Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.
Time to Take Stock on Charter Authorizing
I had the opportunity to speak about the future of charter authorizing to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), the agency staff and board members who select, oversee, and regulate charter schools. It was a nice chance to reflect on how far performance-based charter oversight has progressed, and where it needs to go.
My conclusion: We’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot to learn and grapple with.
Performance Was an Afterthought
In the late 1990s, CRPE conducted a study of charter accountability for the U.S. Department of Education. We interviewed state and local officials and school leaders in six states about their definition and approach to accountability. I was dismayed to hear that nearly every authorizer was only thinking about accountability as a bean-counting exercise to make sure that funds weren’t misspent. Even the most forward-thinking authorizers primarily saw their job as preventing their boards from handing out too many charters to vocal community groups that had no educational strategy at all.
The schools we interviewed were no better. They thought they should be beholden to no one but parents and, somewhat rightly, didn’t trust authorizers to know good instruction if they saw it. I remember giving a talk back then to a group of charter schools. I made a pitch that they should work hard to clarify goals in their performance contract. I was interrupted by someone who wanted to know what I meant by “performance contract.”
Accountability Grows Up
Fast forward 20 years or so: Thanks to NACSA, we now have an extensive list of principles and standards that represent the professional judgment of the authorizers who have learned the hard way about the kind of accountability that is needed. For the most part, the best authorizers have held the line on autonomy, respecting the original idea behind chartering: that schools have to be in charge of their own destinies if they are going to be held accountable for results. The charter sector has created sophisticated and thoughtful tools for measuring school performance that model how ALL schools should be held accountable. A great example is the Colorado growth model that was piloted with a few charter schools and now is being used by many states as a way to track schools’ performance trajectories.
More than 45 cities are pursuing to some degree or another the tenets of good authorizing via a portfolio management strategy. They are managing most of their schools (those they run directly and those they charter) on a performance contract, promoting choice and competition, and closing schools that don’t live up to their promises. They are also partnering with organizations to develop teacher talent pools, to ensure students have equitable access to quality schools, and to build a rich array of instructional, special needs, mental health, and other supports.
The Challenges Ahead
As far as we’ve come, though, the work is far from done. First, too many authorizers still act like an escape hatch from the system when they are rapidly becoming the system. Escape-hatch authorizers also can cause parents real problems. As our recent research shows, lack of authorizer coordination can lead to an oversupply of schools in some neighborhoods and an undersupply in others. It can also lead to a situation where no one agency has the authority to solve transportation, information, and other challenges for families. As school choice becomes the norm, we need more mayors and civic leaders to step up and act as citywide portfolio managers when districts and charter authorizers won’t.
When statewide authorizers sit back and passively approve new schools, they also miss a huge opportunity to use the charter tool to solve community problems. More authorizers should be willing to “put out the bat signal” as Margo Roen from Tennessee’s Achievement School District says, to see who in the country has the best proposal to address unmet community needs.
Second, some authorizers have gotten very good at avoiding risk by setting a very high bar for approval and by replicating only the best national models. The problem is, this leaves almost no room for diversification or experimentation. Authorizers need to think of their role as managing risk, not just limiting it. They need to carve out space and a process for more experimental models. Ted Kolderie’s “split screen” strategy makes a lot of sense here. Kolderie argues that the charter sector needs to make more space for experimentation with new, promising strategies. Authorizers may need to become much more intentional about taking measured risks on new models. They may even need to think about ways to allow families to choose among courses and school providers to customize their own learning programs.
Third, NACSA’s principles and standards represent a hard-earned base of professional judgment. But as NACSA’s Karega Rausch points out, we have no way of knowing which authorizing practices are most important and effective. Rather than piling on more and more processes, we probably need to move toward empirically based “standards of care” like those used in the medical field. As one example, we need to find out which oversight screening practices are most effective at predicting success and which are not effective and should no longer be used.
Finally, most authorizers in the country have studiously avoided the very difficult decision to close schools. They tend to treat the schools they oversee as fixed assets that are only shuttered for financial or academic disaster. As a result, too many low-performing and mediocre schools persist throughout renewal cycles. Authorizer accountability policies can be a very useful strategy here. I’d like to see more states use them.
Charter authorizing continues to set the standard for how government can manage schools on performance, not just compliance with rules. But I hope NACSA and other charter leaders will keep asking how the oversight process can continue to innovate and improve.
Our network participants are already showing the potential benefits of the shift toward local problem solving.
Settling for cherry-picked or incomplete evidence isn't necessary.