When a Wildlife Rehab Center Regulates Charter Schools: Inside the Wild World of Charter Regulation

by Marian Wang ProPublica, Feb. 20, 2015, 11:14 a.m.

Nestled in the woods of central Minnesota, near a large lake, is a nature sanctuary called the Audubon Center of the North Woods. The nonprofit rehabilitates birds. It hosts retreats and conferences. It’s home to a North American porcupine named Spike as well as several birds of prey, frogs, and snakes used to educate the center’s visitors.

It’s also Minnesota’s largest regulator of charter schools, overseeing 32 of them.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded, privately run schools freed from many of the rules that apply to traditional public schools. What’s less widely understood is that there are few hard-and-fast rules for how the regulators charged with overseeing charter schools are supposed to do the job. Many are making it up as they go along.

Known as “authorizers,” charter regulators have the power to decide which charter schools should be allowed to open and which are performing so badly they ought to close. They’re supposed to vet charter schools, making sure the schools are giving kids a good education and spending public money responsibly.

But many of these gatekeepers are woefully inexperienced, under-resourced, confused about their mission or even compromised by conflicts of interest. And while some charter schools are overseen by state education agencies or school districts, others are regulated by entities for which overseeing charters is a side job, such as private colleges and nonprofits like the Audubon wildlife rehabilitation center.

One result of the regulatory mishmash: Bad schools have been allowed to stay open and evade accountability.

“Almost everything you see come up as charter school problems, if you scratch past the surface, the real problem is bad authorizing,” said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

In 2010, an investigation by the Philadelphia Controller’s Office found lavish executive salaries, conflicts of interest and other problems at more than a dozen charter schools, and it faulted the authorizer 2013 the School District of Philadelphia’s charter school office 2013 for “complete and total failure” to monitor schools. In 2013, more than a dozen Ohio charter schools that had gained approval from various authorizers received state funding and then either collapsed in short order or never opened at all.

“Considerable state funds were lost and many lives impacted because of these failures,” the Ohio Department of Education wrote in a scathing letter last year to Ohio’s charter-school regulators. The agency wrote that some authorizers “lacked not only the appropriate processes, but more importantly, the commitment of mission, expertise and resources needed to be effective.”

Aside from such dramatic implosions, it’s hard to tell how many authorizers are doing at this important public function. They’re generally not required to say much about the details of their decision-making.

Take Minnesota’s Audubon Center. As a group, the schools overseen by the center fall below the state average on test scores. The group has several persistently low performers, acknowledged David Greenberg, Audubon’s Director of Charter School Authorizing, and a few years back, made the tough call to close one. But test scores offer a limited window into how a regulator is performing. The center works with several schools serving high-need students in Minneapolis, and high-need students tend to have lower test scores. A full picture requires a more holistic evaluation 2013 one that the Minnesota Department of Education is just starting this year.

In the early years of the charter movement, charter supporters focused on creating more authorizers, in order to spur the creation of more schools. That’s still true in some states, where charters are taking off. But as the movement has matured, there’s been a realization that “having too many authorizers undercuts quality,” in the words of the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, a trade group for charter regulators. NACSA has worked to educate states and individual authorizers on what good oversight looks like, while promoting measures such as “default closure” to help bypass authorizers that may be reluctant to close chronically underperforming schools.

While there are promising signs, NACSA acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. “It feels like whack-a-mole, but in the long term, you’re getting closer,” said Alex Medler, the group’s vice president of policy and advocacy. Even if states have some strong authorizers, weak ones can undermine the whole system, as underperforming schools can find refuge with them.

“It’s not how many are good, it’s are there any bad ones left?” Medler said. “If you’re running a bad school, you look for the presence of bad authorizers. You ignore the good authorizer.”

Consider Indiana, a state that has sought to strengthen charter-school accountability in recent years. On one hand, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office is widely regarded as a strong charter-school regulator. The schools it oversees have as a group performed better on state tests than Indianapolis Public Schools, and the office has made some tough calls, revoking charters when it sees fit and flagging suspected cheating at its schools.

On the other hand, there’s Trine University, a small private college in rural Northeast Indiana and a charter-school regulator that has taken on schools that left other authorizers, in some cases after those regulators had sought to close them.

One of Trine’s schools is a charter operated by Imagine, a national charter-school operator trailed by a track record of questionable financial dealings at schools in multiple states. In 2006, Imagine had sought approval from the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office, which roundly rejected those charter applications, noting that “the evidence regarding the performance of Imagine Schools nationwide is limited and mixed,” according to internal notes from the mayor’s office. Staffers also raised concerns about the fees the schools would have to pay to Imagine.

So Imagine tried again with Ball State University, another regulator, got approvals, and began operating several persistently lagging schools until Ball State toughened up and sought to close seven schools at once, including three Imagine schools. The remaining Imagine school 2013 which had gotten progressively worse over the years, going from a C to a D to an F 2013 then jumped ship to Trine University.

As it so happens, Trine University’s charter school office is headed by Lindsay Omlor, who prior to this job had spent six years working for Imagine. Asked about Trine’s decision to take on the Imagine school, Omlor said her office was aware of the school’s scores and “together we have developed and implemented a rigorous improvement plan.” She defended the decision to take on schools that other authorizers were poised to close, saying that authorizing is not “one size fits all,” and that schools should “have the opportunity to pursue an authorizer who may be a better fit with their mission.”

This type of “authorizer hopping” is a big problem, said David Harris, who spent five years as a charter regulator in Indiana and now serves as CEO of The Mind Trust, an education reform group that incubates charter schools. Harris believes the state legislature erred in giving Trine and other little-known private colleges the ability to regulate charter schools. “They are the weakest link. They’re keeping schools open that other authorizers are trying to close down. In some cases, I don’t even think

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