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December 2001 Guest Column in ECS Governance Notes
Greg Richmond and Margaret Lin

Education Commission of the States • 700 Broadway, Suite
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Putting the “Public” into Charter Schools:
The Important Role of Charter School Authorizers

Greg Richmond and Margaret Lin

December 2001

A critical feature of what makes charter schools public is a little-known entity usually referred to as the “charter school authorizer” (or “sponsor” in some states). An often-overlooked element of charter school policies, authorizers are the public bodies charged with licensing, overseeing and deciding whether to renew individual charter schools. Mostly, they are school boards, universities and state education departments. But Washington, D.C., and Arizona have special public boards set up specifically to authorize charter schools. The Milwaukee City Council and, most recently, the mayor of Indianapolis may authorize charter schools as well.

Authorizers are the linchpins in the charter school policy trade-off of greater operating autonomy in exchange for greater accountability for results. Under this philosophy, only strong applicants are approved to start charter schools, and only good schools that meet accountability goals are renewed to continue to educate children.  Authorizers must determine which schools are meeting these standards and which are not.

Public accountability for academic achievement is only one part of being a public school. For this reason, not only do authorizers approve, reject, renew and revoke charters, they also monitor the use of public funds and protect students’ rights. Without this public oversight and stewardship, charter schools would become publicly funded entities governed by and responding solely to private interests.

Despite the importance of this role in ensuring the “public-ness” as well as the quality of charter schools, authorizers were virtually ignored by policymakers during most of the first nine years of charter schools’ existence – since the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. This lack of policy attention, though gradually ameliorating, has led to some weaknesses in implementing charter schools. By learning from these lessons, policymakers now have the opportunity to strengthen charter implementation and enable this reform strategy to fulfill its powerful promise to public education in the nation.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be drawn from the past decade is that charter-authorizing responsibilities are complex and, to be effectively executed, require strong agency planning, focused expertise and adequate resources. In all but a handful of circumstances nationwide, legislatures have handed school district, university and state education department officials a dramatic new set of responsibilities without any funds to accomplish them. Across the country, staff people who were responsible for administration, curriculum, grant writing or even lobbying have simply been  told to add charter schools to their duties.

Such an “afterthought” approach is ill advised, for the quality and success of charter schools are greatly influenced by the capacities and effectiveness of their authorizing agencies. Moreover, the responsibilities entailed in charter school authorizing are quite new to public education.  Authorizers must, for example, determine how to do the following:

■ ■ Guide school developers through a charter application process that helps them understand and prepare for all the demands of running a performance-based public school

■ ■ Evaluate charter proposals wisely, awarding charters only to applicants that demonstrate the ability to run effective schools

■ ■ Create meaningful, practical accountability plans and oversight systems for diverse schools based on measurable results rather than process uniformity, while respecting schools’ granted freedoms and distinct missions

■ ■ Develop defensible practices for making charter renewal and revocation decisions, based on judicious evaluation of each school’s record.

These are complex responsibilities, and authorizers have had to develop their own models of practice. They have been pressed to learn quickly – and are still learning – how to provide clear, appropriate guidance to school leaders at each stage of developing and running a charter school, as well as how to oversee charters effectively and evaluate them intelligently. Many authorizers have had to plunge into this work without adequate resources or time to build agency capacity for their new challenges, or even to study well-working practices developed by peer agencies.

If charter schools are to succeed at scale and serve as exemplars of governance and accountability for public education, however, authorizers must have the capacity and resources to perform their role effectively. Encouraging the proliferation of charter schools without providing for infrastructure and expertise to support them seriously handicaps this reform effort.

Still, leadership, creativity and strong vision have emerged from adverse authorizing circumstances to date. Many authorizers have responded to a lack of  resources and statutory guidance by creating efficient administrative systems and innovative accountability systems. Authorizers are at the forefront of efforts to create new school systems that provide autonomy to educators, require accountability for student learning and minimize central administrative costs. Some of these lessons are beginning to transfer into the traditional public school system. Yet there is still a great deal to learn.

Three years ago, authorizers from across the nation began to seek one another out to exchange effective practices in matters such as charter approval, decisions about charter renewal, accountability planning, special education, financial monitoring and contracting with education service providers. A year later, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) was formed at a meeting in Detroit.

Today, NACSA has members from Alaska to Florida, overseeing 40% of the nation’s charter schools. The association has established relationships and dialogues with a variety of national education organizations and has launched several important initiatives with support from the U.S. Department of Education and other organizations. Under a federal grant, for example, NACSA is leading a two-year initiative to build excellence in charter school authorizing practices nationwide.

In its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this month, Congress recognized the role of authorizers in charter school accountability by specifically recognizing and protecting the power of authorizers to hold charter schools accountable.

Academia has also recognized the importance of authorizers, as researchers such as Katrina Bulkley at Rutgers University, Paul Hill and Robin Lake at the University of Washington and Stephen Sugarman and Emlei Kuboyama at the University of California - Berkeley have studied and published important insights regarding the role of authorizers in charter school quality.

Nine years after the first charter school opened its doors, policymakers are just beginning to examine the role of charter school authorizers. Such reflection, if late in coming, is much needed. For charter schools to succeed as a far-reaching reform strategy, it is imperative that lessons from the country’s first decade of chartering experience now be used to strengthen the capacities and leadership of charter authorizers and to illuminate how all public school systems can increase autonomy, efficiency, accountability and effectiveness.

Greg Richmond is director of  the Charter Schools Office of the Chicago Public Schools and president of NACSA.   Margaret Lin is the association’s executive director.

Copyright 2001 by the Education Commission of the States (ECS). All rights reserved. The Education Commission of the States is a nonprofit, nationwide organization that helps state leaders shape education policy. It is ECS policy to take affirmative action to prevent discrimination in its policies, programs and employment practices. To request permission to excerpt part of this publication, either in print or electronically, please fax a request to the attention of the ECS Communications Department, 303-296-8332 or e-mail .

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