Charter school authorizing in post-Katrina New Orleans

Twenty-five years into the American charter school movement there remains little research on the impact of charter authorizers, yet these entities are responsible for key decisions in the lives of charter schools, including whether they can open, and when they must close.

A new policy brief from Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance seeks to shed some light on authorizer impact in post-Katrina New Orleans, specifically does the process by which applications are reviewed help to produce effective charter schools? And after those schools have been initially authorized, does that process also shed light on which types of charter schools get renewed?

It merits repeating that the authorizing environment in New Orleans was unlike anywhere else in the country: Louisiana had given control of almost all New Orleans public schools to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and the Recovery School District (RSD). Independent review of charter applications was mandated in state law, and tons of organizations applied to open new charters.

To facilitate the application process, BESE hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). NACSA reviewed and rated applications, and in most cases BESE followed those recommendations. As the authors point out, NACSA is the largest evaluator of charter applications in the country and the extent of its work in New Orleans provides some insights regarding the potential impact of authorizer decisions.

First, NACSA examined much more than the charter application alone, including information gleaned via interviews and site visits. The authors found that the only factor that predicted both charter approval and renewal is a school’s rating from NACSA. Interestingly, the authors also found a number of application factors that had no effect on application approval or renewal, including: number of board members with backgrounds in education, whether partners (vendors providing services such as curricular materials, tutoring, college advising, social services, etc.) were for-profit or non-profit, whether a national charter management company (CMO) was involved, whether a principal had been identified at the time of the application, and the amount of instructional time and professional development proposed.

Second, there does not appear to be a link between these application factors and future school performance. However, it did appear that applicants with non-profit partners showed lower state performance scores, lower overall enrollment, and lower enrollment growth than those without such partners.

In terms of charter renewal, it appears that School Performance Scores (the SPS includes indicators of assessment, readiness, graduation, diploma strength and progress) and value added (growth) are strong predictors of charter renewal (in addition to the initial NACSA rating). And while charter schools with higher enrollment growth were more likely to be renewed, enrollment levels themselves were not a factor in renewal decisions.

The takeaway for authorizers is that past performance is the best predictor of future success, and that the answers to some of the questions we typically include in applications (e.g., about board members, partners, school leader) really aren’t predictive of anything. Looking at a paper application simply isn’t enough. Authorizers must also examine qualitative data (such as interviewing school leaders and references, and making detailed site visits).

The study acknowledges a few of its limitations: lack of a clear scientific basis for determining which application factors to measure; the ability to only observe the future performance of schools with the strongest applications (the worst applications didn’t make the cut); and, importantly, the fact that many authorizers (nationally, not just in Louisiana) simply have not had enough applications and renewals to make a comprehensive study possible.

But fear not: Those of us at Fordham have our own study in the works to look at this question in four states. Stay tuned!

SOURCE: Whitney Bross and Douglas N. Harris, "The Ultimate Choice: How Charter Authorizers Approve and Renew Schools in Post-Katrina New Orleans," Education Research Alliance (September 2016).