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Study Highlights Rifts Over Best Practices for Approving Charter Schools

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Cross-posted from the Charters & Choice blog.

A recent report on approving and overseeing charters has highlighted the different schools of thought developing around authorizing practices.

As I've written on multiple occasions, authorizers and how they do their jobs have been getting more attention lately, especially in places like Ohio and Michigan, where state- and press-led investigations have turned up several incidences of academic and financial failures at the independently run but publically funded schools.

The blame has fallen largely at the feet of authorizers, the entities charged with approving, monitoring, and, if need be, shutting down charter schools. Some subsequently argue that weak authorizing practices leads to weak schools. 

But as is often the case in the charter sector, debate emerges in where to draw the line between autonomy and accountability. 

The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute recently dove into the authorizing issue with a report titled 'The Paperwork Pileup, Measuring the Burden of Charter School Applications'. It argued, among other things, that authorizers and state lawmakers often require charter applicants to jump through too many meaningless hoops to get approval to open a school, "creating an onerous and lengthy process that risks freezing out potential school operators."


Up until recently, this topic has primarily been the territory of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. The group was founded about 15 years ago and regularly collects data, releases reports, and advises policymakers on best practices around a set of standards NACSA developed. It has been involved in retooling state charter school laws and kick-starting Washington state's young charter sector.

Last September, the left-leaning Annenberg Institute for School Reform released a report which also included several recommendations for authorizing standards. The board for Metro Nashville Public Schools adopted the "Annenberg standards" in April, although how they'll be applied in the real world is still being ironed out, according to The Tennessean.

Then came the AEI report last week which was followed by a volley of critiques from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank whose Ohio branch also authorizes schools. Here's a section from NACSA's statement:

"Charter schools and authorizing are receiving increasing attention from interest groups of many persuasions. Some are calling for increased regulation of charter schools. Others, like AEI, are calling for less regulation. None of the groups calling for more and less regulation has the experience working with charter schools and authorizers that informs NACSA's own Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing."

Fordham's Kathryn Mullen Upton, who's in charge of the institute's authorizing office, authored the think tank's response to the AEI report:

"Where it gets sticky—and where this report makes a wrong turn—is distinguishing what kinds of information are legitimate and important for authorizers to seek at the application stage and what kinds are superfluous, or even dysfunctional. In the end, as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) also points out, the AEI authors put too much in the latter basket."

One of the AEI report's authors, Michael McShane, had this rebuttal:

"Both of our critics agree with our fundamental point that mission creep is (a) happening and (b) bad.  It strikes me that it would particularly behoove them to articulate clear boundaries for authorizer behavior. Criticizing a limiting principle for being too limited and letting the argument rest there swings the door wide open to authorizers feeling justified in using "just a little bit more" as their principle. Ultimately, that is what is frustrating about the rhetorical tack our critics chose to take. If we want to rein in charter authorizing, we'll have to do better."

It seems the battle lines in the war of best authorizing practices have been drawn.

I jest, but all seriousness charter school authorizing is actually a very important topic and should be at the center of robust debate between think tanks and practitioners alike. 

Related stories:

Map: Who Oversees Charters in Your State?

Bill Clinton Weighs In on Charter School Accountability

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