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Three Questions for Rocketship on Growth and Charter School Authorizing

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Authorizing has been a growing focus of charter school policy lately, and that fact is of particular significance to another trend: multistate charter school networks.

Authorizers, the entities that approve and oversee charter schools, come in many stripes and colors—from local school districts, to universities, to mayoral offices—with little consistency from state to state. Navigating so many different types of agencies and regulations can be a challenge for multistate charter school networks like the San Jose, Calif.-based Rocketship network.

The network currently has schools in California, Wisconsin, and Tennessee and is breaking ground on its first school in the District of Columbia in October. However, Rocketship recently had to revamp its expansion plans in part because of the variation in authorizing policies among states.

To learn more about how these two charter school trends are converging, I spoke with Katy Venskus, Rocketship's vice president of policy about how authorizing is affecting multistate networks and vice versa.

Q. How does the wide variety and number of authorizers affect Rocketship?

A. That has a dramatic impact on us. If you look [at states] where we're active in, we have a slightly different authorizing structure in every one of them. In California, we have charters that are authorized by the district and authorized by county education departments. In Milwaukee, our authorizer is the common council [the city council]. Then in Nashville, we actually hold charters through the achievement school district, but the schools we're opening in Nashville are going to be through the Metro School district. 

So, in Wisconsin for example, the common council is our authorizer, and the council has appointed a committee to oversee us. But the council has many other duties and charters are only a small part of what they do. There's also a ton of compliance with the state department agencies that overlap.

So, there's all these layers of compliance, authority, and jurisdiction, reporting requirements between these agencies, and for a network, where we're already trying to manage all of our structures across multiple regions, that makes it even harder to standardize our data, and systems across the network.

If you think about one of the assets to a network is that you are able to build systems, you're able to create consistency and outcomes, our folks get trained and compensated in the same way, we assess our kids the same way, we have curriculum that's standardized across the network. If there are lots of individual requirements from the authorizers and other regulatory agencies, that can complicate the assets of a national network.

Then in D.C., the District's public charter school board, they literally exist just to authorize and manage charters. They don't have to dilute their focus. That makes it very straightforward for us as a network and for them as an authorizer.

Q. Is there a type of authorizer or authorizing system that works better for multistate charter networks?

A. That's a tough question. Education policy and practice is one of these things that we've made local over time. Every state has a slightly different tradition around this. Education policy is very local.

If you could say every state has an independent authorizer whose only job is to authorize, that would be ideal but it's also not realistic.

The D.C. structure from the perspective of an operator is getting pretty close to optimal. There's an independent body that is focused just on authorizing charter schools so you don't have to navigate other issues. It's clear the steps you have to take to secure a charter and stay in compliance with your authorizer.

The other thing that makes D.C. really clear is there's no other agency, all of the compliance, all of the regulatory structure, and all of the process lies with that agency.

Q. Do you think the authorizer model is changing as we get more multistate networks?

A. I do. I think you're seeing, if you go state to state and ask what is the right model, D.C. always pops up.

I think through the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, they're really encouraging best practice sharing among authorizers. As states look to increase the authorizing capacity in their states, they're looking at what works. And the states that are trying to attract national networks they are trying to make systems that make sense. I'm hoping we'll continue to see more of it.

The other thing that I'm really interested to watch is traditional public school districts embracing their role as authorizers. This is where I would give a huge nod to the Nashville metro school district. They will do what they can to authorize a good school and make it successful.

RELATED: Five Quesitons for 'On the Rocketship' Author Richard Whitmire

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