‘Weeding Is Hard Work’ — Charter School Authorizers and the Promise of Educational Excellence for All Kids

It was a 25-mile taxi ride from Denver to the airport that finally pushed Greg Richmond over the edge.

As the lead authorizer of charter schools in Chicago, Richmond was acutely aware that charter authorizers lacked guidance on how to perform their jobs. Laws and regulations tended to address what authorizers were supposed to do (review applications, evaluate schools, and renew or close them) but not how they should accomplish those tasks. Also, because the laws were so new, there were very few experts on how to be a good authorizer. The hundreds of authorizers scattered around the country had no one to call.

Some didn’t even want to be authorizers. Bureaucrats with zero interest in supervising new schools would say it was “not their thing.” Some only cared about getting “their cut,” the percentage designated for services they were supposed to provide. And some were not effective at running their own district, so why would they be good at authorizing?

Indeed, the challenges that authorizers have faced are numerous. In a 2012 study, David Osborne enumerated nearly a dozen obstacles that prevent the closure of ineffective charter schools:

  • Too few authorizers collect robust evidence of charter school performance.
  • Too many authorizers lack adequate staff and funding.
  • Authorizers have incentives to keep schools open.
  • Too many charters lack meaningful, measurable performance goals.
  • Too many authorizers have no clear criteria for renewal and revocation.
  • Sometimes, closing a charter school would send students to worse schools.
  • Appeals to state boards and/or courts may reverse or inhibit authorizer decisions.
  • Charter operators often make 11th-hour turnaround attempts when threatened with closures.
  • Sometimes a poorly thought-out charter law gets in the way of a closure.

Quality control from the beginning was largely a function of authorizers’ attitudes and capacity. While some states enacted charter laws with very tight caps, others were less restrictive. Allowing the creation of numerous schools became a problem in those states that took a laissez-faire approach to authorizing. In Arizona, one observer noted, “early on, the attitude was, Let a thousand seeds blossom. Quantity will lead to quality. If we build it, they will come. There was little in the statute about accountability; it was all about autonomy.” Between 1994 and 2002, the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools approved a whopping 76 percent of the applications it received.

That approach enabled some ineffective schools to open — and because so many were approved, it was difficult to monitor them all. As Bob Bellafiore, the former head of the SUNY Charter School Institute (an authorizer in New York), put it, “You can let a thousand flowers bloom, but weeding is hard work.”

Twenty years after Arizona’s first charter schools opened, Lisa Graham Keegan, the state’s superintendent of public instruction from 1995 to 2001, acknowledged that autonomy had preceded accountability. But she also felt some good things had emerged. “If I had a magic wand,” she said, “and I could rewrite the way history progressed, I would have loved to have had accountability out in front of choice, but who knows? I think that Arizona 20 years hence is positioned to be one of the fastest-improving states in the country.”

From the beginning, Keegan strongly believed it was important to expand choice and involve community members in that process. The Arizona charter law for the first four years required that the state board have at least three members from low-income communities. In hindsight, she was aware of the trade-offs. “We had a much higher percentage of low-income kids in public charter schools at first,” she recalled. “And, frankly, that’s why we had so much failure: A lot of new schools were started by really well-intended community folks who had always worked in low-income communities, but they didn’t know … how to run a school.”

Arizona’s law also contained a loophole that gave districts additional state funding simply for converting to charter status. “We had a major school district that literally sent a flyer out to all its parents saying, ‘Nothing is going to change here, but we’ll get $1,500 more per pupil,’ ” Keegan recalled. “They just called their schools ‘charter schools’ and tried to draw down that additional assistance.” The state eventually closed that loophole in 2014.

Arizona was not the only state with high-profile problems.

After Texas passed its charter law in 1995, the State Board of Education established a lax application process, allowing many weak schools to open. In 1998, the board — stunningly — approved all 109 of the 109 applications. Revisions to the law tightened up the application standards, but the damage was already done.

In 2005, when some charter school folks wanted to lower the standards so weak schools could continue to operate, Patsy O’Neill, the executive director of the Texas Charter School Resource Center, stood before the Texas Education Agency and pleaded for better authorizing.

