Charter Schools and Accountability in Public Education

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Charter schools are among the most debated and least understood phenomena in American education today. At the heart of these matters is a contested question of accountability. To survive, charter schools must make and keep promises about what students will experience and learn under their purview. However, unlike public schools, charter schools do not rely exclusively on their relationship with school districts. They must also look to parents, teachers, and donors to cooperatively establish expectations of a particular school and its mission.

Aimed toward elected officials, school reform activists, and educators, this book is the result of the first national-scale study of charter school accountability. The authors researched one hundred-fifty schools and sixty authorizing agencies in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Michigan. These states contain the majority of charter schools that have been operating for three years or more and represent the major differences in state charter school legislation. The authors include interviews from a range of participants in the field©¡from state legislators and administrators to principals, teachers, and parents. In assessing the structure of accountability as it works internally to bolster external confidence, Hill and Lake suggest the struggle of charter schools actually complements those of standards based reform. Both seek to transform public education to make schools responsible for performance, not compliance.

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Editorial Reviews

Unlike public schools, charter schools enter into performance agreements with local school boards. If their students do not learn, the schools can be denied funds. This book examines charter school accountability in theory and fact, drawing on research conducted on 150 schools and 60 authorizing agencies in six states. Hill is a nonresident senior fellow in the Governmental Studies program at the Brookings Institution and a research professor at the University of Washington. Lake is associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815702672
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul T. Hill is coauthor (with Mary Beth Celio) of Fixing Urban Schools (Brookings, 1998) and (with Christing Campbell and James Harvey) of It Takes a City (Brookings, 2000). He is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a research professor at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. Robin J. Lake is associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Mary Beth Celio is a statistical consultant to the University of Washington's Center on Re-Inventing Public Education. She is also the demographer for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

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Read an Excerpt

Charter Schools and Accountability in Public Education

By Paul T. Hill and Robin J. Lake

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2002 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0815702663

Chapter One

Charter Schools and Accountability

Charter schools are one of the most debated and least understood phenomena in American education. Like the blind men who described the elephant according to the part of it they touched, journalists and policy analysts write about charter schools as if they were many different things. Are charter schools devices for getting government funding for private education or a means of preserving public education? Do charter schools let educators teach in any way they like regardless of whether children learn, or do they make educators strictly accountable for performance?

The root of the disagreement is accountability. Some people think that those who run charter schools are responsible only to adhere to professional standards and maintain a clientele of satisfied parents. Others think that those who run charter schools are responsible to show government and the general public that their children are learning what they need to become responsible, productive citizens. These differences of opinion do not split neatly on pro- versus anti-charter-school lines. Some people base their support of charter schools on the expectation that they will not have to answer to government, andothers oppose charter schools on the basis of the same expectation. Similarly, some supporters think chartering creates a new performance-focused relationship between schools and government; and some opponents fear that a focus on school performance will weaken the government's ability to impose other agendas on schools.

This book is the result of the first national-scale study of charter school accountability. It explores charter school accountability both in theory and in fact. We hope it will inform elected officials, lay people interested in school reform, and educators about how public schools are held accountable, to whom, and for what.

We think this book has implications outside the charter school world for the national debate about school reform. Congress and forty-eight of the fifty state governments are struggling with the question of how to hold public schools accountable for student performance. Every prominent proposal for school reform-including site-based management initiatives sponsored by hundreds of school districts and voucher initiatives proposed by critics of government-run schools-aims at least in part to release schools from counterproductive regulatory burdens and to focus the efforts of students, teachers, and administrators on teaching and learning.

The most prominent such initiative is standards-based reform. Its logic is simple: Develop state standards for student performance in key subjects; test all students on whether they attain the standards; hold individual schools accountable for rates of student progress on the tests; and eliminate demands and constraints on schools that make it difficult for them to focus on effective instruction.

Standards-based reform starts at the top of the system by trying to align state goals, performance measures, and actions toward schools. Chartering starts at the bottom of the system, by creating freedom of action at the school level.

Despite these differences, chartering and standards-based reform have a great deal in common. Both impose a new obligation on government agencies-performance-based oversight of individual schools. Both try to deregulate schools so teachers and administrators can concentrate on serving students and raising achievement. Both make individual schools directly responsible to demonstrate student learning. These two reform initiatives-and other contemporary approaches such as vouchers and site-based management-can benefit students only if people within the schools learn how to use their freedom of action effectively and if people outside the schools learn how to judge performance without imposing unnecessary burdens.

The accountability problems of charters and standards-based reform are more alike than different. From the perspective of accountability, chartering and standards-based reform are best understood as complementary sides of one large school reform movement.

