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The Authorizer Effect: Creating High-Quality Charter Schools

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Can the quality of a charter school be determined by the entity providing the authorization?

While the research on this question has been mixed, education and policy analysts agree that charter school authorizers wield significant power – particularly when it comes to deciding to launch a school, or to shutter one that fails to meet expectations.

More charters can mean more options for families, but when the campuses are forced to close it can cause significant financial headaches for public school districts, experts told reporters gathered at Vanderbilt University in May for EWA’s 67th National Seminar.

Alex Medler, National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ vice president for policy and advocacy, said when a charter fails it can be difficult for journalists to pinpoint precisely what went wrong.

“Authorizers don’t fail in the same way,” he said.

But first off, what does an authorizer do?

The authorizer is an entity — such as a school corporation or government body — that decides whether to award the contract for a charter school to operate. Individual state laws have allowed for the creation of the schools and authorizers.

“Once they approve it they are also responsible for its oversight and they are the ones who review its performance at the end of its charter term and see if it should close,” Medler said.

Currently, there are just a little more than a thousand authorizing entities in the United States, overseeing around 6,000 charter schools.

School districts make up the vast majority of the authorizers at 945, followed by 46 higher education institutions, according to NACSA. The rest are made up of state education agencies, not-for-profits, independent charter boards and other government agencies, such as a mayor’s office.

Portfolios of these authorizers vary widely, Medler said. Of the roughly 1,000 in operation, just under 700 monitor only one or two charter schools.

Yet three authorizers — Texas Education Agency, Arizona Charter Board and Los Angeles Unified School District — oversee more than 1,300 charter schools combined.

What effect do these authorizers have on the quality of the schools?

“It’s less important who they are than what they do,” Medler said. “There is not much we can figure out by their type.”

It’s up to the authorizers to judge whether a charter school’s proposal is strong enough to be approved. And once a school opens, the authorizer “has to oversee it well enough to protect the student and the public but not micromanage the school,” Medler said.

Medler said journalists should know if their states have default closures provisions — laws that will automatically close a charter based on its performance — or if that decision is left to the authorizer.

Sometimes, he said, politics or other other influences can make an authorizer reluctant to shut down a school.

So, what qualities have proven to make a strong authorizer?

Brian Gill, senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, is seeking to answer that question. So far there’s only been a handful of studies on charter school authorizers, which isn’t enough data to reach strong conclusions, Gill told the EWA audience.

“We found hints that the non-profit-authorized schools may be slightly less effective and district-authorized schools may be slightly more effective,” he said: “It is not entirely clear if the best charter authorizer is the same thing as the authorizer with the best charter school.”

Speaking hypothetically, Gill said, an authorizer could be so strict that it only approves a few schools. Yet those charters denied by the authorizer might still have been able to outperform the traditional local public schools. As a result, families have fewer choices.

Will Pinkston, a member of the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education and board delegate to its charter review process, discussed changes in Tennessee’s approach to authorizing charter schools. This year, the state Legislature passed a bill that essentially strips this local school board of its power to reject charter school applications, Pinkston said.

In 2012 the Nashville School Board rejected a proposed school that refused to commit to diversity goals. That decision upset some lawmakers, who responded by drafting the bill, Pinkston said.

“I happen to think local school boards know better than the state about what’s most needed at the community level,” he said.

Pinkston’s concern is the fiscal impact districts face if an authorizer outside of the district can approve a charter within the district boundaries.

Four years ago, Tennessee had 21 charter schools statewide. Now in Nashville alone there are 22 either already operating or scheduled to open.

The question for Nashville: How many more new schools — of any kind — can be sustained fiscally and operationally in certain parts of a town?

That growth in charters is leading to a financial burden on the Nashville public school system. In the last school year, the district received  $14 million in new revenue from the state and local government. However, those dollars went to new and existing charter schools within the district.

“So we are at the proverbial tipping point,” he said. “We’re trying to get a handle on this unabated growth before it has a destabilizing effect on our existing schools, and the rest of our budget.”