Charter school proponents are quick to point out that there is plenty of financial malfeasance, self-dealing, and nepotism in the traditional public school sector. And that’s obviously the case. But the promise of charter schools wasn’t “graft on par with the status quo” or “same kleptocracy, but now with the educational benefits of decentralization.” Rather, it was flexibility in exchange for heightened accountability and results.
So this week’s problems should be kept in perspective and the legal process should run its course. But, the specifics of these two episodes aside, charter school advocates are kidding themselves if they don’t think there are problems here they should get in front of. The flexibility part of the charter school bargain opens the door for illegality absent sufficient oversight or for ethically dubious practices even within the purview of good oversight. There is too much of that sort of thing going on and it really doesn’t matter if people within the traditional public school system do it, too.
None of this is a reason to abandon charter schools, of course. The vast majority operate ethically, the high-fliers are changing how we think about education, and overall the academic performance of the sector is improving. But unless charter advocates want to keep explaining headlines like the ones today and dealing with the political headwinds they generate, it’s time for some leadership to clean up this aspect of the sector. It’s also the right thing to do. Governance best practices, which funders should insist on, along with some legal and regulatory changes, would help rein in the problems and maintain an appropriate and effective balance between autonomy and accountability.