NACSA’s sixth annual survey and the future of authorizing

I’m a huge believer in high-quality charter authorizing. My view is that many of the strengths of chartering today are attributable to good authorizing and that many of chartering’s weaknesses are the result of bad authorizing.

I know from firsthand experience how tough it is to run a great authorizing shop. I oversaw the NJDOE’s authorizing office, the only authorizer in the state, and became intimately acquainted with the challenges of staffing, the difficulties of building the right practices, the competing factors involved in renewal decisions, the regularity of lawsuits, and more.

I’m particularly excited (and concerned) about authorizing because I believe that all urban public schools, including district-run schools, should have contracts with authorizers. I also believe that private schools participating in public scholarship or tax-credit programs should have performance contracts with authorizers.

I think it’s essential to have an accountability body separate from the school itself and the school’s operator. If we’re to adopt this model across two or three sectors, we need to make sure authorizers are ready for the promotion.

NACSA’s sixth annual survey of authorizers is a must-read for anyone trying to become familiar with the ins and outs of authorizing, as well as those interested in seeing big gains in authorizer quality.

The report doesn’t diverge much from previous editions, but the basic descriptive statistics are important, especially as they relate to NACSA’s “12 Essential Practices.”

Repeat respondents to the survey indicate that, on average, authorizers are increasingly likely to adopt the industry standards on issues like contracts, application criteria, revocation criteria, and authorizing staff. One key finding is that larger authorizers (those overseeing many schools) are likelier to adopt the full set of practices. Unfortunately, more than half of the nation’s 1,000-plus authorizers oversee just one school.

In my view, school districts should not be allowed to authorize charters. I believe in separating the school-operation and school-authorization functions—an entity should do one or the other, never both. But I’m swimming against the tide here; school districts represent nine out of every 10 authorizers, though they authorize relatively few schools. School districts also have the smallest staffs when compared to other authorizers (proving my point, I’d argue, that districts weren’t designed and will never have the right mindset to authorize at the highest levels).

The 104 “large” authorizers, those overseeing 10 or more schools, cover 72 percent of the nation’s charters.

Importantly, it looks like authorizers as a whole are becoming more sophisticated at their jobs. Almost half are developing strategic approaches to the work, saying they’ve established “priorities or preferences for new applications, including grade levels, educational themes, or targeted populations.” The closure rate is also up, suggesting authorizers are likelier to shutter persistently underperforming charters. Most authorizers provide their schools with clear criteria for renewal, though some types of authorizers, including school districts and state departments of education, have lowers rates.

Lastly, most authorizers have room to improve in the area of enabling high-performing schools to replicate and/or expand. Just 50 percent of authorizers report having carried out a replication or expansion project, and less than a quarter have differentiated application processes for great schools seeking to grow.

For too long, authorizing has been an afterthought. Philanthropists interested in chartering mostly like to give to high-performing schools or their operating organizations (though there are important exceptions). Journalists like to cover what’s happening inside a school’s four walls. Policymakers focus on issues like funding levels, access to facilities, and caps.

If chartering is to live up to its promise as an alternative to the district-based system of public education delivery, authorizing must get more attention. And if authorizing’s benefits are to be spread across other school sectors, much more thinking and experimentation will be needed.

If the evolution of public education delivery plays out like I expect, now-centralized government functions will largely break down into “support” and “accountability” categories overseen by different entities. Authorizers could be the leaders of the second group. If that’s the case, we need to start preparing for that kind of future as soon as possible.

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