Lack of oversight, resistance to regulation


FRESNO, Calif.— After investigators for this fast-growing school district went in search of the 67 students who were, on paper, being educated at one of the experimental public schools known as charters, they found only 23 desks in the building. In Texas, an investigation turned up similar discrepancies and also found that tax money intended for charters was being used to buy Victoria's Secret lingerie. In Arizona, a charter opened its doors to students but did not have a sewer line for its restroom.

Texas, California and Arizona account for nearly 40 percent of the nation's charter schools, the publicly financed, tuition-free schools that operate independently of existing schools and school districts. Now, a decade after helping pioneer the charter concept, the three states are leading efforts to rein in their experimental schools.

''Most charters were started for the wrong reason -- to make money -- and most of them are mediocre,'' said Ron Caya, founder of the New School for the Arts in Scottsdale, Ariz., a charter that educators have praised as a model. ''Now we've got all these problem charters.''

Supporters say failures among the country's 2,400 charter schools are to be expected, as the schools try to find their footing 10 years after they started to take hold.

Operating with minimal regulation, charter schools promise innovation and the hope that they can do for many students what failing public schools cannot. Charters sign contracts for 5, 10 or 15 years with states or local school districts, get about $5,000 a student and then are usually left alone, free to educate with little oversight.

The movement has received bipartisan support and the backing of President Bush, who allocated $200 million in his budget to support charters. Supporters cite successes in the 36 states with charters, like Central City Academy, an elementary school in Phoenix, and Watts Learning Center in Los Angeles, both of which have been highly praised by parents.

But the troubled schools in Texas and California, the nation's two most populous states, and their inconsistent test scores, have slowed the charter movement's momentum.

''We are at a critical stage,'' said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a research group that supports charters. ''Right now, there's a real war going on for the future of charters.''

In California, a ragged huddle of double-wide trailers in the gated community behind the ''Allah's City'' sign has become a prime exhibit for lawmakers pushing for major changes. The little school at Baladullah, the Muslim community 70 miles east of Fresno, has had its charter revoked and is the subject of a criminal investigation.

Officials say GateWay Academy, which ran schools at Baladullah and in 13 other California sites, was reimbursed by the state for students it could not document; hired felons; taught Islam, in violation of proscriptions against teaching any form of religion; and even charged tuition -- all while receiving more than $2 million in state money over the last two years.

School leaders say the accusations were part of anti-Muslim hysteria prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks. But officials said bias had nothing to do with its decision to revoke GateWay's charter two months ago.

GateWay was created by Khadijah Ghafur, an educator in the Fresno area, in the late 1990's. Charter supporters say its failure should not be used to tar other experimental schools.

''Look how many small businesses start up and don't succeed,'' said Susan Hollins, director of the Charter School Resource Center in Concord, N.H. ''And given that most charters work with kids that the public schools have failed, what they have done so far is remarkable.''

According to the Center for Education Reform, 4.5 percent of charter schools nationwide have folded or had their charters revoked. In Arizona, which has 422 charters -- more than any other state -- nearly 10 percent of the schools have failed. Nationwide, charters educate barely 1 percent of the 48 million children in public schools.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are open to charters, but the schools there tend to be much more tightly regulated and have yet to suffer the sorts of problems experienced here and in Texas.

After years of promoting charter schools, Texas legislators set a limit last year on the number of new charters at 215 and tightened regulations governing the 200 existing operators.

''As an institution, charters are not working in our state,'' said Representative Jim Dunnam, a Democrat from Waco who sponsored the overhaul last year. ''We treat them like road contractors -- give them the money and God knows what they do with it.''

The legislation came in response to scandals in the Texas schools. One charter in Houston operated classrooms without heat, desks or chairs, state officials said, while another was found to have employed 20 felons among its staff of 169.

Even more troubling to educators and politicians are the test scores. Barely half of charter students pass basic Texas performance tests, compared with an 82 percent pass rate for the rest of the state's public school students. The number of low-performing charter schools -- where fewer than 50 percent of the students pass basic achievement tests -- has tripled in three years, a state survey shows. At the same time, the dropout rate among students at Texas charters is more than three times the rate for other public school children.

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, let the legisation limiting charters become law without his signature.

Here in California, the Legislature appears to be following Texas' lead. In recent days, hearings were held on bills intended to tighten the reins on the state's 406 charter operators.

Even before the GateWay scandal, California charters began generating headlines last year. At least four schools were accused of violating the law by teaching Christianity, state auditors said. Dozens of schools did not have credentialed teachers, officials said, and many more were charging the state about $5,000 per pupil for students who existed only on paper.

But the problems at the GateWay Academy here at Baladullah, which was chartered by the Fresno Unified School District in 1999, have done the most to spur the reform movement.

Officials for the school district say they had little control over the academy because the law governing charters is so flexible.

''We are a charter-friendly district,'' said Jill Marmolejo, a spokeswoman for the Fresno schools. ''It's clear now that GateWay was playing a bit of a shell game, but we could not deny them.''

Which may be why the state's charter schools are now beginning to welcome more regulation -- to a point.

''Many of these proposed reforms make a lot of sense,'' said Gary Larsen, spokesman for the California Network of Educational Charters. ''But our fear is that the big baby of charter schools will be thrown out with the bath water.”

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