m9200 BC-MN-Audit-CharterScho 1stLd-Writethru 06-30 0722
Audit: Minn. charter schools need more oversight
Eds: ADDS details, background, byline.
With BC-MN--Audit-Charter Schools-Summary Box
By BRIAN BAKST
Associated Press Writer
ST. PAUL (AP) — An audit that set out to compare the academic performance of Minnesota charter schools and their traditional school peers found minimal achievement differences, but the examination also concluded that charters could benefit from tighter financial oversight.
Monday’s report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor served as a follow-up to a 2003 review that focused predominantly on financial accountability after more than a dozen charter schools had shut down.
Charters are public schools run by parents and teachers and are designed to encourage innovation in education. Last school year, there were 143 of them in the state. Minnesota was the first state with a charter-school law.
Lawmakers who ordered the update were hoping to find out how student test scores and other measures of academic success compared with more standard public schools.
"We found a mixed picture," said legislative auditor Jim Nobles, adding, "While snapshots can never tell the whole story of a trip, of a family or of a charter school, we still take them to mark important milestones. And indeed, charter schools are by design not all cut from the same cloth."
As a group, charter students posted lower test scores and their schools were more likely to wind up on a watch list dictated by No Child Left Behind goals. Half of active charter schools failed to make adequate yearly progress and were subject to federal sanctions, compared with 32 percent of district-run schools.
But auditors cautioned against reading too much into the analysis because many variables were at play. Charter operators argue that many cater to more challenging populations, including students in poverty, those whose families move often and those with limited English skills.
"Ultimately, the performance of charter schools in Minnesota is complex; each charter school and the experiences of its students are unique," auditors concluded in their written report.
The report puts a sharper point on matters of finances.
On that score, charter schools were in a better position than school districts. In 2007, seven charters were in statutory operating debt, which was 4.8 percent of those schools. Eighteen school districts, or 5.3 percent, were in distress.
Still, the auditors found gaps in oversight they recommended be closed through regulatory or law changes.
Among the suggestions:
—Impose mandatory financial management training for charter school board members. State law requires traditional school board members to undergo financial management training within six months of their election; the Department of Education must offer such training for charter school board members, but the members aren’t required to attend.
—Change state law to remove a requirement that teachers make up a majority of a charter’s board. The auditor said a survey of charter school sponsors showed a majority wanted the rule changed. They argued that it has contributed to higher turnover on charter boards, created circular oversight with teachers overseeing themselves and other teachers and crowded out other legal or economic expertise.
—Clarify the role of sponsors, which auditors said varied greatly throughout the charter community. Nonprofit groups are the most frequent sponsors, but school districts and higher education institutions also helped get charters off the ground. Some charter sponsors were heavily engaged and apt to scrutinize their school performance while others were hands-off.
Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said her agency is "generally supportive" of the auditor’s recommendations and would work with stakeholders to fashion legislative proposals for next year.
Sen. Chuck Wiger, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he would sponsor bills to bolster charter school conflict of interest laws and to implement other recommendations.
Brian Bakst can be reached at bbakst(at)ap.org