As a policy analyst working on charter school issues for about a decade, I’ve written a lot about the importance of quality charter school authorizing for ensuring the quality of charter schools. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to live the implications of that analysis, as a member of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, which authorizes charter schools in Washington, D.C. I’ve learned a lot–thanks in large part to our dedicated and incredibly knowledgeable PCSB staff, as well as my wise and committed PCSB colleagues–and that learning has pressed me to think hard about some assumptions I once had (more on that later). But most of all, it’s reaffirmed my belief that quality charter school authorizing is extremely important–particularly in a city, like D.C., where nearly 40% of our students attend charter schools–but also really complicated to get right.
That’s why I was excited to see this new Education Next article by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s Checker Finn and Terry Ryan (writing with journalist Michael Lafferty) offering an admirably frank telling of the Fordham Foundation’s work authorizing charter schools in Ohio. After Ohio passed a law–with Fordham’s support and encouragement–enabling nonprofit organizations to become authorizers, the folks at Fordham, which had a long record of supporting charters, decided to put their money where their mouth was by becoming an authorizer. And I mean money where their mouth was literally–as the article notes, Fordham spent nearly 3 times as much on quality authorizing from their own organizational resources as they received in authorizing fees from schools. In a relatively brief piece, Ryan, Finn, and Lafferty detail many of the challenges facing charter schools authorizers in Ohio and many other states: inequitable resources for charter schools; lack of funding for quality authorizing; lack of curricular or financial expertise on the part of many smaller, community-based charter operators; lack of support infrastructure for small, stand-alone schools; challenges of figuring out how much support/intervention an authorizer can/should appropriately offer struggling schools. Although we’re fortunate not to have some of these problems–or not to have them to the same extent–in D.C., I identified with a lot of the issues the authors address.
This is must-reading for anyone interested in charter school issues–and authorizing in particular–as I expect their longer book about their experiences will be when it comes out this summer. Especial kudos to the authors for offering an honestly “warts and all” picture and resisting the temptation to sweep disappointments and failures under the rug.
–guestblogger Sara Mead