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California's charter schools gets mixed scores in new study

USC researchers cite lapses in financial reporting, but say it appears that many are using public funds wisely, and that academic scores are fairly similar to those of public schools.

May 21, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg

Lax financial reporting makes it difficult to assess the fiscal health of California charter schools, although the limited information available suggests that many are making efficient use of their public funds, according to a study released Wednesday by researchers at USC.

In its annual report on the health of the state's charter schools, USC's Center on Educational Governance also found that charters continue to outperform traditional public schools in English instruction but, paradoxically, do a worse job of lifting nonnative English speakers to fluency. And their overall math performance has slipped, lagging behind traditional public schools.

Charters are public schools that are run independently, with only minimal oversight from school districts. There are now close to 700 charters in California, making them a significant part of the state's educational landscape, but causing strains in the capacity of districts to monitor them.

Although the schools are required to file quarterly financial reports with local districts, which in turn file them with the state, USC researchers found that data was spotty in some counties, including Los Angeles, where fiscal data was available for only 30 of 163 schools.

Education professor Priscilla Wohlstetter, who heads the research project, said it appears that schools are filing the reports, but that some districts are lumping them together, making it impossible to review them individually.

"This is so critical," she said, "because the president and the secretary of Education have said we are going to double the number of charter schools around the country; however, we want to make sure we have good state accountability systems that track progress. . . . If there's this much missing data, how is California going to be able to access the federal money that's available?"

Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Assn., said he believes that the problem is that the financial reporting requirements are "overly burdensome," and need to be streamlined.

Although the USC researchers were critical of the reporting lapses, they praised the schools for what information was available, saying that most had improved their fiscal health and were spending most of their money in the classroom. The report also found that the Academic Performance Index scores of charter schools overall were fairly similar to those of traditional public schools.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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