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School Choice & Charters Opinion

When Quality Charter School Authorizing Jumps the Shark

By Rick Hess — December 10, 2018 1 min read
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Charter schooling has long been buffeted by conflicting pressures: the desire to protect the autonomy that allows an array of diverse and vibrant schools to flourish, and the concern that a lack of oversight will give license to grifters and mediocrities. The crucial task of securing one and protecting against the other has been given to charter school authorizers. Full disclosure, I’ve spent close to a decade serving on the board of directors for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), an outfit charged with promoting quality authorizing.

The challenge: “Quality authorizing” can become an excuse for micromanagement. After all, the easiest thing in the world is to insist on one more thing that someone else should do or one more rule that they should follow. This is precisely how, bit by bit, we’ve buried traditional K-12 educators in process and paperwork. And this is why I was pleased when NACSA honcho Greg Richmond this fall urged authorizers to resist the temptations of red tape and regulation. Because I thought Greg’s bracing defense of autonomy was something I’ve heard too rarely from authorizers, I was delighted when he offered to say a bit more on the subject, in light of last month’s elections and with an eye to the legislative sessions ahead. I thought it well worth sharing:

When 3 out of 4 Americans are unable to name all three branches of the U.S. government, it comes as little surprise that knowledge of charter school governance remains murky at best. But the promise of charter schools—offering something better to families who desperately need it—is under threat, precisely because the work of good oversight is largely misunderstood by those with the power to influence it. Students, teachers, and communities win when all three pillars of the charter school idea work in harmony: Families have access to more great schools, school leaders have the autonomy to design classrooms that meet their students' needs, and taxpayers can trust smart oversight holds each school accountable for providing a great education. To achieve this harmony, charter school authorizers provide a new, nimbler kind of oversight that frees schools from the traditional district bureaucracy. In short: Authorizers focus on what a charter school is achieving, not how it does the work. This is why NACSA is troubled by increased calls from legislators, school board members, and superintendents for more regulations on charter schools that pressure charter schools to operate exactly like traditional schools—regulations that come from a place of "charter schools can't do that" and "charter schools should have to do this," rather than a concern about the outcomes the schools are producing for our children. In both red and blue states last year, we saw legislation proposed that would have dictated what a charter school should be, rather than what outcomes taxpayers should hold it accountable for. These bills required certain curriculum, certain discipline models, and certain teacher-, principal-, and staff-certification requirements. In Florida, a proposed bill would have added certification requirements to charter school principals and chief financial officers. In Idaho, the governor vetoed legislation that would have freed charter school principals from archaic certification requirements. With the veto, charter school principals must continue to earn the same certificate as traditional administrators, despite serving in a role with an entirely different skill set: the ability to read a balance sheet, fundraise, and manage a board, to name a few. Sometimes proposed legislation is well-intended, especially when we want to make sure that charter schools are open to all students and serve them all well. But more often than not, legislation that tells a charter school how to do its job or who to hire is a thinly veiled effort to protect adult jobs or weaken charter schools. Whether well-intentioned or not, the push to increase regulations on charter schools often fails at its purported objectives—protecting students and taxpayers—while imposing harmful constraints on educators and schools. That's why when policymakers, education advocates, and community leaders see proposed policies that try to dictate what charter school inputs should be, we should ask, "Is this really necessary?" We know that smart, nimble oversight leads to great outcomes for kids: Our research finds the best authorizers around the country use knowledge and expertise to create strong portfolios of schools. Smart, proactive authorizing has transformed public education in places like Boston, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. This transformation is needed in more cities, more midsize towns, and rural areas, too. So, as the dust settles on last month's elections and we look toward legislative sessions in the spring, remember: When charter schools and their authorizers are allowed to look beyond compliance, they can convert leadership, commitment, and judgment into great educational opportunities for our children.

As I’ve said time and again, the rules, regulations, and routines that suffuse traditional public schools can all be individually justified. I’ve encountered few, if any, where it looked like policymakers had thought, “Now, the real goal here is to prevent children from learning.” Rather, the accretion of decisions, over years and decades, has led to geological strata of regulations, which, together, leave educators hemmed-in, second-guessed, and frustrated. If charter schools are to deliver on their promise, they must offer a vision of how to enable educators and communities to create terrific, empowering schools—not case studies in how to recreate the headaches of hidebound bureaucracies.

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