System Failure: Louisiana's Broken Charter School Law
In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, post-storm changes to the state’s charter school law have dramatically grown the number of charter schools in the state. Since 2005, charter school enrollment in the state has grown 1,188 percent. Through this growth, the Louisiana Department of Education’s Recovery School District—created to facilitate state takeover of struggling schools—has become the first charter-only school district in the country, with other states lining up to copy its model. Louisiana taxpayers have invested heavily, paying billions of dollars to charters and state takeover schools since the storm, including over $831 million in the 2014/2015 school year alone.
The rapid growth and massive investment in charter schools has been accompanied by a dramatic underinvestment in oversight, leaving Louisiana’s students, parents, teachers and taxpayers at risk of academic failures and financial fraud. The state’s failure to create an effective financial oversight system is obvious, as Louisiana charter schools have experienced millions in known losses from fraud and financial mismanagement so far, which is likely just the tip of the iceberg. According to standard forensic auditing methodologies, the deficiencies in charter oversight throughout Louisiana suggest tens of millions of dollars in undiscovered losses for the 2013-14 school year alone.
In this report, we identify three fundamental flaws with Louisiana’s financial oversight of charter schools:
- Oversight depends too heavily on self-reporting by charter schools or the reports of whistleblowers. Louisiana’s oversight agencies rely almost entirely on audits paid for by the charters themselves and whistleblowers. While important to uncover fraud, neither method systematically detects or effectively prevents fraud.
- The general auditing techniques used in charter school reports do not uncover fraud on their own. The audits commissioned by the charter schools use general auditing techniques designed to expose inaccuracies or inefficiencies. Without audits specifically designed to detect and uncover fraud, however, state and local agencies will rarely detect deliberate fraud without a whistleblower.
- Inadequate staffing prevents the thorough detection and elimination fraud. Louisiana inadequately staffs its charter-school oversight agencies. In order to carry out high-quality audits of any type, auditors need enough time. With too few qualified people on staff—and too little training for existing staff—agencies are unable to uncover clues that might lead to fuller investigations and the discovery of fraud.
As the state has insufficiently resourced financial oversight, it has failed to create a structure that provides struggling schools and their students with a pathway to academic success. While underinvesting in the dissemination and implementation of successful strategies to lift academically struggling schools up, state lawmakers have continued to invest in both charter expansion and conversions of public schools to charters. Coupled with an unwillingness to help failing schools succeed, the rapid growth of charters has failed Louisiana children, families and taxpayers. Since 2005, approximately $700 million in public tax dollars have been spent on charter schools that currently have not achieved a C or better on the state’s grading system.
In this report we identify two fundamental flaws with Louisiana’s academic oversight of charter schools:
- Underinvestment in systems that help struggling schools succeed. Lawmakers and regulators have invested in systems that set high standards and then close schools that fail to meet them, rather than helping them improve to meet the standards. This investment in a severe accountability system does not support schools achieve academic success.
- Heavy reliance on data that is vulnerable to manipulation. The state’s academic oversight system relies largely on sets of data that can be manipulated by regulators, authorizers, or the charters themselves. Without reliable data, schools, parents and the public have no way to accurately gauge academic quality at their schools.
To address these serious deficiencies in Louisiana’s system, we recommend the following:
Mandate New Measures Designed to Detect and Prevent Fraud
- Charter school governing boards should be required to institute an internal fraud risk management program, including an annual fraud risk assessment.
- Charter school governing boards should be required to commission an annual audit of internal controls over financial reporting that is integrated with the audit of financial statements charter schools currently commission.
- The Louisiana Legislative Auditor should conduct regular fraud audits, prioritizing charter schools with heightened levels of fraud risk.
- Auditing teams should include members certified in financial forensics trained to detect fraud
Increase Financial Transparency & Accountability
- Oversight agencies should create a system to categorize and rank charter audits by level of fraud risk they pose to facilitate public engagement. Center for Popular Democracy & Coalition for Community Schools 3
- The Louisiana Legislative Auditor should create a dedicated charter school fraud hotline for whistleblowers.
- Charter school governing boards should post the findings of their annual fraud risk internal assessments on their websites.
- Oversight agencies should determine what steps the nonprofit governing boards and executives of charter schools have taken to guard against fraud over the past 10 years and issue a report to the public detailing their findings and recommendations.
- Charter school governing boards should provide parents of students enrolled in charter schools free access to all materials related to their fraud risk management program.
The state should impose a moratorium on new charter schools until the state oversight system is adequately reformed.
Redesign the System to Support Struggling Schools
- Under the current system, when regulators find that a school is not performing well, they put the school on the “Intervention Ladder”. The Intervention Ladder should be replaced with mandatory hands-on long-term strategic support from the state and stakeholders.
- Lawmakers should invest additional resources to ensure that regulators have enough staff with the appropriate expertise to meet the significant turnaround needs in the state.
Redesign the Data Collection System
- Lawmakers should mandate that underlying data comparators remain consistent from year-to-year to allow oversight officials and the public to accurately compare school performance. In cases where changes to underlying data are unavoidable, data should be presented using both old and new cut-scores for a period of three years.
- The state should invest in ongoing test erasure analysis.
- Regulators should implement a process to ensure that the school reported data used to calculate the School Performance Score (SPS) is reliable by conducting regular audits of school-reported data.
- The state and authorizers must make funding for regular data audits a priority.
- The Louisiana Legislative Audit should include a review of the LDOE’s data auditing in its regular audits of the agency.
- Finally, the legislature should mandate that all of the data used to calculate School Performance Scores be made available to the public, in its raw form.
Given the rapid and continuing expansion of state school takeovers and the charter school industry in the state through the investment of public dollars, Louisiana must act now to reform its oversight system. Without reform, Louisianans face many more years of failing schools and millions—if not billions—of dollars more lost to charter school fraud and financial mismanagement.