Guest Post – Alex Medler On Charter Authorizing

I’m out of the office at a NACSA meeting as part of a project we’re working with them on, so it seemed like a good time for a guest post by NACSA’s Alex Medler:

Accountability for Authorizers

Charter schools provide plenty of compelling news.  Often the coverage is of great schools producing amazing outcomes for kids.  But too often the stories are more tragic or sordid.  A school’s governing board becomes mired in dysfunctional arguments; a school’s students are performing badly on state tests for several years running; somebody absconds with money; or a student with disabilities is discouraged from enrolling in a school.

Facing these unfortunate circumstances, a person is likely to shout, “Somebody should do something!”  The outraged observer is correct.  Generally, the “somebody” that ought to act is a charter school authorizer.  Strong charter school authorizers screen initial applicants to avoid future failures. They also implement practices that respect each school’s autonomy while also protecting against abuses and ensuring that floundering schools close.  Twenty years into the charter school movement, it appears that it will be difficult to hold all charter schools accountable unless we start to hold authorizers accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities.

Charter authorizers are the public entities charged with overseeing charter schools. Each state charter law designates the entities that will serve as authorizers.  Most authorizers are either school districts, state departments of education, or specially-created independent state boards.  There are also a few states where higher education institutions, non-profits, and mayors serve as authorizers.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has been helping authorizers with their work for more than a decade. To articulate the required work, NACSA has established Principles & Standards of Quality Charter School Authorizing.  But not all authorizers rise to these industry standards.   NACSA has developed a 12-item Index of Essential Practices to measure whether authorizers are implementing practices covered by the standards.  Using data from NACSA’s annual survey of authorizers, we recently released a report evaluating more than 120 authorizers with this index.

The results of our research are mixed.  Many authorizers report implementing most of these practices; some authorizers lack quite a few of them. Our hope is that all authorizers will compare their current practices to this index and identify what they need to put in place. Obviously, how well they perform these tasks also matters. So authorizers need to look at the recommended practices they already have in place and ask how they can strengthen them.  Information on the work of authorizers is also useful to policymakers or other observers. Everyone has a right to ask whether authorizers are doing these practices and to press them to do this work well.

In many states, there is more than one authorizer available to any single school or charter applicant. In these communities it is important to ensure that all authorizers are using rigorous practices.   Since school operators can quickly identify the least rigorous authorizers, the schools that would be closed by a quality authorizer are likely to seek out the authorizer with the worst practices that will let them operate indefinitely.  As a result of this forum shopping, the rigorous authorizers are likely to be left with only the schools that would stay open under any authorizer.  Accountability mechanisms tend to be irrelevant to excellent operators.  In these circumstances, states should work to ensure that the worst authorizers either improve their practices or are removed from this work entirely.

A great deal has been learned about how to hold public schools accountable.  But it takes quality authorizers to act on those lessons.  NACSA’s Index of Essential Practices provides a mechanism to strengthen accountability for the authorizers. This is a tool that could eventually help us realize our goal of accountability for the schools as well.

Guestblogger Alex Medler

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