“For the health of the whole charter movement,” she said, “we must close charters that should not be open.” She hoped that raising standards would help clean up what she saw as charters’ unfairly bad reputation. Of the 33 charters that had been revoked, returned, rescinded, or expired, 25 were from the round approved in 1998. By contrast, in 2004, only five of 55 charter applications were approved. She hoped that the new rules would strengthen the quality of the state’s charters so legislators would consider expanding the number, which was then capped at 215.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Board of Education voted to give up its own authority after years of ineffective, politicized authorizing practices when its former Charter Schools Oversight Office administrator, Brenda L. Belton, came under federal investigation for possible misuse of funds. (Belton was later convicted of stealing and illegally steering more than $800,000 in school system money and sentenced to 35 months in jail.) The independent DC Public Charter Schools Board, which had maintained a more successful portfolio of schools, took the lead as the sole authorizer in the District. This was a step in the right direction.

Seeking solutions

During the late 1990s, Richmond went to every major national meeting on charters looking for solutions to the problems that undermined charter school quality. He and his colleagues from Chicago, John Ayers and Margaret Lin, were struck by the fact that 99 percent of the people they met at these conferences were running charter schools. “There was so much talk at those conferences about improving charter schools,” Lin recalled, “and yet half of the equation was missing.”

Aside from Scott Hamilton, whose accountability work in Massachusetts drew national attention, the only other authorizer Richmond seemed to bump into regularly was Jim Goenner of Central Michigan University.

When he met Richmond at a Charter Friends National Network meeting in Tampa in 1998, Goenner confessed that one of his secret passions was to make authorizing a respected profession. They agreed that traditionally respected professions like medicine and law have standards — why shouldn’t charter school authorizers, too?

Richmond went back to Chicago to confer with his colleagues, and they wrote to Alex Medler, who ran the Charter School Grant Program at the U.S. Department of Education, suggesting that before the next national conference, the Department should sponsor a day for authorizers to improve their practice.

Medler loved the idea. He’d been involved with charters since 1992; in 1995, he and Joe Nathan published one of the first research reports on charter schools (titled Charter Schools: What Are They Up To? A 1995 Survey), and he spent a lot of time testifying at statehouses about the idea of chartering. One thing that amused Medler on those trips was how teachers union leaders would invariably stand in front of legislators and proclaim, “Charter schools are evil,” but then afterward, in the hall, they would tell him what they would do if they started their own charter.

Medler was well aware of the challenges authorizers faced and agreed that they needed more support, so he set aside some funding and spoke to Jon Schroeder at the Network about shepherding a pre-conference. Schroeder asked Lin to organize one, and as a result, the March 1999 National Charter Schools Conference in Denver began with a pre-conference for authorizers.

More than 200 came from all across the country, hungry for information.

Bridging the information gap

On his way back to the airport after the conference, Richmond found himself in a cab with another authorizer. ”She complained the entire way about ‘these charter schools,’ ” he recalled, “and by the time I got on my plane, I thought, What a shame; what a completely different attitude.”

This was the last straw. Something needed to be done, he thought. We need to know who each other are that are doing this work and find a way to be in touch and learn from each other.

Back in his office, he called Medler and asked for a list of everyone who’d attended the conference. He wanted to convene a meeting to see who was seriously interested in sharing ideas. Would the Department be willing to support such a meeting?

Yes, it would. Medler sent Richmond the contact list and found $20,000 in the Department’s budget for a meeting in Chicago, which was held in the fall of 1999. Roughly 30 people showed up, including Goenner; Ed Kirby, who had replaced Hamilton in Massachusetts; Josephine Baker, from D.C.; and Bob Bellafiore, from New York.

Richmond recalled: “We said, ‘All right, we don’t want to create an association or anything like that because we’ve got enough work to do, but let’s put some working groups together, get an email listserv, etc.’ ” That was the approach for the 1999–2000 school year, but by the end of that term, it was clear that if they wanted to actually accomplish anything, they’d have to form an organization.

First, they would need funding.

They faced an uphill battle. At the time, the dominant charter philosophy was that the best way forward was the “thousand flowers” approach — to open as many schools as possible as quickly as possible. There were two reasons for this. For one, people believed in the virtue of the model. For another, they were captivated by the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. “There was a strong belief in this Tipping Point theory,” Richmond recalled, “that competition will then cause the rest of the system to improve. Nobody knows what that Tipping Point is, but when a school district starts losing kids — 15 percent, 20 percent, or certainly 25 — they have to change in order to survive.”

