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Published in Print: June 11, 2003, as Report Examines 'Authorizers' of Charter Schools

Report Examines 'Authorizers' of Charter Schools

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Even though they often operate in contentious policy environments, the public entities that authorize charter schools generally are doing an adequate job, a report released last week concludes.

The Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute said its evaluation is the first to grade the work of charter school "authorizers"—the hundreds of school boards, universities, nonprofit groups, and other organizations that states have charged with nurturing and monitoring this relatively new breed of public schools. The report rates the monitoring and support practices for charter schools in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

The evaluation gave a grade of B-minus or better to 15 states for the jobs their charter authorizers were doing. In comparison, only four states were rated as that high for providing policy environments that are supportive of charter schools.

"Many states are not at all supportive of authorizers, and they are basically left out to dry," said Louann Bierlein Palmer, the lead author of the report.

Charter experts praised the researchers for looking at an understudied aspect of the charter movement. They also suggested, however, that the report's grading system should be interpreted with caution, since it starts from the premise that charter schools will improve schooling.

"They've interviewed people who are largely sympathetic to charter schools," said Katrina E. Bulkley, a researcher from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who has also studied charter school authorizers. "This is a good beginning step, but the real question is whether there will be a connection between what the authorizers do and what actually happens in the schools."

'Coyotes and Rabbits'

More than 500 organizations are responsible for sponsoring the nation's 2,700 charter schools, helping them along, and closing them if they fail to produce results, the report says. The idea behind charter schools is to allow them to operate free from red tape, provided they are able to produce improved student learning.

To rate the job the authorizers do and the circumstances in which they operate, the researchers gave each state three grades: one for the authorizers' work; one for the state's policy environment; and an overall grade.

In the authorizers' category, for instance, the grades were based on ratings for 56 criteria, ranging from the degree to which the sponsoring organizations shielded the schools from excessive regulation to whether the entities granted charters based on merit or on politics.

The researchers developed their ratings from responses to surveys sent to a total of 900 charter operators, authorizers, and knowledgeable "charter observers." The latter group included charter advocates, state legislative staff members, charter-network administrators, and others, according to the report.

The highest overall grades—B-plus—went to Massachusetts and Texas. New Mexico scored the lowest, with a D, followed closely by California and Pennsylvania, which both earned grades of D-plus.

One of the report's key findings is that local school boards were generally judged to do a poor job of authorizing.

"Many of them don't want the job," said Ms. Bierlein, who is an education professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. "They still view charters as competitors, or they give the job of authorizing to someone with 20 other jobs."

The arrangement, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Institute and related Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is akin to "trusting coyotes to raise rabbits."

"We've tried it," he said in a press release, "and, with rare exceptions, the bunnies suffer."

By the same token, the researchers found, adding more authorizers does not necessarily improve oversight. The higher-rated states tended to be those with fewer authorizers and enough employees and financial resources set aside to focus on the job, an approach taken by Massachusetts.

The researchers said their evaluation showed that "compliance creep" was setting in among many of the authorizing organizations, as states have begun to increase the number of requirements that charter schools must meet.

"The point is to let the experiment run its course with the best possibility of succeeding," Mr. Finn said in an interview. "It seems to me we want to hope for the politics to let this happen, rather than drive it into the sea."

Vol. 22, Issue 40, Pages 15,17

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