Take a Close Look at Charter Schools: Charter Schools Are Here to Stay, but the Lack of Oversight in Financial Management Is Damaging Their Impact. (the State of Education)

Article excerpt

Pick up many of the national survey stories on the U.S. charter school movement and you'll note that a paragraph or two always refer to Minnesota, birthplace of the first charter school law (1991) and charter school (1992).

The stories generally assume an optimistic tone. Charter schools, unshackled from the horrendous restraints of "establishment" educators, are free, free, free to revolutionize public education! True believers of every stripe describe their vision of what taxpayer money, talent, and hope can do. You almost feel the quivering.

The stories rarely cite what goes wrong in a world where scrutiny occurs only when a charter is up for renewal, or when a school implodes from within.

Minnesota now has 69 charter schools. Each operates with the provisions of a charter that sets out goals. For example, a school may focus on technology or the performing arts with the objective of graduating students who excel in those areas. The school functions like a small school district, unencumbered by district personnel policies or union provisions. If a school doesn't meet the charter terms, it is closed.

Charter school proponents believe the action of closing an underperforming school speaks to the effectiveness of charter schools. When traditional public schools fail to perform, they suffer no consequence.

Let me interject here with a personal note. I've written editorials for five years and worked as a journalist for almost 10 years. In spite of certain outdated stereotypes about Minnesotans as soft-spoken bachelors, know this: Charter school proponents shriek at volumes that drown out any 747. Rarely have I seen adults so fired up on the absolute goodness of their creation. While passion is fine, I wrote editorials and columns asking why a school couldn't be innovative and financially responsible at the same time. For a long time, it appeared that the status quo would prevail. Ultimately, however, the state legislature strengthened the charter school law but only after bouts of kicking, screaming, and strong evidence of a need for change. But the charter school story is getting ahead of itself.

Conflicts of interest on charter boards

A year ago, state representative Matt Entenza, a former assistant state attorney general with experience prosecuting white-collar crimes, finished an investigation that examined the accounting operations of 50 Minnesota charter schools. Entenza discovered patterns of conflicts of interest on charter school boards and questionable accounting practices in a majority of the schools. In March 2000, the state education department released information showing frequent cases of financial nepotism in charter school operations where those with close ties to the schools profited through lease arrangements.

The education department -- called the Department of Children, Families, and Learning -- is limited in its influence on charter schools. The department's small staff approves the charters and does some auditing. …