Autonomy and accountability are frequently stated when discussing education, but it was not always this way. Originally, charter school law granted autonomy – some freedom from state and local regulations in exchange for additional accountability to their authorizer. Critics of charters claimed that many schools began with a primary focus on autonomy and too little on accountability.
In 2014, however, autonomy and accountability are seeking a balance to ensure students who choose a charter school receive an excellent education focused on a specific mission. According to the National Center on School Choice Blog (vanderbilt.edu/schoolchoice/blog), “Charter schools are granted more autonomy than traditional public schools in exchange for more accountability.” The blog also says, “This greater autonomy allows charter school principals and boards to: create their own mission and the curriculum that is best suited to their chosen mission, have more control over hiring policies and staffing, and other focused programs.”
Last month’s column asked you to call local schools and understand what they do, so that you, the parents, can make a choice that is best for your sons and daughters. If you called, you would have noticed that each school has a focus and a curriculum that ensures the school’s mission is realized.
Still, the blog warns that “the presence of autonomy does not ensure a good school; it is just an opportunity.” Go to a school’s website and find out when a governance meeting is. Look at the minutes of the public meetings of these councils, and make sure the governing body is discussing those things that are most important for the students in the school. Attend a meeting if you wish. Then, discuss among your family the best choice for you and your family.
While those impressions are important, parents need some assurance that their choice has some additional validity. Not surprisingly, nationwide, “after two decades of experience with charter schools, state legislators want to ensure these schools are effective,”according to the National Council of State Legislatures. That is why politicians and educators talk so much about accountability.
We see this same focus in New Mexico. In 2000, all charter schools had to have a mission and a related focus for their curriculum. Soon, charters had to become more accountable and have measurable goals that showed their students were achieving by meeting approved goals that reflected the purpose of the school. For example, a school that focused on community service would have academic achievement goals for its students as well as an expectation that each student completed a community service project of 30 hours with a community partner. In this way, schools were judged by academic and charter-related goals.
Recently, the Legislature has required additional accountability from charters. When schools write their charter, they also write a performance contract that includes what the New Mexico Public Education Department calls performance frameworks that include the following: student academic performance, student academic growth, growth for students in the achievement gap, attendance, retention of enrolled students, post-secondary readiness and graduation rate for high schools, financial performance and sustainability and governing body performance.
In 2014, charters earn their autonomy, and parents and their sons and daughters benefit from the result of legislation requiring schools to provide evidence that their innovations are effective for those who choose it.