School & District Management Opinion

New Evidence on How Charter Authorizers Can Build Better Schools

By Douglas N. Harris — September 12, 2016 4 min read
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Perhaps the most under-analyzed piece of the charter movement is the charter authorizer. Headlines about charters generally focus either on the schools themselves or on their charter management organizations like KIPP, but this misses the fact that someone--the authorizer--is deciding which of these schools are even allowed to exist. It is the ultimate choice: which schools are allowed to open and which are forced to close? How and how well do government-approved authorizers make these decisions?

My colleague Whitney Bross and I try to answer these questions in a report we just released today. We focused on charter applications submitted to the State of Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) during 2005-2012 as well as renewal decisions during those same years. Here are the highlights:

  • When a charter sector is first developing, it is hard to predict from applications alone which school applicants will create great schools. None of the individual application indicators we studied predicted either the likelihood of renewal or school performance (as measured by state report card grades or school value-added).

  • The state used the National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) as its third-party application evaluator during the years we studied. The state almost always followed NACSA’s recommendations. Their assessments, which were based on more than just the written applications, did predict charter renewal. (The NACSA ratings were also positively related to future school value-added, but this result was not statistically significant.)

  • At the renewal stage when applicants have a track record, the authorizer has a much easier decision to make. The best predictor of future performance is past performance--but only when past performance can be observed. In this case, the state’s School Performance Score (SPS) and value-added both strongly predicted renewal decisions. That is, the state made decisions based on school success with test scores. In contrast, the state did not consider parent preferences, which we measured with enrollment levels.

There seem to be two key lessons here. One is that having an independent evaluator and paying attention to their recommendations seems wise. This not only insulates the process from political pressures but also, in this case, allows evaluators to use their expertise, collect information beyond the written application, and consider all of that information in making their recommendations to the authorizers.

The second lesson is that no matter how much information authorizers and evaluators collect during the initial application process, they are going to make mistakes. They need to be willing to admit these errors and decline renewals of low-performing schools. This is, after all, one of the main arguments for charters: that the government (represented by authorizers) will do best for students when it sets the goals but allows schools the autonomy to determine how to reach them. Though charter authorizers report making decisions based on performance, there has not been much hard evidence. In New Orleans, at least, our research suggests that the original intent of charters--autonomy plus accountability-- is playing out in practice.

To be clear, this is only one case, focusing on one charter authorizer. The data collection that goes into a study such as this is fairly backbreaking, and it’s not even feasible in many places where there have been too few approval and renewal decisions and/or the applications are not readily available. (We could not find some applications in Louisiana even after extensive searches).

There are also reasons to think the New Orleans case is distinctive. Nationally, few charter decisions are made by state boards. In Louisiana, the state board is generally supportive of charter schools and school reform and is legally required to consider performance (e.g., schools with high test levels are automatically renewed). The state board is among the one-half of authorizers that use independent evaluators. Finally, Louisiana is one of very few places where, when no charter operators are approved, the state itself (specifically, the state’s Recovery School District) is responsible for directly running schools themselves or closing them down. The same is true with school districts that authorize charter schools, but the political dynamics are quite different at the state level.

Some might respond to the title of our report, The Ultimate Choice, by saying that the real ultimate choices are made by students, parents, and their teachers every day in the classroom. That’s right, too. The point here is that authorization decisions determine who those teachers will be, what pressures they will face, and in which classrooms they will be allowed to teach. This why charter authorization is such a tremendous responsibility.

Another possible criticism is that we aren’t focusing on how authorization decisions--especially the churn of opening and closing charters that comes with this type of charter authorization--affects students. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why, next month, we’ll release our second report in this series that focuses precisely on this issue. In the process, we will help explain why studies of closure and takeover have produced such widely varied results.

As the controversy over charters continues growing nationally, providing answers to these central questions becomes more and more important. While evidence cannot possibly resolve the debate--there is more to the debate than facts--our hope is that we can at least help focus the debate on what these policy decisions mean for students.

Douglas N. Harris is Professor of Economics, the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and founding Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans).

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