Washington state auditors say a group of charter schools in the Puget Sound region allowed two dozen unlicensed teachers to instruct classes during the 2019-2020 school year, a violation of state law that resulted in the schools receiving a combined $3.89 million in “unallowable” funds from the state. 

“Our audits revealed an unprecedented disregard for Washington teacher certification requirements in these schools,” wrote State Auditor Pat McCarthy in three different reports published last week. “They are public schools and they must follow the law.” 

The routine state audits covered all three Washington state campuses of Summit Public Schools, a charter school network founded in California. During the timespan covered by the audit, nearly 1,000 students attended the three schools — Summit Atlas and Summit Sierra in Seattle, and Summit Olympus in Tacoma. 

All of the teachers across the schools are licensed now, according to oversight officials and the charter network. But as a result of the findings, the network may need to pay back some state funds. At Summit Atlas, the estimated amount owed is nearly 40% of what the school received in total state and federal funding during the 2019-2020 school year. It’s not clear yet if the state education department will demand that the schools return the full amount.

The Washington State Charter Commission, which oversees 16 of the 18 charter schools in the state, is also beginning an intervention process that applies more scrutiny to the charter network’s operations. Summit Atlas, which was nearing the end of its five-year term to operate in the state, was given a conditional renewal to operate, and will have to show the commission evidence it had resolved issues highlighted by auditors. 

With a few exceptions, Washington state law requires public schoolteachers to have some kind of state-approved certification, even if under a temporary or emergency status. Staffing is an element of state’s funding calculations, along with student enrollment. 

Advertising

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the charter network acknowledged the “administrative gaps” revealed in the reports and said the organization would work with the state education department to address the findings. 

But in a formal response, cited in the audits, Summit pushed back on the findings, arguing that the interpretation of the teacher licensing requirements were too narrow. It pointed to a provision in the law where unlicensed teachers could be supervised by someone who holds a certificate if they have exceptional qualifications. 

The organization didn’t share any evidence that it was intending to operate under this exception, said Jessica de Barros, the interim executive director of the charter oversight commission. 

“There was no documentation that this occurred,” said de Barros. 

Summary of audit findings

State auditors found millions in unallowable funds had been sent to three charter middle/high schools in the Puget Sound region that had employed teachers without certification in Washington State. All figures are from the 2019-2020 school year, and some teachers were unlicensed for only part of the year.

Office of the Washington State Auditor

The Washington State Charter Schools Association, an organization that advocates for the charter school sector, concurred with the auditor’s interpretation of licensing requirements.

“By law, charter public schools in WA are required to be staffed by certified teachers with the same limited exception that applies to all public schools,” said Maggie Meyers, a spokesperson for the association. 

Advertising

Many of the teachers were certified out of state, and were in the process of obtaining the appropriate certification, said Meyers. But they “omitted the important step of also obtaining a temporary, emergency or substitute certificate.”  

The charter’s governing board, made up of three members, is responsible for making sure that teachers have the appropriate licensing requirements.

The audit also found that the board did not comply with state rules for approving payments in a timely manner. In six cases, the reports say, the board approved spending at least three months after spending occurred. 

By not reviewing the payments in a timely manner, “the Board is not meeting its responsibility of safeguarding public funds and providing oversight,” the report said. 

Unlike traditional public schools, the charter schools’ governing boards are not elected by voters. But the schools’ ability to operate and receive public funds depends on compliance with state laws and statutes, which the board has to uphold. 

From what the state can tell, these issues were confined to Summit schools. Auditors didn’t issue any findings in their accountability audits of other charter schools during the 2019-2020 school year, de Barros said. Since charters were legalized in 2016, auditors haven’t found licensing issues like this.

Compared to its neighbors, Washington’s 18-school charter sector is small, and contained by laws capping its growth. Oregon has more than 100 charter schools, while California’s sector exceeds 1,000. More than 4,700 kids attend in Washington state. Like their counterparts in other states, the charters are located primarily in population centers like the Seattle area and Spokane, and their student enrollment is primarily kids of color.