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Improving Authorizing to Advance District-Charter Collaboration
District-charter collaboration can be a valuable tool for both sides, not to mention for students and families. Collaboration can result in important work on issues like whether charter schools can use district buildings, how to create effective programs for students with disabilities, how schools are held accountable, or what happens to an expelled student. But telling districts and charters to “get over their differences and work together” is not a minor ask.
Plenty of districts fundamentally oppose charters, even if they authorize and oversee them. A perceived loss of funding is a big driver of this animosity. In states where districts are not the authorizer, many district leaders resent any schools in their midst that someone else approved. In both cases, too many districts decline to collaborate sincerely or, over time, are pressured by charter opponents to stop collaborating. If they can, as was the case in New York City recently and San Diego earlier, charter opponents will replace those who had been willing to collaborate with leadership that is completely opposed.
As a result, charter school leaders very rationally have focused more political energy on finding ways around districts, via changes in state law to create state authorizing agencies, etc., than on finding a way to work with districts. Doing end-runs around districts, however, is not proving to be a productive long-term strategy for charter school growth and effectiveness. States that haven’t created non-district authorizers face daunting politics to write them into law. States that already have alternative authorizers face different challenges, which grow with the scale of the charter sector.
Rather than fight about who makes authorizing decisions, we should focus on how authorizers do their work. This would not only improve authorizing, but it could also reduce political conflict and create environments that can sustain meaningful collaboration.
Counter-intuitively, the vast majority of authorizers are school districts; and more than half of all charter schools are authorized by districts. In 17 states a majority of charter schools are overseen by districts. These include California, Colorado, and Florida, where appeals allow schools to open and where the charter sectors are strong and flourishing. Charter advocates certainly want more authorizers in these states; but politics and constitutions complicate their efforts. Meanwhile, these states demonstrate that district authorizing need not be a show-stopper. That said, other states with district-only authorizing also lack viable appeals. With no real appeal, Wyoming, Kansas, and Virginia suffer truly dead laws.
Some states have established independently run charter boards, while others grant authorizing power to state education agencies. A few states allow city mayors, higher educational institutions, or even nonprofit organizations to serve as charter school authorizers.
Regardless of how their state law reads, most districts want the final say on which (or whether) charter schools open on their turf, and protecting exclusive control is so important that collaboration can simply get thrown out the window. In 2012, a battle in Nashville between the local school board and the state over authorizing a school created a decidedly sour collaboration atmosphere for a city that had just recently signed a district-charter Compact. The tension reverberates still. In San Jose, the school board voted down a request by a local charter school to expand to a second campus. After the school appealed to the county and was authorized, conversations around collaboration ceased.
Charter schools can also be reluctant collaborators when the district holds the authorizing keys. Attempts at collaboration in Baltimore, where the district not only authorizes charter schools but also requires teachers to be district employees and thus local union members, had been rocky at best. People in Baltimore began to build bridges after signing a Compact in 2010. But these were later burned when the charter schools, frustrated by inaction from the district to loosen constraints on autonomy, lobbied for a bill introduced by the governor to reshape authorizing. As in other cities, collaboration took a back seat to getting or keeping authorizers that charter schools view as favorable.
These battles are often losing ones. Given the notoriously difficult politics around charter schools, we’re unlikely to see many changes to who can authorize in states with long-established sectors. Recent failures to establish state control in places like Maryland continue to demonstrate the challenges. However, other important policies that would boost authorizing quality, regardless of who does the authorizing, actually have a chance to gain momentum and, if well crafted, can result in advantages for both charter schools and for collaboration. In Louisiana, the state is returning control of schools to local control after years of oversight by the Recovery School District. This may create an environment where the community more effectively wrestles with all the tricky issues that emerge in an all-charter system. More states may eventually move in a similar direction.
A recent change in Oklahoma law expanded opportunities for charters while simultaneously raising standards for the work of authorizers. Establishing an expectation for strong authorizing (that balances merit-based oversight with respect for school autonomy) may be enough to help charters and districts work together.
Florida has created a competitive grant program to reward districts with the strongest plans to both collaborate with charter schools and recruit the most successful national Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). But Florida’s constitution makes non-district authorizing impossible, at least without a statewide ballot initiative. Instead, the districts and the state have been developing standards of authorizing that produce autonomy, accountability, transparency, and predictability for charter schools. The idea is that these standards—based on NACSA’s standards, but adapted for Florida—will provide both districts and strong CMOs necessary assurances that chartering can flourish and work for the interests of families in the state.
While it is true that strong charter operators are easily approved by lax authorizers, too many bad charter schools are also opened. And these stinkers quickly create a toxic environment for growth and collaboration. On the other extreme, hostile authorizers with blatantly anti-charter attitudes can shut it all down. Strong, merit-based authorizing fixes both these problems. Charter applicants that are likely to succeed are identified and approved. Weak applicants get blocked. Successful schools know they will be renewed, and can make a strong case for replication. Weak schools know they must improve or face closure. These conditions help good operators expand, lead to growth of a healthy sector that helps more children, build broader support, and produce a reinforcing cycle of growth and public support in the long run.
States should identify authorizer standards, measure and report on how authorizers do their job, and sanction or abolish authorizers that fail to meet expectations. Greater authorizer accountability can create opportunities for states to promote charter quality, even if they can’t eliminate lax authorizers or take authorizing out of the hands of hostile districts.
We shouldn’t assume district authorizing is a threat to charters. In states with a viable appeals process, even if districts do all or most of the authorizing, we’ve generally seen that charter operators with a strong track record can expand. Charter operators with good district relationships are also more likely to get district facilities, a huge benefit as many charters struggle with facilities. The Denver School of Science and Technology and Strive both are networks with strong support from Denver Public Schools, as well as a handful of district buildings apiece.
Ironically, weak authorizing can be a threat to strong charter operators’ growth. Many of the strongest CMOs appear reluctant to move to cities where low-quality operators open as many new schools as they like, or to states where weak operators have undue influence. The lack of high-performing national CMOs looking to open shop in Ohio or Michigan illustrates this tension.
Boosting authorizer quality won’t resolve all the tensions between school districts and charter schools. But at this stage in the charter movement, it makes sense to focus more on how authorizers do their work rather than who gets to do the authorizing. Doing so can be a win-win for both districts and strong charter school operators. Strong authorizing, even when districts don’t make the decisions, means that weak charter operators are unlikely to have new schools approved. That tends to make districts happier in general, and likely more willing to collaborate with the charters that do open. Strong charter operators, meanwhile, can be confident of predictable renewal and opportunities for replication—and their accomplishments are less likely to be undermined by egregious behavior or weak academic outcomes of poor charters. That is the kind of common ground we need to make district-charter collaborations more attractive, successful, and sustainable to benefit all students.
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