"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Charters and Vouchers Minus Accountability

The charter school privatizers, the ed industry, and the voucher supporters all share a strong belief that the public schools should be held accountable, but their support for accountability suddenly disappears when their preferred "choice" options are brought into the accountability discussion. In short, they are for oversight as long someone else is being overseen. Otherwise, avoiding oversight becomes a freedom issue that is used to provide a rhetorical camouflage for the accountability escape hatch.

Florida's charter school movement, fueled by untold millions from the oligarchies of Gates, Broad, and Walton, presents a perfect case study on how the accountability gestalt gets flipped when schools are converted from public to charter. From the Palm Beach Post:

Florida's educational double standard lives on. The state already exempts voucher programs from the academic and financial oversight required of regular public schools. Now, charter schools can exploit the same lack of accountability.

Last week, the state Board of Education, whose members the governor appoints, ruled that the elected school boards in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties can't be trusted to oversee charter schools. Instead, a panel appointed by the statewide board will exercise that power. In fact, the state board ruled, only three counties - Orange, Polk and Sarasota - can retain full power over charter schools, which operate with public money.

The Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach districts all have seen charters killed by financial trouble. But none is hostile to charters. Martin County has two. St. Lucie has none but is considering viable proposals. The much larger Palm Beach district has 36 charters. An audit at the beginning of the year showed that half of them were operating in the red. The district has been aggressive when it suspected financial mismanagement - as when one charter principal couldn't account for $29,000 in ATM withdrawals - but that's a good thing.

Of course, badly run charter schools don't see it that way. Taking their side, in 2006 the Legislature created the scheme to thwart local control. But bypassing local boards probably violates the Florida Constitution, which says the locally elected school board "shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district."

In December, nine school districts, including Martin and Palm Beach, joined the Florida School Boards Association in a lawsuit to overturn the law that took away their exclusive authority over charter schools. The circuit court in Tallahassee set the lawsuit aside because the state Board of Education had not yet ruled on requests by 29 districts to retain local control. Now that the state has turned down the majority of those requests, the districts should revive the lawsuit.

Unsupervised voucher programs produced numerous financial scandals. Until now, local oversight has provided a check on charter operators inclined to behave the same way. For the sake of regular public schools and responsible charter operators, the courts should restore local authority over charter schools.

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