amounts spent on marketing and administration versus instruction, and other important issues.

No Conflict of Interest Guidelines: The bill includes no federal requirements that states benefiting from federal charter assistance develop, disseminate and enforce conflict of interest guidelines to prevent purchase arrangements- which are not transparent in the ways required of all other taxpayer-funded schools.

Open Board Meetings: The bill is silent on making charter school board meetings open and transparent to parents, educators and the public. Charter school board members are not elected and the public is often excluded from attending their meetings. Given that these schools are largely being funded through taxpayers’ dollars, state open meeting law provisions that apply to traditional public schools must also be applied to taxpayer-funded charter schools.

While we are encouraged the bill includes improvements in some areas over current law, it ultimately falls well short of long-overdue parent, student, educator, community and taxpayer safeguards needed in the now 23-year old charter sector.

We welcome and look forward to the opportunity to work with the Committee in strengthening H.R. 10 as the legislative process continues. 

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations