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Charter School Oversight Faulted

State auditor says L.A., San Diego, Oakland and Fresno districts aren't ensuring standards and may be double-dipping. All four firmly deny it.

November 08, 2002|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Four of California's largest school districts fail to properly oversee the charter schools in their jurisdiction and may have double-charged the state for the costs of the limited oversight they do provide, a state auditor's report released Thursday says.

The report cites instances in which the Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Fresno school districts failed to ensure that charter schools met academic goals and followed financial rules. The state Department of Education also is not aggressive enough in pushing school districts to check on charters, the report said.

In particular, the state may have allowed school districts to charge the government twice for overseeing charters, an allegation the districts deny.

School districts receive up to 3% of charters' state funding as a fee for administrative oversight and facility use. But the audit found that the four school districts were reimbursed for charter oversight costs under a separate state program.

The districts said they only seek reimbursement for excess oversight costs that are not covered by their percentage fees.

"Oversight at all levels could be stronger to ensure charter schools' accountability," the report concludes.

Charters are public schools that receive taxpayer money but, to encourage innovation, are free from some regulations. California has more than 400 such schools, serving about 166,000 students.

All four districts reacted with unusual bitterness, in written critiques so detailed they took up half of the final report. San Diego, a district that has been praised by top state officials for setting high standards for charter schools, termed the report "fundamentally flawed" because it misunderstood the very independent nature of charters.

"It was obvious that the goals of the audit were intended to support preconceived notions rather than to objectively discover how well districts oversaw charter schools," wrote Grace Arnold, who handles charter school issues for L.A. Unified.

The report comes down firmly on the side of teachers unions and charter critics in recommending more regulation of charter schools. Citing the report, Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno), who sponsored a new law restricting charters' locations, called Thursday for oversight hearings and new legislation next year.

But the state's charter school operators say that three major reform bills passed over the last four years are already robbing the movement of its essential appeal -- freedom.

David Patterson, director of governmental relations for the California Network of Educational Charters, which represents about 70% of the state's charters, pointed out that the report was limited to four districts and documented no serious problems in schools themselves.

"If there's a need for new legislation," he said, "this report does not warrant [it]."

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