Louisiana Charter School Audit Reveals Faux-Accountability
In October 2012, I sent the following email to Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera requesting a performance audit of Louisiana’s charter schools. I did so in response to having read the US Department of Education’s audit of charters in Arizona, California, and Florida:
request for La. charter schools audit
From: Mercedes Schneider <email@example.com>
To: dpurpera <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Fri, Oct 26, 2012 11:51 p.m.
Attachment: US Dept of Ed Charter Audit
Mr. Purpera, attached is the US inspector general’s audit of US Dept of Ed’s oversight charter schools in California, Florida, and Arizona. As you will note from reading, the US Dept of Ed is seriously lacking in their rigor in their management of both charter school educational quality and fiscal responsibility. The lack of rigor evident in management of California, Florida, and Arizona charter schools is likely problematic in Louisiana, as well. First, there is notable turnover in the charter schools in Louisiana, especially those associated with the state-run RSD.
Second, according to the recently-released 2012 school performance scores, RSD-LA has a district score of F, and RSD-NO, a district score of D. third, as of this date, LaDOE/BESE have outlined no clear accountability measures for charter school operation. Finally, given LaDOE/BESE continued practice of hiring unqualified-yet-highly-paid individuals to serve in key administrative positions, it seems that those hired to supervise/evaluate the charter schools in Louisiana likely haven’t the expertise to duly fulfill the duties of their jobs.
Given that similar lack of rigor found in the attached auditor’s report is already evident in the management of Louisiana charter schools, I ask that your office formally audit the charter schools in Louisiana.
Thank you for your time.
–Mercedes K. Schneider, Ph.D.
St Tammany Parish Public Schools
I received a stock email response, noting that my request had been received; that should an audit be conducted, the auditor’s office could not discuss it with me. So I was very glad to see that approximately six months later, Purpera produced a report, a performance audit of LDOE’s monitoring charter schools.
Given LDOE’s propensity toward hiding information from the public, I was happy to read the first line of the audit document, “Under the provisions of state law, this report is a public document.”
A copy of the report was sent on May 15, 2013, to the president of the Louisiana senate and to the speaker of the house. In Louisiana, both the senate and the house are apparently finished honeymooning with John White.
More power to this audit.
Here is some introductory information regarding the audit:
Authorization and Oversight.
During fiscal year 2012 (2011-2012 school year), 99 charter schools serving 45,684 students operated in Louisiana.
The six types of charter schools are as follows:
Type 1 – Charter creates a new school authorized by a LSB
Type 1B – Charter authorized by Local Charter Authorizer
Type 2 – Charter authorized by BESE
Type 3 – Charter converts a pre-existing school authorized by a LSB
Type 4 – Charter between a LSB and BESE
Type 5 – Pre-existing public school transferred to the Recovery School District (RSD) and operated as a BESE-authorized charter school
Within LDOE, the Office of School Choice monitors Types 2 and 4 charter schools and RSD’s Office of School Performance monitors Type 5 charter schools. Types 1 and 3 charter schools are monitored directly by LSBs. Exhibit 1 shows the authorization and oversight structure for each type of charter school.
This audit focuses on the 78 Types 2, 4, and 5 charter schools operating during fiscal year 2012 for which LDOE was responsible for monitoring. [Emphasis added.]
There are 58 Type 5 charters, all belonging to RSD. The remaining 20 charters under consideration in the audit include 16 Type 2 and 4 Type 4. As of June 30, 2012, no Type 1B charters existed.
According to BESE Bulletin 126, Louisiana Charter School Law, as cited in the audit, charter schools are supposed to be offered “greater flexibility and autonomy in exchange for heightened accountability through regular monitoring.”
What immediately comes to mind is BESE President Chas Roemer’s inane comment That charters are held to “strict accountability standards” since the state can revoke the charter after three years.
Not so strict. I wonder why Roemer didn’t mention the “regular monitoring” portion of Bulletin 126. Maybe he forgot this part (taken from the audit):
One of BESE’s responsibilities as the authorizer of Types 2, 4, and 5 charter schools is to direct LDOE to review and evaluate these schools’ academic, financial, and legal/contractual performance annually. LDOE then recommends to BESE whether to renew or extend a charter’s contract….
Those dastardly school performance scores are supposed to figure into an annual charter review– but even the poor performing charters get their three years. Charter financial risk is also supposed to be assessed annually– but not necessarily answerable annually.
Chas, you could revoke charter agreements following an annual review– if you wanted to.
Finally, student enrollment (including numbers of disabled students), student discipline, health and safety, percent of certified teachers, parental complaints, ethics, and timely submission of required reports are all supposed to play a role in this annual review.
Bulletin 126 allows for early revocation of the charter agreement– but it does not require such. BESE can easily ignore charter problems– and it does.
Chas and friends could always rewrite Bulletin 126 to clarify nebuous wording and add rigor.
