Richmond: Autonomy or Accountability? Good Charter School Authorizing Means Balancing the Two

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There was a hint of authorizing in the air at this year’s National Charter Schools Conference. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made clear her belief that it is too difficult for good charter school proposals to get approved in many cities. That same day, as the head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), I had the honor of being inducted into the National Charter School Hall of Fame.

This is not the first time an authorizer has made it into the Hall of Fame, a fact that I view as a testament to the charter school community’s commitment to quality schools. In fact, one of my fellow inductees, Caprice Young, first gained fame in the charter school world as chairperson of the board of one of the country’s largest authorizers, the Los Angeles Unified School District.

And yet, as conference conversations made clear, the important work of authorizing is still misunderstood by some in the education reform world. There’s work to be done to address misunderstandings as well as rightful critiques. Some criticize authorizers for stifling innovation, while others call out authorizers for allowing failing schools to replicate and grow — as Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) did in a recent report on charter management organizations (CMOs).

So, this seems like the right time to shine a spotlight on good charter school authorizing — what we know it is and can be.

1. Good authorizing is about creating good public school choices for families. The goal is not to put red tape in the way of schools, stifle growth, or avoid risk. Good authorizers evaluate the risk/reward trade-off in a nuanced and sophisticated way. They make smart, locally responsive decisions about which schools have the best chance of providing good educational opportunities for children.

Here is one example of many. As New Orleans worked to reinvent its public school system after Hurricane Katrina, NACSA partnered with one of its local authorizers at the time, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, to evaluate and make recommendations on every charter school that opened from 2006 to 2012. We used professional authorizing standards during the application process to protect these new schools from politics and overregulation.

As a result, the city experienced one of the fastest-improving school systems in the country. The city’s graduation rate was 75 percent in 2015, up from 56 percent in 2003. In a recent survey, 71 percent of public school parents said they believe charter schools have improved public education in the city.

The importance of good authorizing in creating good choices for parents should not be lost. A recent report from Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance found that a school’s rating from the independent application review process was the only factor that predicted its success.

2. Good authorizing is about spurring innovation. When authorizers protect autonomy, they foster the innovation we so desperately need. Teachers and school leaders get the berth to be problem solvers in their communities.

Take the Washington, D.C., Public Charter School Board, one of the nation’s strongest authorizers. In 2015, the board approved the application of Washington Leadership Academy, an innovative charter school that seeks to upend the high school experience using virtual reality and technology. All students take computer science — a policy that will triple the number of black students and quadruple the number of girls enrolled in AP computer science in D.C. The school was recently awarded $10 million to continue to reimagine the high school experience through XQ: The Super School Project.

Indeed, seeing the growth and diversity of programs in a city like Washington is one of the most satisfying elements of what we do. It’s what the movement is supposed to do: give families more quality school options.

3. Good authorizing is about clear expectations on the front end and strong accountability on the back end. We call it the “tight, loose, tight” approach. When an authorizer sets clear expectations up front about what a school will be graded on, it can be “loose” on how the school chooses to meet its goals. This of course, requires a “tight” approach at renewal time: Good authorizers expect success and hold schools to that expectation. Good authorizers don’t accept excuses from schools that fail families and know that real accountability pays off in student achievement. That’s what they are about.

This is how the charter sector is growing not just in size but also in quality — the ultimate measure of success. More authorizers are using quality practices to get results, and the statistics bear this out: Recently released data show the proportion of low-performing charter schools has dropped precipitously. In its report, CREDO found that 25 percent of CMOs had weaker math performance than their traditional public school peers, down from 46 percent in a report just four years earlier. Similar drops in low-performing CMO charters were reported for reading, down to 20 percent from 37 percent.

Without good charter school authorizing, the sector faces rightful criticism from across the political spectrum. When schools are overregulated, they lack the flexibility to thrive. When authorizers create too many obstacles to opening a school, we do a disservice to kids who need options. And when laws and policies allow chronically failing schools to replicate, we fail more children. We must get better at the delicate balance between autonomy and accountability.

That’s why I keep working on charter school authorizing. Authorizers hold the keys to great charter schools, one important way we work toward our shared common good: public schools that work for all children.

It’s our collective responsibility, and I accept it.

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