The Charter School Challenge

The Charter School Challenge

Charter school accountability treads a narrow path, seeking to protect students without stifling educators. On one hand, accountability for outcomes has always been central to the charter school model. On the other, it’s all too easy for “accountability” to turn into the box-checking, red tape, and one-size-fits-all directives that frustrate district schools and sparked the creation of charter schooling in the first place.

Nowhere is this tension starker than in charter school authorizing. Authorizers are the folks charged with giving schools the “charter” that lets them open — and shutting them down when circumstances require. But the role of the nation’s thousand plus authorizers has been contentious: They’ve been blasted as agents of smothering bureaucracy and criticized as absentee landlords who turn a blind eye to mediocre schools.

Both complaints have merit. Among the nation’s 6,900 charter schools, there are indeed lousy ones that should close their doors. On the whole, though, the evidence suggests that most are doing an impressive job of meeting the needs of families hungry for better options. That lends a special poignancy to concerns that some charter authorizers have created mountains of paperwork and adopted intrusive oversight, which threaten to make charters look more and more like traditional district schools.

In fact, there’s been a marked decline in charter school growth in recent years. In 2013, new charter school openings peaked at 642, up more than 7 percent year over year. By 2016, just half that many new charters opened — despite hundreds of thousands of families stuck on charter school wait lists. Notably, the slowdown isn’t due to more applicants being rejected — as the approval rate for new schools has consistently hovered around 35 percent. Rather, it’s due to fewer new school applications being submitted at all. 

There’s reason to suspect that this decline is fueled by the increasing difficulty of opening new charter schools, especially for teachers or community members who lack the support of major foundations or charter management organizations. As school choice scholar Mike McShane and two colleagues reported a couple years ago in an analysis of authorizer requirements: 

Almost one-fourth of the average application contains inappropriate and onerous requirements … Authorizers could shorten the average application by at least one-third without sacrificing their ability to ensure quality — a change that could save applicants more than 700 hours of work.

Finding ways to better negotiate the balance between accountability and autonomy is an urgent task for authorizers. On this count, a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) offers some useful insights. (Full disclosure: co-author Hess serves on the NACSA board of directors.) The report seeks to identify some of the nation’s most adept authorizers and then flags some of what they’ve learned along the way.

Effective authorizers exhibit a purposeful commitment to creating and maintaining a robust portfolio of high-performing schools. The Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, for instance, attracted national charter operators and helped nurture local ones by taking care to run a supportive and responsive application process. 

The best authorizers treat authorizing as an important and visible role. While this should be painfully obvious, the reality is that 90 percent of authorizers are traditional school districts — for whom authorizing is mostly an afterthought. If a district is going to be an authorizer, it needs to take the work seriously. 

Taking authorizing seriously means eschewing checklists and bureaucratic routines in favor of reflective, responsive, and purposeful oversight. Indeed, NACSA reports that the best authorizers evince a distaste for compliance, instead putting their trust in shoe leather and professional judgment. As one member of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation put it, “Outcomes in authorizing matter: you have to know whether, and to what extent, you’re impacting student outcomes and changing lives.”

One discordant note in the NACSA report is the degree to which many authorizes seem to treat reading and math scores as the only way to gauge school quality. As parents and teachers well know, reading and math scores are just one important measure of school quality; making them the only or primary measure is a recipe for gamesmanship, test prep, and a pinched view of academic excellence.

It would also have been heartening to see NACSA say more about what it looks like when authorizers actively promote charter school flexibility and autonomy. Authorizers should certainly avoid box-checking, but they should also scour their practices for unnecessary paperwork and work with legislators and advocates to strike burdensome state regulations. 

The bottom line is that authorizers can better negotiate the tricky balance between accountability and autonomy. Charter schooling has suffered from the tendency to conflate paperwork, bureaucracy, and micromanagement with “quality-control.” The reality is that the best authorizers promote quality while taking care to respect the freedom that allows good charter schools to make a difference in children’s lives. That’s a lesson worth learning.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Amy Cummings is a research assistant at AEI.

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