Parents of school-age children in Arizona are fortunate to have more educational choices than those in any other state. But as a recent state auditor general's report reveals, competition alone doesn't ensure educational quality or success.
There also needs to be oversight and accountability, and the auditor general found significant gaps in both areas. Although the report indicated improvements are being made, the gaps are still troubling because many were uncovered and publicized in an investigative series by the Tribune five years ago.
While the outrageous abuses discovered by the Tribune in August 1998 — including poor instruction and financial irregularities at some schools — apparently have disappeared, the Arizona Board for Charter Schools simply isn't monitoring the state's 454 charter schools closely enough to find and correct problems. The audit found that board staff visited only 40 schools in 2001 and only 87 in 2002.
“In addition, during the site visits, board staff did not always review and verify compliance with requirements that are included in the board's site visit procedures,” the audit found. “Board staff also failed to follow up on some of the schools to ensure they corrected problems.”
The auditor general's investigators went beyond merely noting the lack of oversight. They also reviewed the financial statements of 43 charter schools from 2001, finding that fully 21 showed evidence of “severe financial difficulties.” Furthermore, the following year's statements showed many of the schools were still struggling financially.
Among the auditor general's recommendations is the no-brainer that the charter board's review teams include financial experts, noting that the current review team is “composed of charter school operators, but no one with expertise in lending, financing or accounting.”
Unfortunately, this follows a pattern of allowing those being regulated to dominate state regulatory boards and oversight commissions. That is unacceptable and a recipe for shoddy accountability.
In fairness, the audit also found improvements, including better independent auditing of schools beginning this school year. The charter board is also operating under severe budget constraints this year due to the sagging economy.
Parents also have a responsibility to look beyond the surface of their children's schools, asking questions and requesting key documents. Savvy customers can be a powerful force for quality.
But the audit also found some charters don't make available some vital documents, such as teachers' resumes and governing board minutes, as required by law. Yet the charter board lacks disciplinary flexibility to ensure problems are taken seriously and corrected — a matter that needs to be addressed by the Legislature.
Yes, Arizonans can take pride in being leaders in school choice, but the auditor general reminds us that we cannot afford to rest on our educational laurels. With more than 370 million of our tax dollars a year flowing into charter schools, we have every right to expect and demand that fiscal and academic accountability follows every dollar.