A year after the Department of Education’s charter school oversight drew sharp criticism from national experts, the State Board of Education is working on a new approval and monitoring system for the 19 charter schools it now oversees.
At its July 19 meeting, the board agreed to use a “performance framework,” now in the final stages of development, to evaluate charter schools.
Last year, the state Department of Education asked the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), to review the state’s charter school oversight. The group found that most aspects of the state’s approval and monitoring process were “undeveloped” or “minimally developed.” Among other things, the study found that new applications were not reviewed consistently, monitoring of established schools was limited, goals were not clearly defined and there was no consensus on how to measure academic performance.
The state agreed it needed to improve. It secured $95,000 in grants from NACSA, the National Governors Association and the Rodel Foundation and hired a consultant to help create a new charter school application form and performance standards.
The result is a three-part document that measures a school’s academic, organizational and financial performance, said John Carwell, the Department of Education’s charter schools officer. The performance framework spells out what a school must do to satisfy the 14 criteria for approval listed in state law.
“This new tool will enable us to make rigorous, accountability-based performance decisions,” Carwell said.
Deputy Secretary of Education Dan Cruce said the performance framework will facilitate ongoing assessment of charter schools, not just when it’s time for renewal or when they run into a problem.
Since late May, Carwell has been asking charter school officials for comments on the performance framework. Work on the draft version is nearly complete.
“We’ve been involved since day one,” said Greg Meece, former president of the Delaware Charter Schools Network and director of the Newark Charter School. When the process began last summer, he said, state officials assured charter school leaders that the goal was “to make sure we have successful charter schools.”
“It has been an extremely positive experience on both sides,” said Ann Lewis, leader of the Pencader Charter High School.
Because of concerns over finances, the State Board of Education placed Pencader on probation last July. Lewis noted the financial mismanagement had occurred under the school’s previous leadership. “Our finances were a mess because our administration was a mess,” she said.
Lewis said it was her understanding that, before she arrived at Pencader, “there were red flags in our past but nobody did anything about it.” She suggested that better monitoring by the state might have identified some of the problems before the situation got out of hand. “I think their assumption was that if we approved your charter, you were going to do what you said you were going to do,” she said.
That hands-off approach is less likely to happen now, Carwell said. “The department has stepped up efforts to monitor charter schools’ performance. We’re working across agencies, with the Office of Management and Budget and the Division of Accounting, for example, to monitor financing issues, rather than waiting until a problem pops up,” he said.
Because the performance framework is awaiting final approval, it won’t be used to evaluate the two charter schools up for renewal this year, Thomas Edison Academy in Wilmington and Sussex Academy of Arts & Sciences in Georgetown.
“It wouldn’t be fair for schools to have to comply with something that didn’t start until the summer,” Carwell said. “We’re not trying to slam anybody.” The new performance framework will be used for the renewal cycle that begins in September 2013, he said.
Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, thinks that using the performance framework will make it easier for school to determine whether they are meeting state standards. If they meet all the standards, “approval of their renewals should be a no-brainer,” she said.
Also in the works is a new application form for charter schools. It is more streamlined and gives a higher priority to academic topics, Carwell said. He is also developing a new rubric, or set of guidelines, for judging whether the applications meet the state’s requirements.
The new application will be available in August or September, in time for prospective charter operators to complete before the Dec. 31 deadline. (Applications processed during the upcoming cycle are for schools that plan to open in August 2014. An amendment to the charter school law passed last year does make an exception for a “highly successful charter school operator” — one that has at least three years of outstanding academic and financial performance in another state. Such schools can be approved for opening the August after their application is filed.)
The new rules apply only to schools chartered by the state, not the three schools chartered by the Red Clay Consolidated Board of Education, Carwell said.
Red Clay has its own monitoring process for the three schools — the Charter School of Wilmington, Delaware Military Academy and Delaware College Preparatory Academy. An administrator assigned to oversee the schools regularly communicates with them and makes periodic visits, Superintendent Merv Daugherty said. The most intensive monitoring work occurs during each school’s renewal period, when reviewers analyze compliance with the state’s 14 standards, he said.
Red Clay’s charters have not run into significant problems, nor have there been any major difficulties in monitoring them, Daugherty said.
Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association, expressed hope the state’s yearlong effort will improve monitoring, stewardship and relationship-building between charter operators and the Department of Education.
“We have had plenty of gut-wrenching experiences with charters that were not able to be successful,” she said. “We need to make sure someone is taking responsibility for making sure they’re meeting their academic, financial and management obligations, not just at one point during the year, but all year long.”