“Real” Accountability for Charter Prep Should Extend to the Whole System

With the recent failure of the Portland-based REAL Prep Charter Academy to open its doors, even after spending $500,000 of federal grant development money, parents and taxpayers are demanding more “accountability” for Oregon’s charter schools. But who should hold these schools accountable?

Consider the case of the Willamette Education Service District (WESD), a public entity which provides services like special education to school districts. Despite “oversight” by the state and a board of governors, clear and compelling reports of misconduct delivered by a reputable ESD leader were ignored for years.

As far back as 2004, a neighboring ESD leader, Bob Nelson, alerted the Oregon Department of Education, the Secretary of State’s Office, state lawmakers, and local education officials to no avail. It took media intervention to make a real difference. A 16-month Statesman Journal investigation revealed mismanagement including awarding “no-bid contracts, questionable property deals and supposedly self-supporting ventures that failed, lost money or drew formal complaints and lawsuits.” These mistakes cost taxpayers millions.

Regarding the WESD scandal, the Statesman Journal concluded, “The problems have been compounded during the past 10 years by lax board and state oversight and quid pro quo arrangements with state officials who were operating within a similar culture of mismanagement — a culture that continues today. And in spite of recent improvements, some problems continue unabated.”

Problems with oversight are not limited to just the Willamette ESD episode. A cursory glance reveals a history of management or ethics problems in many school districts across the state. Even in the absence of shady practices, the fact that we are spending on average more than $11,000 per pupil and getting mediocre to poor results (Education Week ranks Oregon 43rd), should clearly indicate lack of accountability and poor management in the system. Within Portland Public Schools alone, mismanagement problems are not limited to the REAL Prep charter scenario, but extend to chronically failing schools (like Jefferson High, which reportedly moved a principal last year due to mismanaging funds), failed property management (consider Whitaker Junior High for an utter waste of resources), and a dismal on-time graduation rate of 53%.

It is tempting to imagine some dream team of “smart people” who can oversee operations of schools and ensure they operate efficiently to provide the best education possible with the public funding they have. But such dreams are just that: imaginary. In the real world, government oversight rarely ensures efficiency, thrift, or effectiveness.

In contrast, in the business world, financial mismanagement can persist only for a limited time before the operation goes out of business. That is exactly what is happening with REAL Prep. REAL Prep founders are facing the consequences of poor planning: Their dream of ensuring future income working in an industry they loved is gone, with little to show for it other than humiliation.

Wasting 500,000 tax dollars is terrible. But because charter schools face more realistic financial demands (demands from which regular public schools are frequently sheltered), poorly managed schools can’t operate indefinitely. An ineffective, inefficient, or unwanted public charter school either must shape up or close its doors. That is not a tragedy, in the grand scheme. It is an important form of accountability, one from which regular public schools have been sheltered for decades.

Such protection for public schools has not been a boon. Rather, it has enabled the sort of culture which allowed the WESD to waste millions, unimpeded for years. The same shelter keeps chronically underperforming schools from improving, and allows districts to continue sick practices like “passing the trash” (transferring the worst teachers and administrators to other positions or schools rather than firing them).

The key solution for the education system is the same as that for the WESD. Legislators passed a law this year that allows some districts to opt out of ESD services and to keep most of the dollars that otherwise would be given to an ESD. That means districts can hold WESD accountable because now it has to earn their patronage.

Likewise, districts and schools should be held accountable by forcing them to earn student attendance. This can be best accomplished by increasing students’ other educational options through open enrollment in public schools, more charter schools, and K-12 education tax credits and opportunity scholarships that allow more students to attend private schools.

As for REAL Prep, more accountability is the answer to prevent future failures from wasting tax dollars. But the accountability should be parents, not politics.

Christina Martin is a policy analyst and the School Choice Project Director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.