What Accountability Means for Charter Schools

We start with a very informal definition of accountability: A charter school is accountable to any entity or group whose support it must maintain to survive. Thus we considered charter schools accountable to government agencies, parents who can choose whether to enroll children in a charter school, teachers who can choose whether or not to work in a charter school, and community members who donate needed money, goods, and services. In general, we found that charter school leaders do take explicit account of the needs and expectations of all these groups. However, charter schools' relationships with different parties are not all equally well developed.

Most charter school leaders know that they must meet performance goals set by the government agencies that authorize them to receive public funds, and they must maintain a relationship of trust and confidence with those agencies. However, many government agencies have not clarified their expectations of and oversight processes regarding charter schools. Government agencies that do not clarify performance expectations send an implicit message that charter schools will ultimately be assessed on the basis of political popularity and compliance.

In addition to dealing with government authorizing agencies, most charter school leaders know that they must maintain relationships of trust and confidence with parents, teachers, and donors. Building these relationships, and reconciling the needs of different parties, is a major challenge that all charter schools struggle to meet. Charter schools that survive more than one or two years show signs of developing this capacity. They do so not by pandering to different groups but by making and keeping promises about what students will experience and learn. This establishes internal accountability-a belief that the school's performance depends on all adults working in concert, leading to shared expectations about how the school will operate, what it will provide children, and who is responsible for what.

Internal accountability can enable charter schools to meet ambitious performance expectations. But if government authorizers' expectations continue to be unpredictable and based on processes instead of outcomes, charter schools will be forced to focus on tasks other than the effective instruction of their students.

What Charter Schools Are

Charter schools are a new kind of institution, and not surprisingly even experts are having trouble figuring them out. A lay reader could easily find research reports and news articles characterizing charter schools in any number of ways. A recent Public Agenda report shows that the chaotic public discourse about charter schools has thoroughly confused parents, millions of whom simply do not know what charter schools are or what to think of them.

Though state laws differ in detail, charter schools in general receive public funds, in a set amount for every child they enroll. Unlike conventional public schools, charter schools can decide how to spend their money-whom to hire, whether to have any full-time administrators, what books and equipment to buy, and what emphasis to put on technology. No child is required to attend a charter school, so all students enroll by choice. However, charter schools may not handpick their students, and schools with more applicants than spaces must conduct admissions lotteries.

In these ways charter schools are unlike conventional neighborhood public schools. But they are not fundamentally different from the magnet and specialty schools offered by virtually all large public school systems. Where charter schools are truly unique is in their accountability. Charter schools' relationships with government, parents, teachers, and community supporters are all different from conventional public schools' relationships with these entities.

Charter schools enter into performance agreements with local school boards or other state agencies (a charter is essentially a performance agreement) and if their students do not learn the schools can be denied any further public funds. In return for entering these performance agreements, charter schools are exempt from some regulations that apply to conventional public schools. State charter laws vary, but most schools are exempt from rules governing use of time during the school day and how teachers are chosen. Also unlike conventional public schools, charter schools do not automatically get free access to buildings. Most must rent space and pay for it from their own budgets. To bear these costs without drawing funds away from teaching and learning, many charter schools seek private donations of dollars or space.

A charter school must attract parents by making promises about what children will experience and learn, and if the school does not keep its promises, families are free to leave. Similarly, no teacher can be assigned to a charter school involuntarily. Because teachers are free to choose, the school must provide working conditions that capable teachers find attractive. If good teachers do not choose to work in a charter school, the school cannot deliver its instructional program; it then cannot fulfill its promises to the government agency that authorized it or to parents. Finally, because charter schools are often underfunded and must pay for their own space, most rely on voluntary contributions of money and services. Schools cannot get such donations without convincing community members and donors that children benefit.

Accountability is the focus of controversy about charter schools. Some people think that needing to satisfy parents, teachers, and donors as well as government is good for schools and can make them both more effective and more responsive. Others think the need to respond to parents, teachers, and donors as well as government makes charter schools unaccountable and thus, if not completely private, not fully public either.

The Meaning of Accountability in Public Education

Accountability is a word that is frequently used in connection with public education but is seldom carefully defined. In most settings, accountability is the relationship between a principal, a person who needs a task done and can pay to get it done, and an agent, who accepts responsibility for accomplishing the task in return for some form of payment. This definition should be broad enough to apply to all settings, including public education. With respect to public education, most people can agree on who is the agent; it is the school or, in some instances, the teacher. However, people disagree strongly over who should be considered the principal in public education. (The term principal here does not refer to the head of a school but to the legal person for which the school acts as an agent.)