Even with three consecutive poor annual academic reviews, the charter might still be placed under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for improvement. This it the loophole for continuing a contract with a charter that has what community public schools are told they cannot have: a C, D, or F school performance score.
All according to BESE Bulletin 126.
So, what did the auditor find? LDOE did monitor the finances of the charters under its jurisdiction for FY 2012. But those school performance scores– well, there are some problems. For the 10 charters needing a pre-assessment index (PAI) in the fall of 2011, LDOE dropped the ball and provided none of the schools with a PAI until the “uh-oh!” time of April 8, 2013 (one month before the audit result was published).
The purpose of the PAI was to calculate charter performance from fall to the time of spring testing. Keep in mind that the audit was for FY2012, which begins in fall 2011. So, LDOE did not provide pre-assessment information until the spring of the second year of charter school operation.
Of course, LDOE excused itself: They needed to wait until after 2012 spring testing “so that the index (no longer a ‘pre-assessment’ as intended, mind you) would only include the testing histories of students who remained and tested with the school.”
This is against the Bulletin 126, which carries the weight of law. But LDOE, with its high-priced former TFAers, couldn’t manage to pre-assess 10 charters.
What else did LDOE do?
It altered Bulletin 126 after it failed to meet the original standard. (The “update” did not happen until FY2013.)
The audit also reveals that LDOE conducted no verification that school-level data used to calculate school performance scores was indeed correct:
Student performance is the primary measure of school quality and is the main component for LDOE’s renewal and extension decisions. Therefore, it is critical that the data LDOE uses to calculate the SPSs of schools is reliable. Bulletin 741 requires that charter schools maintain supporting documentation for the data used to calculate these scores. In addition, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommends that authorizers not rely on self-reported data from schools unless it has been verified. However, LDOE accepts self-reported data from the schools without verifying the reliability of that data. According to LDOE, it stopped conducting on-site audits in 2008 because of a lack of resources. [Emphasis added.]
The auditor acknowledges that most of the school performance score is calculated using test scores (90% for K-8 and 70% for 9-12) and that such information is reported directly to LDOE from the testing vendor. However, regarding attendance, dropout, and graduation data, the auditor recommends LDOE conduct site visits to verify accurate data entry. This is not an unfounded request:
Attendance Data. Bulletin 741 requires that schools maintain a record of each student’s attendance. According to LDOE, records may be electronic attendance records from the school’s own data system or both paper and electronic records. We reviewed attendance records for a sample of 325 students at nine schools and found that 84 (25.8%) student records had attendance data that differed from LDOE’s SIS data for fiscal year 2011.
Dropout Data. LDOE policy requires that schools maintain supporting documentation for dropouts, such as withdrawal forms and requests for records from other schools. We reviewed dropout records for 130 students and found that 15 (11.5%) did not have sufficient documentation to support the withdrawal.
Graduation Data. LDOE regulations and policies do not specify what documentation schools should maintain to support what they enter into STS. Therefore, we were unable to assess the accuracy of transcript information. [Emphasis added.]
LDOE said no. After all, the rules for school performance score calculation will change, and anyway, the dropout data doesn’t really count that much.
No kidding. See below:
LDOE does not agree with this recommendation. According to LDOE management, attendance data will be used for a final transition year SPS in the fall of 2013 but will not be calculated into the SPS beyond that date. Dropout data will count as 5% of the SPS only for schools that serve grades 7 & 8. LDOE further states that while dropout data is important, it has a relatively low impact on the overall SPS.[Emphasis added.]
The auditor counters LDOE’s laissez-faire with this:
While the dropout data is 5% of the SPS calculation for schools that serve grades 7 & 8, this data is also used to calculate the graduation cohort component of the high school SPS. Beginning in fiscal year 2013, the graduation cohort component constitutes 25% of the high school SPS calculation. [Emphasis added.]
A note regarding the ever-changing nature of school performance scores: The Louisiana legislature is tired of White and BESE changing the school performance score rules. In May 2012, the Louisiana House of Representatives passed HB 466. Notice White’s proposed, confusing “solution” to the school performance score transition:
…The House voted 70-28 to block state plans that would make ACT scores — a measure of college readiness — a key part of how public high schools are graded.
House Bill 466 would retain the grading system the way it operated for the 2011-12 school year, which would exclude ACT results.
White has said the ACT scores are vital for all students, not just those who plan to attend college.
He said the state later this year would issue two letter grades per school, with and without the ACT scores, as a way to smooth the transition.
But critics said two grades would confuse parents and that even the state’s top-scoring public high schools would drop a grade letter or two under the new system.
State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, backed HB466 as a solid product of talks among principals, superintendents and others. “If we are going to label schools, let’s do it in a way that is fair and equitable,” said Pope, former superintendent of the Livingston Parish school system.
The measure would also require Louisiana’s top school board to win the permission of the state House and Senate committees before it makes future changes in the school grading system. [Emphasis added.]
This bill would block White from making “retro” changes to the school performance score formula similar to the Bulletin 126 change he made after failing to pre-assess the charters.
