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The State of Charter School Authorizing

Today, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released its second annual survey of charter school authorizers (full disclosure: I'm a member of the NACSA board of directors). The survey included all authorizers with ten or more schools--accounting for nearly two-thirds of the nation's charter schools--and a sample of smaller authorizers.

The report offers some terrifically informative data even before one gets to the survey results (even more disclosure: I'm a member of the research advisory board that assisted with the survey). Discussions of chartering and charter authorizing are frequently clouded by confusion as to just what they entail. The report addresses this with a snapshot of the nation's authorizers, and the picture may surprise some casual observers; of the nation's 872 authorizers, 89 percent are local education agencies (e.g. school districts). Five percent are institutions of higher education. And all the rest of the authorizers combined, including state boards, mayors, non-profits, and so on, barely amount to 5 percent of the authorizer population.

That said, districts account for well under half of the big authorizers (again, those with 10 or more schools), while state education agencies make up roughly a quarter of them. More than 85 percent of large authorizers conduct face-to-face interviews with charter applicants and use the results in gauging applications. Ninety percent of large authorizers report signing formal contracts with each of the schools they oversee, and most include in their contracts specific performance expectations and goals (such as student growth scores, comparisons with similar schools, or AYP status). During 2008-09, the closure rate among schools up for renewal by large authorizers was about 14 percent, meaning that one in seven was shuttered during the review process. The report points out how critical the renewal process is, as just 1 percent of schools were closed outside of it (whether under duress or voluntarily).

One possible takeaway is the pursuit of a "best practices" playlist for authorizers. Beyond efforts to sketch sensible guidelines for accounting, contracts, and monitoring, I'm not especially taken with that tack as I think it's real easy to get into red tape and small-minded box-checking.

What I'd rather see, in a maturing charter sector, are plans that recognize and take advantage of the fact that all charter operators aren't the same. As we know, a charter operator running 30 or 35 impressive schools with strong track records is in a real different place from an operator with two or three relatively new schools. We'd be well-advised to start crafting regulatory frameworks and authorizing practices that more fully recognize and address those distinctions. The first operator might get fast-pass treatment focused on the cursory nuts-and-bolts, allowing authorizers to devote more resources to scrutinizing and supporting new ventures. It's also a good time to start asking what role authorizers should play in creating hospitable ecosystems and nurturing their portfolio of schools. This report encourages such ruminating.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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