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Panel urges higher charter standards

A committee that’s been studying standards for charter school governance and for how districts authorize charters has finished its work with recommendations that the state adopt existing national standards on authorization and that charter boards be required to follow existing laws and rules on financial and ethical conduct.

What’s called the House Bill 10-1412 Advisory Committee held its last meeting Wednesday, and its draft report is being edited for submission to the State Board of Education by Aug. 1.

Chair Alex Medler said, “I think the overall recommendation to endorse the [national] principles and standards is important … if everyone used those process … a lot of conflicts would be eliminated.”

Asked to speculate on the impact of the recommendations if they’re adopted, Medler said, “I don’t know that you’re going to see a lot more charters approved” but that such changes might “empower districts to close their bad charter schools” and improve the overall quality of charter applications.

The report’s origins are in the 2010 legislative session, when charter governance was expected to be a hot topic, given that news of the financial and governance failures of the Pueblo-based Cesar Chavez Schools Network fresh in many minds. (See archive of Education News Colorado stories on Chavez.)

Democratic Rep. Terrance Carroll of Denver, a strong charter supporter and then speaker of the House, introduced three bills on authorizer practices and charter standards during in the 2010 session. In the end interest groups weren’t able to agree on the two more substantive bills, leading to introduction of a fourth measure, House Bill 10-1412.

That bill created a 13-member commission, carefully balanced between charter and district representatives, and assigned it make recommendations on school and authorizer standards to the state board, which is expected to consider the issue at its Sept. 14-15 meeting. The bill also gave the board power to issue regulations in those two areas and set a Jan. 15, 2012, deadline for SBE to issue regulations.

Asked if he thought the Chavez problems might have been avoided by standards such as those proposed by the commission, Medler said the Chavez situations might not have turned out “as badly or as drawn out as it happened. … I believe people would have known about more of the details sooner.”

Committee Vice Chair Stephanie Garcia is president of the school board in Pueblo 60, the district often at odds with the Chavez network. She said it’s hard to say if new standards would have prevented that situation, saying, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know” at the time. She said Pueblo city had “an archaic contract” with Chavez that didn’t help with proper oversight.

A state audit of Chavez released in May 2010 found rampant nepotism, unchecked credit-card spending and total pay topping $300,000 for top executives – even as teachers faced furlough days and budget reserves dipped below legally and contractually required balances.

Garcia said development of new application and charter contract materials by the Department of Education should help both districts and charters. CDE, after working with the Colorado League of Charter Schools and a group called the Charter School Support Initiative, last December updated the standard charter application and provided sample contract language, examples of best practices, checklists for evaluating applications and opening new charters. For more information, see startacoloradocharter.org.

She noted those “pieces were coming together outside the commission’s work.”

The House Bill 10-1412 Advisory Committee met eight times starting in September 2010. It held public hearings on management companies, online education and non-discrimination laws. Two subcommittees worked on authorizer standards and on charter school standards. The panel was assisted by staff members from the Colorado Association of School Boards and the charter league.

The report recommends standards for charter school application and renewal processes, performance contracts, oversight and evaluation, ethics (excess benefits, executive compensation, nepotism, and conflicts of interest), and compliance with federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Key recommendations

• The state board should adopt, with some customizations for Colorado, the authorizer standards of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. The report also suggests that the state will need to enhance its assistance to districts. (Medler is vice president for research at the association.)

The draft report said those standards “reflect a national consensus on best practices in charter school authorizing.”

• The charter application process should be streamlined, and the legislature should expand state law on charter applications to include elements now in the standard charter application, checklist and review procedure.

• The state board should consider district practices and adherence to authorizing standards as relevant factors during charter appeals.

• Charter boards should be required adopt conflict of interest policies that apply to other public officials (such as school board members) and with excess compensation rules in the federal tax code that apply to all non-profits. Medler said, “It turns out that the federal requirements for 501(3)c status handle excess compensation pretty well.”

All charter board members and senior administrators should receive training on those matters, and authorizers should review compliance as part of their oversight.

• Charter contracts with education service providers should be subject to review by the authorizing district.

• The state board should consider revising its rules to ensure charters properly provide services for disabled, homeless and gifted and talented students, as well as English language learners. The board also should set rules on non-discriminatory marketing and application practices.

The report also suggests topics for further consideration. Such issues were raised during the hearings but were beyond the committee’s statutory scope or didn’t gain full committee support. Some of those suggestions include charter contracts of longer than five years, fairer and more transparent allocation of bond monies and grants, loosening of transportation requirements, limits on charter expansion to schools rated at the top two levels of the State Performance Framework and tighter rules for charters that are in turnaround status.

The other recommendations also include the suggestion that every charter should have a non-profit board that contracts with a district. Charters could hire for-profit or non-profit service providers, but for-profit providers couldn’t contract directly with a district.

Medler praised the commission process, saying, “This has been a pretty good partnership. … We’ve made a lot of progress.” Garcia agreed that the committee has worked smoothly.