Is the principal in public education the government, represented by the local school board or some other agency? Or is the principal the parents, who are responsible for their children's health, safety, growth, and emotional and moral development? Or is it the community, whose orderliness and prosperity will depend on the children's development and whose taxes pay for education? These questions are difficult to answer because each of these entities is concerned about whether children learn what is required to earn a living and be good neighbors and citizens. However, these parties often disagree about what children need to learn and how schools can be operated. All of them have their own interests, which are sometimes not entirely consistent with those of children.

The theory of democratic accountability holds that a public school is a subordinate unit in a bureaucracy that executes policies enacted by elected officials. Under this theory, elected officials are the principal for whom a public bureaucracy, and ultimately the school as a unit of that bureaucracy, act as agents. The adults who run a school are supposed to implement policies set by elected officials. Though teachers and principals are expected to use their professional expertise, they must do so within boundaries set by rules that are politically determined. Parents and community members can influence these policies by voting in elections and by petitioning officials for changes. Parents and community members can also build collaborative relationships with teachers and principals, but they cannot expect school staff to violate policies set by elected officials and higher levels of the bureaucracy.

Charter schools are one of two contemporary challenges to the traditional bureaucratic theory of democratic accountability. The other challenger is standards-based reform.

Both charters and standards-based reform retain government as a principal, but both constrain government. In the case of charter schools, elected officials and the administrators who work for them are able to decide what schools will be authorized to receive public funds, and they can cancel the charters of schools that do not meet their performance agreements. But elected officials may not make new rules whenever they please or unilaterally alter or cancel an agreement with a school that is performing as promised. In the case of standards-based reform, elected officials, and the administrators who work for them, set standards of student performance that each school must meet. Officials and administrators can intervene in schools that do not teach children to meet the standards. But elected officials are not supposed to impose new mandates that distract teachers and principals from the work of teaching students to meet the standards.

The charter school idea diverges from the standard model of democratic accountability in two additional ways. First, it tries to make parents, teachers, and community members co-principals, along with government. Each of these entities can deal directly with individual schools: the parents by deciding whether to enroll their children; teachers by deciding whether to work in the school; community members by deciding whether to provide direct support, including money, services, and goods, to individual schools; and government by deciding which schools to authorize to receive public funds. Second, it tries to make the adults in a school partners in a shared enterprise, not bureaucratic functionaries. Teachers and administrators work in charter schools by choice, and they stand to benefit (by keeping their jobs and enjoying freedom from regulation) if their school performs well and to suffer (by losing their jobs and possibly their reputations) if the school performs poorly.

In theory, parents, community members, and financial supporters who believe in a charter school also have something to gain if it survives and something to lose if it does not. These parties both have expectations of the school and take some responsibility for its performance. Charter schools therefore experience strong pressures to develop internal accountability, in which administrators, teachers, parents, and members expect things of one another and face expectations in return.

Democratic Accountability Is Problematic for Schools

Charter schools and standards-based reform have challenged traditional democratic accountability because of widespread dissatisfaction with elected officials as the sole principal for public schools. Teachers and principals complain that elected officials constantly impose new rules in response to political pressure and legislative negotiations, forcing constant reallocation of school resources and adjustment of teaching practices. Parents complain that politically set rules make schools unresponsive and unable to adjust to the needs of individual children. Many elected officials sympathize with these complaints and think that oversight by political decisionmaking bodies has made schools much less efficient and responsive than they could be.

Though elected officials are the representatives of the people who vote them into office, the policies they make about public schools do not reliably reflect the needs of schools and children. In some instances the failures of representative bodies might be due to personal weaknesses of elected officials. But the problem is more structural than personal. Representative bodies enact policies that apply to all schools, but the needs of children are diverse. Schools struggle with rules that were not made with them in mind but which they must follow nonetheless. Moreover, as Terry E. Moe has shown, groups that win enactment of policies that favor themselves are usually able to protect those policies even when they no longer have majority support. Thus policies accumulate over time and the adults who work in schools must follow many of them, including some that only a few people continue to support and that conflict with one another.


Excerpted from Charter Schools and Accountability in Public Education by Paul T. Hill and Robin J. Lake Copyright © 2002 by Brookings Institution Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Charter Schools and Accountability 1
Ch. 2 Charter Laws and Politics 13
Ch. 3 Internal Accountability 24
Ch. 4 Authorizing Agencies 47
Ch. 5 Accountability to Others 63
Ch. 6 Recommendations 85
Ch. 7 Learning from Charter School Accountability 97
Notes 111
Index 119
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