The Quality Authorizing Challenge
Accountability is a key focus of the education reform and improvement debate. As demand rises for charter start-ups, rapid replication of high-quality models, and quick closure of failed schools, there is increased pressure to implement quality authorization processes in a time of scarce resources.
Quality authorizing is a challenge. Authorizers must make sure that prospective charter schools are equipped to succeed. They also must set performance measures that can be tracked, enabling sound decisions about whether to renew or close schools. Without this rigor, chances increase for miscues that could undermine the standing of charter schools and their promise as an innovation for improving education.
Recent studies suggest that ensuring adequate capacity for authorizers is critical. Capacity shapes the role of authorizers, including the extent to which they are influenced by local politics. Existing lack of capacity suggests that new funding systems should be established to support authorizers. There is no hard evidence showing specifically how much money is needed to support high-quality authorizing, but information is available on best practices and approaches to funding that increase the stability and effectiveness of charter schools.
Lack of financial resources may shift priorities away from quality authorizing. In South Carolina, for example, the Public Charter School District is feeling the heat. Created by the state Legislature in 2005 and funded with a 2 percent per-pupil allocation, the district oversees seven charter schools--with four more expected to open later this year. Jonathan Butcher, the district's director of accountability, said budget shortages have turned the focus to survival.
"Our job has become not oversight but advocacy," he said. "We're trying to make sure lights are on at schools."
On this same point, Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, has been pushing to make sure that the role of authorizing and the needed funding remain in the limelight. On March 17, 2010, he provided testimony(1) to the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies as part of an Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization hearing. "Any federal effort to increase the number of charter schools should be accompanied by an equal effort to ensure quality oversight that maintains high standards, preserves school-level autonomy, and safeguards student and public interests," Richmond testified.
The Obama administration's Blueprint for Reform(2) to revise ESEA and support effective charter schools addresses the issue of funding by proposing competitive grants to charter school authorizers in addition to states, districts, charter management organizations, and nonprofit organizations. Besides such needed funding, there are methods and tools to help authorizers get the job done--with prioritizing, improved communication, and better technology being key.
Focusing Your Priorities
Robin Lake, executive director of the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington–Bothell, said greater focus can mitigate short resources. "If you're an authorizer with little or no capacity, you have to pick and choose what's going to be your priority for oversight," said Lake, whose research specialties include effective accountability.
Jim Goenner, executive director of The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, said his authorizing group has just created Board Gear, a center website feature to better support school board members and aid communication. (For more information on Board Gear, see the Resources section below.)
"We think this is going to be a powerful tool for us to communicate with the schools," said Goenner. The feature contains orientation materials, enables distribution of taped messages to the school boards, and provides a calendar feature to keep everyone on track with key events, such as filing annual financial audits and quarterly financial statements, according to Goenner, whose group started authorizing charter schools in 1994.
Using Technology and Data Effectively
Better cooperation on technology platforms and standardized data formats are an important part of the efficiency push, said Nelson Smith, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Smith said he doesn't want it to "become a matter of schools having to gin up new batches of paperwork."
Jonas S. Chartock, executive director of the Charter Schools Institute at the State University of New York, said his organization has moved to streamline work. "An inordinate amount of staff time and resources" was spent on paper mailings to schools, Chartock said. "We have greatly reduced what we send out via surface mail and instead rely on e-mail transmission that points folks to the relevant page on our website that contains the information, request, or resources they need."
He also said the organization reviewed the drafting of school evaluation reports to identify the most important components and determine what could be prepared in advance, consolidated, or eliminated.
"As you can imagine, we made more progress on consolidating than we did on eliminating," Chartock said.
Charter School Leadership Grant Competition Announced  The U.S. Department of Education's Charter Schools Program has announced a leadership grant competition for national activities projects, with a focus on high-quality charter schools in urban or rural areas.
Call for Federal Grant Application Reviewers . The U.S. Department of Education's Charter Schools Program is seeking peer reviewers to read and evaluate discretionary grant applications.
Charter School Facilities Institute .The Resource Center is hosting a day-long facilities institute on Monday, June 28, in Chicago, to precede the 2010 National Charter Schools Conference.
2010 National Charter Schools Conference . "Innovators in Education: Leading the Race to the Top" will be held June 28-July 1, 2010, in Chicago.
Following are helpful resources related to authorizing:
Board Gear . Developed by The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, this online resource provides materials to assist leaders at the schools it authorizes, with a focus on charter school board members.
Charter School Authorizer Funding Policy Guide . This July 2009 policy guide from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers provides an overview of sources of authorizer funding and offers key considerations, recommendations, and best practices for state policy.
Finding a Balance: How Application and Authorization Policies Impact School Supply . This 2008 working paper from the National Charter School Research Project at the Center on Reinventing Public Education describes ways in which high-quality authorizers have changed their application procedures and standards and examines the effect these changes have had on the quality and quantity of new charter school applicants.
A Framework for Operational Quality . Developed by the National Consensus Panel on Charter School Operational Quality, this 2009 report offers a framework for charter school leaders, authorizers, philanthropists, and lenders to monitor the operational practices of high-quality charter schools.
High Stakes: Findings from a National Study of Life-or-Death Decisions by Charter School Authorizers . This 2004 report details key findings from a Public Impact study of 50 high-stakes decisions made by charter school authorizers and includes a database of more than 500 authorizer decisions.
Holding Charter Authorizers Accountable: Why It Is Important and How It Might Be Done . Developed by the Center on Reinventing Public Education's National Charter School Research Project, this 2006 white paper examines the causes and consequences of poor authorizing and defines a range of approaches that states could pursue to improve accountability.
Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing . Developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, this 2009 guide outlines core beliefs about quality charter school authorizing and identifies responsibilities and practices for authorizers.
Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing . This 2007 U.S. Department of Education report identifies common practices among high-quality authorizing offices, identifies policy considerations, and profiles selected authorizers.
For more resources listed on our website, please visit Resources & Research .
(1) Richmond, G. (2010, March 17). Testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies . Chicago: National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
(2) U.S. Department of Education. (2010). A blueprint for reform: The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Washington, DC: Author.
The National Charter School Resource Center would like to share your ideas about how authorizers can operate more efficiently. If you know of a new method or tool that has worked well, please let us know by e-mailing a brief summary to firstname.lastname@example.org.