Medler, Brady & Hutton: New Network Is Connecting State Charter School Authorizers and Districts that Recognize & Value Charters — and Want That Relationship to Grow

Alex Medler, Melissa Brady and Tom Hutton (calauthorizers.org)

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There is a persistent myth in education reform circles that school districts hate charter schools and cannot be trusted as charter authorizers if the sector is to succeed. This myth obscures important realities — and opportunities — for the charter movement. These are challenging times for all public schools, and forward-thinking districts want to ensure that local charter schools have the support they need to succeed for students. 

First reality check: School districts are central to charter authorizing.

About half of charter schools are authorized by districts, and nearly 90 percent of authorizers are districts. In many states, they are the primary or only authorizers. As leaders of state-based associations of district authorizers in Colorado (which has among the largest share of public school students in charters), California and Florida (which have some of the nation’s largest charter sectors), we work with district leaders who recognize charters as vital parts of their local school systems. These leaders do not consider themselves pro- or anti-charter; they simply want to perform their jobs as authorizers well, and they consider charter school students their district’s kids. When given the chance to improve authorizing, these districts embrace best practices like the National Association of Charter School AuthorizersPrinciples and Standards of Quality Charter School Authorizing, and our associations align our state-level supports for authorizers with NACSA’s approach.

Second reality check: The importance of school districts to the charter sector is only likely to increase. 

In some states, major policy changes foreshadow further shifts to district authorizing. In 2016, Louisiana returned charter schools overseen by the state authorizer to the Orleans Parish. In 2019, Illinois decommissioned its state authorizer, transferring 11 state-approved charters to the State Board of Education. While the Illinois State Board still hears appeals, districts will oversee future Illinois charter schools. That same year, California increased district discretion by narrowing criteria the State Board of Education uses to judge charter appeals and by transferring board-authorized charters to districts and county offices of education. In addition, a district may now reject a charter application based on its impact on finances and other community considerations.

If 2020 was any indication, powerful supporters of changes like these are likely to influence additional states. The Democratic National Committee’s 2020 platform, if enacted, would condition federal funding for new charters, expansions or renewals on “a district’s review of whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s position as a presidential candidate was to “allow school districts to serve as charter authorizers, and empower school districts to reject applications that do not meet transparency and accountability standards, consider the fiscal impact and strain on district resources, and establish policies for aggressive oversight of charter schools.” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten commended these proposals, and the National Education Association’s 2000 playbook for Congress and the Biden-Harris administration argued that, “Where they operate, charter schools should be authorized and held accountable by the same agency that monitors and evaluates other schools in a public school district.” 

Third reality check: State-based initiatives to improve and support district authorizing are needed to address a growing need.

One can harbor grave misgivings about the policies described above and still recognize the urgency of strengthening and supporting districts’ authorizing practices. One can be a serious charter school skeptic and fully embrace the premise that helping districts authorize well is in everyone’s interest. Fortunately, people and organizations across the country, including ours, are working on it.

For the past three years, supported by a federal grant, the California Charter Authorizing Professionals, the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers have brought together district staff to share their expertise and to collaborate on improving the tasks of quality authorizing. They have helped design model resources and technical assistance strategies like application packages, annual report templates and renewal handbooks

Our three states alone include about 30 percent of the nation’s charter schools and 40 percent of charter school authorizers. To help district leaders in other states who hope to pursue similar initiatives, we recently launched the National Network for District Authorizing. The network’s founding associations are in discussions with leaders in other states, including Georgia, Maryland, and Oregon, where authorizers are interested in launching or expanding their own efforts. We look forward to announcing additional state members in the months to come.

These initiatives are state-based for important reasons. State charter laws and policies vary. For example, the criteria authorizers may use to deny or close a charter are spelled out in statute, and how and to whom charter applicants and schools can appeal a denial or revocation depends on state law. There are hundreds of small district authorizers —  many overseeing only one or two charter schools — who have little or no staff dedicated full-time to authorizing. Instead, they divide the responsibilities among central office staff with little time and even less training for authorizing work .

Trying to drive change from ad-hoc approaches to transparent and predictable systems, based on best practices, among so many small and fragmented authorizing offices is nearly impossible to do on a nationwide basis. State-based initiatives can reach more small districts, customize support to local needs and build peer-to-peer networks that bring more districts into the community of trusted professionals.

That said, the work draws on both local and national best practices. The leadership and expertise of groups like NACSA provide key lessons that inform state-level efforts. State initiatives build their own, localized versions of professional expectations, but they are eager to leverage national knowhow. No one is interested in reinventing wheels.

The pandemic has upended charter school accountability and complicated oversight. Forward-thinking districts are changing their own practices to pursue a more nuanced understanding of charter schools’ challenges and accomplishments, while strengthening the ability of charters to connect to and reflect the communities they call home and to contribute to systemwide educational goals. Our network and our state members are excited by this challenge and eager to partner with others.

Alex Medler is executive director of the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers. Melissa Brady is executive director of the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers. Tom Hutton is executive director of California Charter Authorizing Professionals.

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