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Charter school accountability starts here

Charter schools are different things to different people. Supporters see charter schools differently than their critics see them. Maybe that's the problem.

Recently, Minnesota 2020 released its second charter school financial management report. Our first report, released in June, drew conclusions from the 2006-07 school year. With 2007-08 audit data available on July 1, we collected and analyzed that over the summer and fall. 2008-09 audits won't be available until next summer.

Our first report created a small firestorm. Charter school advocates wasted no time rolling out ad hominem attacks, working to minimize our findings. We were called "playground bullies," mocked, derided, defamed and denounced.

Why so much anger?

We observed, based on charter schools' own audits, audits conducted by certified public accountants of a char-ter school board's choosing, that over 80 percent of Minne-sota charters had at least one flagged, substantive financial management irregularity. That's four of five charter schools violating a basic busi-ness management practice.

This year, that number improves slightly. Seventy-five percent, or three of four charter schools, had the same issues. It's a better outcome but not by much. Essentially, little has changed. Absent public accountability pressure, charter schools have little impetus to improve their financial management and oversight practices. Aside from the trouble of drafting a required corrective action plan addressing the audit's findings, charter schools rarely face real consequences for substandard business management practices.

Occasionally, charter school management absconds with a big pile of cash, as happened this past June at the now-closed Heart of the Earth charter school in south Minn-eapolis. It's an infrequent occurrence but one made more likely by a lack of strong financial controls.

Charter school culture was born from pronounced dissatisfaction with traditional schooling. Charter school proponents dismissed traditional public schools as broken, irreparable institutions while promising a highly accountable, more successful outcome. Charters, they declared, would be better and cheaper. I'm sure they believed it.

Practice, when it comes to attentive financial management, doesn't match rhetoric. By dismissing Minnesota 2020's observations, charter schools further risk compromising their educational mission. Eventually, fiscal management disregard will creep, coloring other organizational components. If it's OK to not have a funds dispersal check and balance, when does that same attitude extend to testing integrity? "We mean well" is a poor substitute for doing well.

Charter schools are part of Minnesota's school choice mix. Today's K-12 education experience balances a tension between the individual stud-ent's learning style and a school's need to create syst-ems that educate all students.

Kids don't learn the same way or at the same rate. Education research and teacher experience overwhelmingly support this conclusion. While there are many right ways to educate students, there's no single right or single wrong way to do it. Hence, we're endlessly debating the best path. Chart-er schools are one choice.

This, I think, is healthy. We succeed when our educational debates concern educating students. We fail when they become placeholders for ideological squabbles.

Still, all is not well in charter school world. It's clear to me that most Minnesota charter schools tacitly feel they should not be held to a high financial management competency standard. They're creating a disengaged financial oversight culture that will not serve them well in the future.

I admire the charter school desire for smallness and a strong sense of community. They are not alone, however. Every traditional school principal engagingly talks about their school's community and strengths. We value school community precisely because we value community. Small scale, as rural Minnesota towns continuously teach us, is an asset not a liability.

It's time for the entire charter school movement to put their financial houses in order. Twelve Minnesota charter schools had clean 2006-07 and 2007-08 audits. And Bemidji's three charter schools -- Voyageurs Expeditionary, Schoolcraft Learning Charter and Treknorth High School -- had perfect 2007-08 audits. We applaud these schools.

Successful financial management practices are eminently achievable providing, of course, that Minnesota charter schools embrace the higher standard they profess to hold.

Every Minnesota child needs the best education that we can deliver. Minnesota's future depends on it. On that point, we all agree.

John Van Hecke is executive director and Fellow of Minnesota 2020.