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James Merriman

James Merriman

Posted: April 29, 2010 04:17 PM

When Talking Oversight of Charters, Leave the Tricks at Home

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There's been significant ink spillage over a hearing that the foremost critic of charter schools, NYS Senator Bill Perkins, put together last week to supposedly look into how charter schools are regulated.

As I sat through the hearing waiting to testify, I found myself in an odd position. I've always been a firm believer in oversight, regulation, transparency, and accountability for charter schools. As a charter school authorizer for seven years, I built a regulatory regimen that has been praised nationwide.

So why couldn't I muster any enthusiasm for this hearing on charter oversight? Probably because it was the legislative equivalent of a game of three-card monte.
Consider some of the tricks:

• Senator Perkins personally walked his supporters into the hearing room hours before the so-called "public" hearing was to begin, ensuring the closest thing possible to a television clap-track.

• Senator Perkins then opened the hearing with a long statement and forbade other senators the courtesy to do the same.

• Stanford charter school researcher Margaret Raymond flew in from California at the Senator's invitation, only to be yanked from the witness list when he realized her testimony would not support his position. She sat in the hearing room for eight hours and was never called upon, even while Perkins-approved witnesses discussed her research.

The actual hearing wasn't much heavier on integrity. State officials in charge of actually overseeing charter schools were left to languish until the late afternoon, maybe the first time that a hearing on the adequacy of governmental oversight treated the actual overseers as an afterthought.

When they were finally called, the officials were confronted with general allegations that were never laid out during the hearing itself, which prevented them from responding in detail.

The schools in question never heard details either, resulting in more than one unsubstantiated accusation. With all of these things a matter of record, I think that charter advocates can be forgiven for sharing the Daily News editorial board's view that there was more boing than bite to the hearing.

It's a shame, because we could use a hearing on this topic. Accountability, transparency and oversight are serious and complicated issues deserving of legislative review. If Senator Perkins had been able to provide that forum we might have discussed some of the critical questions:

• How do we provide oversight to make sure taxpayer dollars are being well spent, yet protect charter schools' core autonomy--which has allowed them to outperform their traditional public school counterparts?

• Should we do more auditing of schools (an effective way to find out what has already happened) or concentrate resources on ongoing monitoring and reporting, which can stop malfeasance before it even starts?

• As the number of charter schools increases, how much public funding will be needed to build oversight capacity? This is a particularly important since Senator Perkins seems to support zeroing out SUNY's oversight budget, a contradiction of mind-boggling proportions.

• How do we finance charter school facilities so that charter schools are not beholden to management companies who have the capital that charters do not otherwise have access to?
But that kind of serious discussion was not on the agenda last week and will not be on the agenda in May when Senator Perkins has promised to reconvene the hearing. It's a huge lost opportunity.

No matter. Charter leaders and supporters are engaged ongoing discussions about how to make charter schools even more accountable than they already are. For example, I have already called for the authorizers to post on the web all charter school transactions in which there is a potential conflict of interest, along with the schools' rationale for entering into them.

As charter school supporters work to distinguish the real problems from the smears, and the real solutions from the political poses, all are welcome to join us.

Just leave the playing cards at home.