If HB 466 passes the senate, then the auditor’s comment above is only slightly modified; the graduation cohort continues to be 30%.
As for LDOE’s monitoring legal/contractual charter performance, it was “hit and miss.” In short, LDOE submitted incomplete information regarding comprehensive monitoring of six indicators: Special education/ELL; enrollment; discipline; health and safety; governance, and facilities. The auditor concluded:
LDOE could not provide evidence that it comprehensively monitored all of the six legal/contractual indicators at any of the 78 Types 2, 4, and 5 charter schools as required by Bulletin 126.
In our September 2011 report on the Recovery School District, we found that the Recovery School District did not comprehensively monitor all Type 5 charter schools for legal/contractual compliance as required by Bulletin 126. LDOE agreed with our recommendation that it should develop a comprehensive process to annually coordinate the collection of data on all Type 5 charter schools to ensure they are meeting their legal/contractual obligations. LDOE has made some progress on this recommendation. For example, LDOE included in its January 2012 Charter School Annual Report to BESE a column labeled “Legal/Contractual Performance.” However, LDOE could not provide evidence that it had addressed all issues in the report. [Emphasis added.]
The auditor’s official recommendation:
LDOE should implement a more comprehensive process to annually assess charter schools’ legal/contractual performance that includes the review of the six legal and contractual indicators as required by Bulletin 126.
Believe it or not, LDOE does not agree that it needs to develop a more comprehensive process; it “is confident that its current practice… is sufficiently comprehensive.”
This is the same LDOE that, according to White, “just sent the wrong Word file” to the Senate Committee on Education as it was considering the 2013-14 minimum foundation program (MFP) funding. The senate rejected the current formula because it included funding for vouchers and Course Choice, both of which were recently declared unconstitutional by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Roemer, who spoke of the “strict accountability standards” to which Louisiana charters were to be held, is also responsible for the wrong MFP formula sent to the senate. These things ought not to be.
Unfortunately, Roemer’s charge of charter accountability is also “not to be.” In FY 2010, LDOE placed eight charters on probation because of financial issues. In FY 2012, BESE changed the review rules to cover for LDOE’s negligence in reviewing the charters on probation.
In FY 2011, LDOE did not review the charters on probation. As noted in the auditor’s report:
According to Bulletin 126, LDOE should have determined if all eight schools met required standards during fiscal year 2011 to continue operating. Based on these determinations, if a school had not achieved Bulletin 126 standards, LDOE was required to recommend to BESE revocation of the school’s charter, potentially not allowing the school to operate during fiscal year 2012. However, LDOE did not determine if any of these schools met required standards to continue operating. While one of the schools closed, the remaining seven were allowed to operate during fiscal year 2012 without LDOE ensuring that they were in compliance with Bulletin 126 standards. [Emphasis added.]
The charters on probation should have been reviewed in FY 2011– that is fall 2010 to fall 2011. Late in the game– near the end of the 2010-11 school year– BESE changed the rules to accommodate no follow-up review from LDOE:
In April 2011, BESE repealed the requirement for LDOE to determine if schools on probation met required standards to continue operating. However, Bulletin 126 was not updated until August 2011. According to LDOE staff, it decided to grandfather in the eight schools discussed above to avoid the schools receiving two reviews in a six-month timeframe. However, no such provisions were included in the Bulletin 126 revisions. [Emphasis added.]
Let that sink in. Let the pattern sink in: LDOE fails to follow through on its duties; BESE changes the rules in the eleventh hour to cover the negligence.
A pressing question: Why would BESE vote to repeal fiscal monitoring of charters on probation? Could it be to continue to promote an illusory “model to the nation”?
Regarding the capricious alteration of Bulletin 126, the auditor’s recommendation:
LDOE should ensure that Bulletin 126 is updated in a timely manner when changes are made to the criteria for monitoring charter schools so that its staff can hold schools accountable for meeting the required standards to operate. [Emphasis added.]
Things that ought not need saying: Don’t change the rules at the last minute.
With what I envision as a sheepish grin and nod of the head, LDOE agrees with this one.
That doesn’t mean such a signature move will not happen in the future. LDOE and BESE are certainly not known for stability and consistency.
School letter grades have undergone capricious changes. White has even tried to change the rules without involving BESE. And now the legislature desires to monitor LDOE/BESE changes to school performance.
I hope they decide soon to do the same with charter regulation. This audit, complete with White’s/LDOE’s/BESE’s foolishness, is in legislative hands.
So there you have it, folks: The Louisiana charter school audit of LDOE’s management (or rather, the lack thereof).
Another untrue Louisiana model for the nation.
I do not know whether my email to the auditor requesting a performance audit had any bearing on the conducting of this audit, but I will add that in a separate email, I also asked for a performance audit of LDOE and BESE. A performance audit of these two entities would consider what money is being spent and how it is being spent.
Maybe such audits are already in the works.
What a fine thought.