When First Place Scholars opens in Seattle this school year, it will not only be the first charter school in the state, it will also be chartered and overseen by Washington’s new independent statewide authorizing board.
To win the Washington State Charter School Commission’s approval—and the right to operate—the school, which will serve homeless students, had to undergo a rigorous process, including submitting an application of several hundred pages, sketching out a five-year budget plan, and passing the scrutiny of charter school experts assembled from across the country to advise the authorizing board.
Yet this kind of gantlet is one that’s getting more popular. Washington is among a small but growing group of states that have created independent charter boards to ostensibly add a layer of rigor to the systems that approve, oversee, and close charter schools. Such boards go by different names but are generally authorizing bodies separate from other state and local agencies whose sole purpose is to authorize charter schools statewide. The press for quality—a recurring theme in the charter school debate—has pushed authorizing to the center of the discussion because, many argue, charter schools ultimately reflect the caliber of their authorizer.
“We never considered not having one,” said Lisa D. Macfarlane, who directs Democrats for Education Reform’s Washington state branch in Seattle and sits on the board of the. She helped draft the state’s charter school law.
“It was pretty clear from looking around the country, if you’re going to get good public charter schools, it’s all about the authorizing experience,” she said. “I think during the first years of the movement there wasn’t enough attention paid to authorizers.”
Nationally, authorizing agencies and practices are far from uniform, and the number and types of authorizers, which can include local school districts, nonprofits, and universities, vary greatly from state to state. Out of the pack, independent chartering boards are emerging as a best practice that is being pushed to a great extent by the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, or NACSA, in a campaign to improve school quality and establish some standardization in the authorizing space.
The strength of an independent statewide board, according to proponents, comes from two defining qualities: focus and scope. Its only job is to charter and oversee schools, and, because of that narrow focus and its statewide scope, the board can develop the best, most-equitable way to do that job quickly.
“When you think of a normal-size school district, maybe they’ll have one charter school in their area; they will never have enough of them to develop chartering expertise,” said NACSA President Greg A. Richmond. “All the other entities that authorize exist to do something else. School boards, universities do other things, and chartering is just stuck onto it.”
Furthermore, Mr. Richmond said independent charter boards help meet the demands of an evolving charter movement that will likely include more multistate charter school networks, like San Jose, Calif.-based Rocketship, which has 10 schools across the country. Currently, networks that expand beyond their home base face a smorgasbord of agencies and systems across states or even within a single state. Retrofitting a school model to such diverse regulations can drain resources.
“That has a dramatic impact on us,” said Katy Venskus, the vice president of policy at Rocketship, which recently decided toin part due to this issue. “If you look where we’re active in, we have a slightly different authorizing structure in every one of [those areas].”
So far, 14 states have created independent charter boards, and, according to data from NACSA, the number has increased substantially in the last five years. In addition to Washington state,this year to include an independent statewide authorizing board, which approved that state’s first charter this summer. Maine, also a relative newcomer to the charter school movement, created a statewide board when it enacted its charter school law in 2011.
Lenient Versus Restrictive
In many ways, the growth of independent authorizing boards reflects the movement’s growing pains, and is a reaction to both overly liberal and overly restrictive authorizing practices.
As policymakers and charter school advocates looked for footholds in the U.S. education system in the early 1990s, some focused on creating an unrestricted environment where legions of charter schools could open and flourish—a philosophy often described as “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Ohio exemplifies this idea. According to data compiled by NACSA, Ohio has four different kinds of authorizing bodies for its 365 charter schools, none of which is an independent board, and nearly 70 active authorizers overall—more than nearly every other state.
But, an environment flush with chartering agencies can be vulnerable to “authorizer shopping,” a strategy on the part of weak charter school operators to simply sidestep authorizers with high standards.
“They’ll look for an authorizer that has more mediocre practices,” said Thomas J. Lasley, an education professor and a former dean at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
This practice, in turn, can lead to a proliferation of poorly performing schools that, in some cases, end up generating headlines over academic or ethics complaints. Along with Ohio, Michigan has dozens of authorizers of multiple kinds and no independent charter board, and both states have been the subject of less-than-flattering news stories over the summer stemming from state- and press-ledinto some of their charters. Following the recent Detroit Free Press , the state schools superintendent said earlier this month that may have their power to approve schools revoked.
This issue has fueled the argument among a segment of charter school supporters for greater oversight policies, including independent authorizing boards.
“If parents were really good critical shoppers, you would drive out the weaker-performing schools, but that’s not the way it works,” said Mr. Lasley. “It’s not that those parents don’t care about their children; they’re just often driven by other problems, like transportation.” Ultimately, he said, school choice doesn’t help families if they don’t have good schools from which to choose.
Although stories of charter schools run wild may have inspired some states to adopt independent charter boards, others see the boards as a means to bypass authorizers that are approving too few schools. Generally, the culprit in this scenario is a traditional school district or local education agency, the most common kind of authorizer in the country, which may be reluctant to grant charters to potential competitors.
Such was the case in Georgia, according to Bonnie S. Holliday, the executive director of the state’s Charter Schools Commission.
“School boards weren’t approving schools and people were complaining to their legislators,” said Ms. Holliday. “Georgia—it’s no secret—is a state that has a strong preference for local control, so there was a real value placed on local boards, but local boards were reluctant to relinquish that control.”
Georgia created its independent statewide authorizing board in 2010. It was subsequently challenged in court, deemed unconstitutional, and then resurrected through a ballot referendum in 2012, nearly two decades after the state first passed its charter school law. Today, the Georgia State Charter Schools Commission essentially operates like an appellate court, reviewing applications denied at the school district level.
“I don’t want to make it sound this simplistic, but it’s like if you go to your mom to get one answer and then you turn around and try to go to your dad to get a different answer,” said Jocelyn Marz, an elementary school teacher in Santa Clara County, Calif., and the president of the local National Education Association affiliate. Although California does not have an independent statewide board, charter school operators can appeal districts’ decisions to a county office of education and then to the state school board.
“It seems that if you take away that local control, or oversight, you’re going to have people making decisions who aren’t familiar with the needs of that particular [area],” said Ms. Marz.
Finally, there’s the question of whether independent statewide boards fly in the face of the original intent of the charter movement.
“Are you just adding another layer of bureaucracy?” asked Rebecca J. Jacobson, an associate professor in the college of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. She wonders whether the two elements of the charter school compact—namely, greater autonomy for greater accountability—would be knocked out of balance if states added another kind of authorizer to the mix. “We’re already seeing, because of the accountability pressures, charter schools are starting to look more like public schools,” she said.
However, underpinning the push for more rigorous authorizing practices is the realization that the charter movement’s long-term viability rests in large part on whether it’s really churning out schools that perform better than their more-typical counterparts in public school systems. Although charter schools often enjoy a rare status as a bipartisan issue, Mr. Richmond of NACSA said the movement cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
“If parents keep seeing negative stories in the media, attitudes could change,” he said. “If authorizers don’t do their jobs well, we’ll have more problems and the public will lose confidence in these schools.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as States Create Independent Boards to Approve Charters