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Charter Authorizing, Kludgeocracy, and a Principled Middle Ground

In recent weeks, an ongoing debate about charter-school authorizing has roared back to life. Prompted by a Center for Education Reform publication assailing overregulation in charter schooling, which was dismissed as an exercise in "idiocy" by the Fordham Institute's Checker Finn, the fight has gone back and forth. It can all give the impression of an ideological clash between those who want authorizers to micromanage schools and those who reject oversight that involves more than parental choice.

What can get lost in all this, however, is the practical question: whether responsible authorizing can entail less bloat, bureaucracy, and paperwork. As one charter leader e-mailed me a few weeks back, "When the state reviewed my 400-page app to open [a new school], one of the few comments was on a response where I forgot to delete the name of the other charter school from whom I'd borrowed the language. And my Trustees didn't read the app either."

There exists a middle ground between blind faith in markets and blind faith in the value of 800-page applications filled with cut-and-paste inanities. The sweet spot requires stipulating the importance of meaningful authorizer oversight for public charter schools that collect public funds and that such oversight should respect charter autonomy and the ability of educators and innovators to launch promising schools.

The best analysis I've seen on this was penned by Mike McShane, Jenn Hatfield, and Elizabeth English back in 2015, when they sought to measure the regulatory bloat in authorizing. After working to delineate core accountability queries from the other stuff that some authorizers tack on, they found, "Excising requirements that are clearly inappropriate could shorten the average charter school application by at least one-third without sacrificing the authorizers' ability to ensure quality." They calculated that this slenderizing could save hundreds of hours per application.

Some of what McShane et al. flagged looks like the kind of tiresome paper-shuffling that gums up traditional districts: the insistence that those applying for a charter provide, for each board member, a description of a tough decision that he or she has made in the past; that they describe what will happen if a child forgets his or her lunch; that they specify "procedures to determine whether a student responds to scientific, research-based interventions for reading and mathematics," and so on. It's not that any of this is wrong per se, but that the paper responses are meaningless in terms of what schools will actually do—while dozens of these paper dictates yield the same fascination with compliance-driven paper that prompted so many to look to charters in the first place.

Back in 2013, Johns Hopkins's Steven Teles offered some useful framing for all this. In the National Affairs essay "Kludgeocracy in America," Teles wrote, "We have no name for the dispute between complexity and simplicity in government, which cuts across those more familiar ideological divisions. For lack of a better alternative, the problem of complexity might best be termed the challenge of 'kludgeocracy.'" As he put it:

A "kludge" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose . . . a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem." The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes. Any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.

Teles cited a paper by Sheara Krvaric and Melissa Junge, in which they argued that "the multiplicity of overlapping and bewildering federal programs for K-12 education creates a compliance mentality among school leaders, making them wary of new ideas and pushing them to focus on staying on the right side of the rules rather than on improving their schools." The same dynamic can play out in charter schooling. And some of the most unfortunate consequences can be easy to overlook. While massive application superstructures may be wholly manageable for established charter authorizers with philanthropic support and professional grant-writers, for instance, they may be far more burdensome for educators or innovators with a promising idea (the kinds of applicants who once launched YES, KIPP, Aspire, Uncommon, Success, Achievement First, Summit, and many other now familiar names).

So, while I'm always up for a good rhetorical slugfest, I think the more relevant question for charter authorizing is how authorizers can deliver meaningful oversight without descending into kludgeocracy. On that count, there are five things to keep in mind.

One, different people will have different views on what constitutes an excessive burden. That's natural and healthy. It's also the case, though, that those creating the paperwork and processes always find it more defensible and less problematic than those stuck doing it. Indeed, it's easy for anyone in a position of authority to be reflexively self-justificatory when pushed on any of this.

Two, that reflex can be easy to justify because it's not that hard to dream up a scenario where something bad happens if a school lacks a plan for when a student forgets her lunch. Of course, that presumes that the plan isn't just a throwaway exercise, that staff will be aware of the plan and trained in its procedures, and that there are no costs to demanding a raft of such plans.

Three, the assumptions underlying these justifications may not hold water. When those students forget their lunch, for instance, that paper plan is likely to prove irrelevant to what the school does in practice, as teachers are unlikely to have read it and the real-time response will probably be a product of circumstance, experience, and acquired routine.

Four, out-of-control applications can morph the authorizing process from a focused assessment of school design into a bureaucratic endurance test. In fact, they yield schools with (virtual) binders full of unread compliance plans—all of which renders the paper meaningless, means that none of the "missing lunch response plans" will actually be incorporated, and fosters a culture of cynicism and compliance. Meanwhile, all of this raises barriers to promising new school founders who aren't versed in the game and who may already have busy day jobs as educators or community leaders.

Finally, the debate over charter authorizing would benefit from being less sweeping and more specific. In each case, the question should be how to balance the protections afforded to students against the costs those requirements impose. After all, it's easy for well-intended officials to keep stacking up new dictates in the service of laudable goals—until . . . poof! Kludgeocracy. The solution, I suspect, is to get in the habit of asking, with regard to each requirement and regulation: Do we really need this?

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