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Charter School Accountability

As taxpayer-funded schools, charter schools must be held to the same safeguards and high standards of accountability, transparency and equity as public schools.

First opening in Minnesota in 1992, charter schools are operated independently from the local school district but receive taxpayer dollars. They are exempted from some rules applicable to the traditional public school district. 

The original intent of charter schools was to provide a space for educators to be more flexible and innovative in their curriculum and instructional practices. It was hoped that successful innovations could be adapted to benefit public education more broadly. 

All schools that receive public funds should be held to the same excellence, equity, and transparency standards as public schools.

Too frequently, charters are operated expressly for profit, or are nominally non-profit but managed or operated by for-profit entities. The growth of charters has undermined local public schools and communities without producing any overall increase in student learning and growth.

    Frequently Asked Questions about charter schools

    Check out this FAQ for answers to your questions about charter school accountability.

    What are the concerns about charter schools?

    Forty-five states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have state charter school laws. Unfortunately, many of these laws provide for weak regulations and lax oversight.

    • Many do not require that charters comply with the same open meetings laws and conflict of interest requirements that apply to public school boards, school districts and their employees. 
    • None adequately prevent for-profit management and operation of charter schools.
    • Many do not require charter school teachers to meet the same certification requirements as public school teachers.

    Because of these statutory problems, other major concerns have emerged:

    • Under-funding our public neighborhood and magnet schools. Charter schools, by their very nature, drain funding from local public schools, which enroll over 90 percent of K-12 students.
    • Adverse impact on students with disabilities. Students with disabilities are often pushed out of charter schools that can’t meet their needs, while the schools get to keep the funding taken from the neighborhood public school. This practice disproportionately impacts students of color.
    • Instability. Charters are very unstable. Of all charter schools that have been active since 2000, 25 percent have closed within six years of opening, usually due to poor performance or financial mismanagement.
    • Waste, fraud, and abuse. Governments at all levels have failed to implement systems that proactively monitor charter schools and hold them accountable. Several reports have documented millions of taxpayer dollars wasted by fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

    Why were charter schools created?

    The main argument initially offered for creating charter schools focused on a desire to create greater flexibility for innovation within public education. It was hoped that successful innovations could be adapted to benefit public education more broadly.

    Are charter schools private schools?

    Charter schools are taxpayer-funded but are often privately managed. They are not private schools in the ordinary sense in which that term has been understood. There can be important differences in how charter schools are operated because of weak oversight and a lack of transparency. Charter schools have been exempted from some rules designed to protect students, families, communities, and taxpayers.

    Do charter schools operate in the same way as traditional public schools?

    There are significant differences: 

    • Charter schools tend to hire younger and less experienced teachers. Many do not require charter school teachers to meet the same certification requirements as public school teachers.
    • Charter schools typically have appointed, rather than elected, school boards. 
    • Many charter schools do not require that charters comply with the same open meetings laws and conflict of interest requirements that apply to public school boards, school districts and employees. These are commonsense protections that parents and communities rightly insist upon for all other taxpayer-funded schools.
    • None adequately prevent for-profit management and operation. 

    How do charter schools come into existence?

    An individual or organization wanting to open a charter school must apply to a charter school “authorizer." Each state’s charter law says which entities can authorize creation of a charter school. These entities can be a local school district, a state education department, or a separate state charter school board. The authorizer reviews each application and decides whether to approve or decline it.

    How do students enroll in charter schools?

    They apply for admission. In cases where more students apply than the school can accommodate, a lottery is held to determine admission. Some charter schools employ selective outreach and recruitment practices. These appear to have contributed to under-representation of students with disabilities, especially those with more severe disabilities, and English language learners in the charter sector.

    How does student achievement in charter schools compare with that in traditional district schools?

    Many studies have looked at student achievement measures. These show very small differences, some favoring traditional district schools and some favoring charter schools.

    What other issues exist with charter schools?

    Weak regulation and lax oversight in many states with charters have led to major concerns for students, parents, taxpayers, and communities, including:

    • Under-funding our neighborhood and magnet schools: By their very nature, charter schools drain funding from local public schools, which enroll over 90 percent of students in K-12 schools
    • Instability: Charters are very unstable. One out of three charter schools that opened in 2000 had closed by 2010, usually due to poor performance or financial mismanagement.
    • Waste, fraud and abuse: Governments at all levels have failed to implement systems that proactively monitor charter schools and hold them accountable. A 2016 report from the Center for Popular Democracy documents waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement of charter school funds, totaling more than $216 million. Download the full report below. 
    • Wasteful competition: Due to unregulated competition between its neighborhood public schools and charter schools, Detroit found itself with 30,000 more school seats than students

    What makes a strong charter school?

    The record of charter schools in terms of quality, student performance, innovation, and community impact has been mixed. With improvements to charter sector practices and policies, more of the positive potential of these taxpayer-funded schools can be realized, while key concerns for students, families and communities are also addressed. Four key features of strong charter schools include: 

    • Quality.Successful students need caring, experienced, and qualified teachers and a rich and engaging curriculum, regardless of the school they attend.
    • Equity. Charter schools must equitably enroll and serve all groups of students instead of subtly or overtly screening out some who are less advantaged.
    • Accountability. Charter schools must operate in a manner that is accountable to the communities they serve, including being monitored effectively by their authorizers. Those managed or operated by for-profit entities create a conflict of interest and undermine the transparency required to maintain public accountability regarding school finances. Charter schools should be required to meet or exceed any student performance targets applied to all other taxpayer-funded schools. 
    • Transparency. Charter schools need to operate openly. They should either establish elected governing boards or comply with the open meeting laws that include parents and the public in decision making. They should be required to disclose the amounts and duration of large charitable contributions. Ownership of property purchased with taxpayer support to open charter schools should be transferred to the local school district, and not the private sector, when a charter school is closed.

    The NEA is committed to standing with parents, educators, and communities to support charters driving creative solutions that nurture student needs and are committed to the long-term health of their communities. The NEA is also committed to advocating for measures ensuring that all charter schools operate in a high-quality manner that is equitable, accountable, and transparent.

    Member Marcia MacKey
    The union has supported me in everything. I have gotten all sorts of training. I think I am much better in the classroom because of my union work. I think I am a better advocate because I found out I have a voice.
    Quote by: Marcia MacKey, Associate Professor of Sport Management and Aquatics, Michigan Education Association
    National Education Association

    Great public schools for every student

    The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.