Do Charter Schools in Colombia Provide Sufficient Accountability and Choice?

In 1999, Colombia joined many other countries in amplifying educational options by introducing a form of charter schools called Concession Schools (Colegios en Concesión). So far, the Concession schools have been confined to the capital city, Bogotá, where they grew to number 25 in 2003, remaining at that count through 2014. During that period, they accounted for 4 percent of the nearly 1 million students in the city’s primary and secondary schools.

In “Theory versus Reality in Charter Schools in Colombia,” a paper published at the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Dr. Brent Edwards Jr. and Hilary Hartley go beyond assessing academic outcomes to examine the process of authorization, evaluation, and enrollment to determine the degree of accountability and choice the Concession Schools offer.

Edwards and Hartley find (a) that competition among schools has not been realized due to an insufficient quantity of charter schools from which parents can choose (with the implication being that public schools do not feel pressure to compete for students) and (b) that the government’s ability to hold schools accountable has been limited by a lack of clear performance criteria, by weak evaluation methods, and by the politically charged relationship between the government and charter schools. 

While the paper focuses on the original CEC (i.e., charter school) contracts that were set to end at the conclusion of 2014, Dr. Edwards provided IEN with an update on what’s happened since then:

While the leftist mayors of Bogotá have since 2004 been opposed to the CECs because they represent a form of privatization, Mayor Petro, in May 2014, proposed the following: three-year contract extensions for 17 of the 25 CECs; one-year contract extensions for 5 CECs, after which point they would revert to government management; and, for the remaining 3 CECs, conversion to management by the government of Bogotá at the end of their initial contracts in December 2014.  The basis for these decisions was a ranking of all public and CEC schools in Bogotá, with this ranking being the result of a weighted score based on academic performance on standardized tests (50 percent weight), student retention (25 percent), and school climate (25 percent). Those 17 CECs that ranked in the top 50 were deemed to have “good results.” It is not clear from where the data for this ranking came; the Secretary of Education for Bogotá stated that they came from “various entities and studies.”

Interestingly, however, in September 2014, the City Council of Bogotá obstructed the renewal of CEC contracts in accordance with the proposal mentioned above by the mayor. Approval from City Council—a democratically elected body of 45 councilmen—is required for contracts with the government that extend beyond one budget cycle, and in this case CEC contract renewal was voted down. The association of parents from CEC schools lobbied the national minister of education for support, and, indeed, other national ministers got involved (including the minister of government, minister of the interior, and minister of estate) once the President of Colombia came out in support of the CECs. These ministers offered to provide technical and legal support to the City Council of Bogotá, some members of which did not feel that they had the capacity to properly evaluate the situation and to make a decision related to a three-year budgetary commitment. Some council members were also doubtful as to whether they could legally make budget commitments beyond the period of the current government. Yet others, closely associated with the teachers unions, voted down the proposal because they saw the CECs as a form of privatization.

In the end, despite pronouncements from the country’s President regarding the importance of the CECs, despite involvement from the national ministers, and despite pressure from CEC parents and students, it was only possible, based on the laws regulating the city government, to extend CEC contracts for one year, except for those three poorly performing CECs that were initially scheduled to switch to government control at the end of 2014. This outcome resulted from the fact that Mayor Petro never resubmitted his proposal to the city council due to insufficient support from this body for the proposal to pass.

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