Many believed that authorizers had little to do with the potential success of the movement; the model was so good, you only needed somebody to stamp “approved” on the paper. Richmond recalled: “The notion that you would want to organize these people, who were mostly bureaucrats, and get them active and busier, was really questioned by folks in the advocacy community for charters, who thought that was actually a bad idea: ‘You don’t want to organize these people; they’re bureaucrats. They’re just going to threaten the model.’ ”

‘Who gave you this authority?’

Richmond and Goenner set out to persuade the Walton Family Foundation to provide funding for an Association, and in July 2000, they met in Detroit to put together a founding board, wrote up some bylaws, and incorporated.

In November, they went to the National Charter School Conference to introduce themselves to the rest of the charter school world, with Richmond as the founding chairman.

He recalled that the roll-out meeting was a little rocky:

There was a group of us, about seven people, essentially standing in front of a ballroom of other folks, saying, “You’ve never heard of us, but we are now the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and you should follow us and recognize us as being the national association.”

And it was like: “Who are you? Who gave you this authority?” In order to be accepted, we had to not assert that we knew anything better than the other people we wanted to join this, because if we’d asserted that we know what we’re doing and you don’t, there would’ve been no organization.

Reformers who had left mainstream education to start fresh new schools were actively opposed to participating in anything that smelled like a moldy bureaucracy. The closest thing to a national organization, the Charter Friends National Network, was not really even an organization. To keep it as unassuming as possible, Ted Kolderie had purposefully called it a “project.” It had just one employee. We didn’t have to pay dues.

So the emergence of a formal association was a bit startling, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — a nonprofit focused on how to support authorizers, strengthen accountability, and improve the quality of charter schools — caused some folks to sniff with suspicion.

For the first few years, Richmond was very aware of the need not to be prescriptive. NACSA took what he described as “a librarian attitude” toward the work: “We just collect books and put ’em on the shelf; we don’t tell you what books to read; you can come in and check them out if you want, but you don’t have to. You can read ’em if you want, but you don’t have to. We’re just librarians.” Its website featured numerous documents from authorizers in the field. About one year in, NACSA received a federal grant to promote quality authorizing activities, including producing a publication about what it was learning, which sparked a heated debate among its board members. Richmond recalled:

“Would it assert that we know things, or not?” There were board members who were adamant that we should not be producing a publication that says, “These things are better than those things; these activities and these practices are better than those practices” because “that wasn’t the charter way.” There was this philosophy of, “We’re getting away from the One Best Way into a model that supports all kinds of different ways.” Some of us who were around then joke about it to this day, that for the first couple of years of our existence, we couldn’t even assert that we knew anything.

But as time went on and board members turned over, they learned more things, and in late 2004, they were finally able to put out “Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing.”

By 2005, Richmond had logged more than 10 years at Chicago Public Schools, and although he and the other board members thought NACSA was doing well, they believed it could do a lot more. In March of that year, he left CPS to work full-time at NACSA.

In July 2012, still working to strengthen charter authorizing from coast to coast, Richmond wrote a letter to The New York Times that summed up NACSA’s views about the importance of quality and the role of authorizers in ensuring it:

Few can dispute that all parents should be able to enroll their children in a high-quality public school. Good charters provide that choice. But charter status doesn’t automatically mean excellence; many are superb, some are not. The authorizing bodies that approve and monitor charters have an essential role in seeing that they provide a quality education, treat all students fairly and spend tax dollars appropriately. With strong and smart oversight, charters are more likely to be excellent, and parents are more likely to be able to choose a school that’s best for their children — a mission that all of us in public education can share.

One telling indicator of how much things had changed: in the fall of 2013, Lisa Graham Keegan — the same person who had championed the “thousand flowers” approach years earlier — became the board chair of NACSA.

Weeding had won the day.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation supports The 74.

Sarah Tantillo is a consultant, author, and creator of The Literacy Cookbook (www.literacycookbook.com). She taught high school English and humanities in New Jersey public schools for 14 years, including seven at North Star Academy Charter School of Newark, and she founded and ran the New Jersey Charter School Resource Center and New Jersey Charter Schools Association. This article is excerpted from her upcoming book, Hit the Drum: An Insider’s Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement.

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