The Washington state auditor's office found "mixed results" when it evaluated the accountability of the state's charter schools during the 2017-2018 school year.

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A common refrain from charter school opponents in the state and elsewhere is that the publicly funded, privately run schools aren’t accountable to the public for their performance.

But even though Washington’s 12 charter schools aren’t governed by locally elected school boards, there are still accountability requirements baked into the hotly contested law that allows them to operate.

A recent report from the state auditor’s office offers an early look at how well the schools are following those rules. Here’s what they found:

  • Because they tend to be located in under-served communities, almost all of the charters served a higher percentage of low-income and at-risk students compared to local school districts, a point emphasized in the state’s Charter School Act.
  • That trend didn’t hold at the school level. The traditional public schools closest to each charter school still served a higher percentage of low-income students. Most charters also enrolled a smaller share of students learning English than local districts and schools.
  • Charter schools generally enroll a larger share of special-education students than neighboring schools, and segregate students with disabilities less often. But they also tend to enroll fewer students with the most significant instructional needs and accommodations related to their special-education status.
  • A May 2018 review by the state education office found that some charter schools did not seek proper approval before assigning teachers to a subject or grade outside of their expertise. The agency gave charters a few months’ time to comply. By fall, a second review showed that all eight schools that were evaluated could demonstrate their teachers had the level of education and expertise required by their positions. They also met state and federal requirements for disclosing student data, and teaching the state’s learning standards.
  • Charter schools did not meet all the requirements of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and Public Records Act. Some could not show they trained governing board members about their responsibilities within 90 days of joining the board — or at all.
  • The report also found that the charter school boards evaluated did a poor job documenting their decisions, with many failing to review and approve their expenditures during public meetings, limiting their financial transparency. And although all schools had public records officers, few published any guidelines about how to request public records. None provided information about costs for documents and exemptions to required disclosures.

The auditors said they could not answer Washington’s million dollar question — how effective are the schools? — because of the “newness of the system.” The first charter school in Washington opened during the 2015-2016 school year.

Stakeholders had different reactions to the audit. The Washington State Charter Schools Association, whose response was included in the document, said it “respectfully disagreed” with the notion that that the findings were “mixed,” adding that schools have made changes since the audit was performed. State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle) said in a Tuesday press release that he was disappointed to learn about charters’ inconsistencies regarding public records law.