MA charter schools should expect heightened oversight in wake of report

By Brendan T. Malvey and Greg Vanden-Eykel

A recent state audit found significant deficiencies in the oversight of charter schools by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), including maintaining outdated data on student waitlists and applying inconsistent standards in renewing school charters.

Findings by the Massachusetts Office of the State Auditor include:

  • DESE’s charter school waitlist information is not accurate;
  • DESE has not developed an effective process to ensure the replication and dissemination of charter school best practices to traditional Massachusetts school districts; and
  • DESE renewed school’s charters in an inconsistent manner.

In the wake of the report, Massachusetts charter schools should expect heightened collaboration with DESE, and potentially stricter interpretations of existing regulations. As a consequence, charter schools should review and potentially revise existing policies to work more effectively with DESE.

Charter School Waitlist Information Is Not Accurate

The report found that waitlist counts were “significantly overstated” because DESE did not gather information, such as student home addresses and telephone numbers, to identify students who were placed on multiple school waitlists.

In addition, prior year waitlists were rolled over without verifying whether the students on those waitlists were still waiting to enroll. DESE also did not enforce the statutory requirement that charter schools report filled vacancies to DESE within 30 days.

Such inaccuracies, according to the report, could result in ineffective planning and oversight by the DESE. An inaccurate assessment of demand for charter schools could also complicate policymaking when approval, renewal or expansion applications are considered, and when the Legislature contemplates increasing the cap on charter schools.

The State Auditor recommended that DESE gather student addresses, telephone numbers, and birthdates to create and maintain accurate consolidated waitlists. The State Auditor also recommended that the DESE require charter schools to notify the DESE within 30 days of a vacancy being filled to ensure the information is updated.

The auditor also said the DESE should consider prohibiting rolling waitlists and requiring each student to reconfirm prior applications to maintain a spot on a waitlist. DESE, the report said, should develop more efficient and accurate waitlist processing, including a single consolidated waitlist using standardized software for processing online applications.

Charter schools should expect requests from DESE to comply with the 30-day waitlist reporting requirement, and to submit more demographic information about waitlisted students. They should also expect forthcoming discussions concerning the prohibition of rolling waitlists.

Dissemination and Replication of Charter School Best Practices

As a condition of charter renewal, which occurs every five years, charter schools must document that they have provided innovative programs, best practices, and models for replication.

DESE, in turn, is required to disseminate this information and provide technical assistance in replicating these programs. However, the terms “innovative programs” and “best practices” are not defined by statute or regulation.

According to the report, documentation concerning the development, dissemination, and replication of best practices has been limited, and since 2009 DESE has not broadly disseminated charter school innovative best practice information.

The report warns that charter schools “may not be fulfilling their statutory purpose of stimulating the development of innovative public education programs and provide models for replication in other public schools.” The report also states that DESE may be inappropriately renewing charters of schools that have not developed these initiatives.

The auditor recommends that DESE, in collaboration with charter and district schools, establish “detailed guidance regarding standards and expectations for the development, dissemination, and replication of innovative programs and best practices.”

The report also states that DESE should ensure that charter schools meet their statutory obligations during the renewal process, and establish corrective action requirements if they do not.

Charter schools should prepare for closer scrutiny of renewal applications and amendments, and should ensure that existing and well-established procedures are framed as innovative and replicable.

Inconsistent Renewal of School Charters

The report also found that DESE did not consistently assess charter school academic performance as a factor in renewing school charters without condition or with limited conditions.

Some schools received conditions on their charter renewal for failing to achieve their academic performance goals. For reasons apparently unknown to the auditor, other schools, with seemingly similar records, did not receive any conditions.

According to the report, DESE’s inconsistency can lead to charter schools’ inability to clearly understand DESE’s expectations of their academic performance, as well as the schools’ failure to receive consistent and critical feedback to foster improvement.

The authors of the report based their findings on a review of charter renewal requests from fewer than 10 schools. Nevertheless, the report recommends that DESE formally set forth all factors considered in the renewal process, including those not reflected in school Accountability Plans, and explain these evaluation criteria to schools in order to set expectations.

Brendan is an associate at Barton Gilman LLP, focusing on education law, professional liability defense, business litigation, and insurance coverage. Greg is an associate at the firm, concentrating on advising clients concerning education and employment law matters.