As the former director of accountability for a charter school authorizer, ensuring that schools met the terms of their contract with our office was critical. My district in South Carolina opened the state’s first virtual schools and students flocked to them — in the first two years of operations, enrollment more than tripled, from 2,000 students to more than 6,000.
We recognized virtual schools were a viable option for many students, yet we had to find new ways to conduct oversight. We revoked charters when necessary, but the district also worked closely with schools on corrective action.
For generations, traditional public schools have sorely lacked this level of accountability. Many chronically failing public schools have been left open for years and have given generations of students an inadequate education.
The Arizona Republic’s recent reporting on Arizona’s virtual charter schools point to shortcomings, but remember: Families pursued these choices because traditional schools weren’t meeting their needs.
Charter schools, authorizers, and parents can all take steps to promote achievement and effective operations:
1. Establish thorough accountability plans. The State University of New York, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and statewide authorizers in Colorado and South Carolina have developed contracts that include standards that hold schools accountable for student results and administrative practices.
2. Reject mediocrity. Charter schools have extraordinary terms of accountability – their contracts can be revoked and the schools closed. Authorizers should act decisively with low-performing schools either with immediate and significant plans to correct problems or by closing the school. Traditional public schools do not even come close to offering parents and students the same level of accountability.
3. Identify quality. Quality virtual and hybrid school models exist in Arizona and around the country, including Carpe Diem in Yuma and the Florida Virtual School. Resources such as the Arizona Charter School Association’s “Education Evaluator” and GreatSchools.org allow school leaders and parents to compare achievement results across schools.
With so many students participating in online courses, careful oversight is a must. Arizonans should not accept mediocrity from traditional or charter schools, including virtual schools, and must demand high levels of accountability. But we shouldn’t let a handful of low performing operations indict an entire group of schools providing important options for under-served children.
Jonathan Butcher is education director for the Goldwater Institute.
Arizona Republic: The Race to Online
Charter Schools Institute: Accountability Plans
National Association of Charter School Authorizers: Policy Guides
Arizona Charter School Association: Homepage