On the Road to Better Accessibility, Autonomy, and Accountability: State Policy Analysis 2015

In its 2015 state policy analysis, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) found that fourteen states (including Ohio) saw positive charter policy changes since its inaugural report last year. These wide-ranging improvements demonstrate the value of sizing up a state’s legal framework, diagnosing its structural problems, comparing it to peers, and using that information to press policymakers for change. In other words, rankings like this—and other seemingly wonky law and policy reviews—may actually pave the way for real improvements.

NACSA analyzed and ranked every state with a charter law (forty-three, plus the District of Columbia) against eight policy recommendations meant to ensure a baseline of authorizer quality and charter school accountability: 1) Can schools select from at least two authorizers? 2) Does the state require authorizers to meet endorsed standards (like NACSA’s)? 3) Does the state evaluate its authorizers? 4) Do poor authorizers face sanctions? 5) Do authorizers publish annual performance reports on schools? 6) Is every charter bound by a contract that outlines performance expectations? 7) Are there strong non-renewal standards, and can authorizers effectively close poor performers? 8) Does the state have an automatic closure law on the books?

Additionally, the report offers four state case studies, outlining the challenge to quality in each (e.g., Indiana’s multiple authorizers and authorizer “shopping” problem) and the policy fixes (e.g., consequences for poor authorizing practices). 

Ohio’s rise in the rankings to third (and a near-perfect score) is notable, resulting in huge part from the state’s charter school reform bill (HB 2). Indiana and Nevada tie for number one, while Kansas, Virginia, and Maryland are at the bottom of the barrel. Washington earns an unfortunate non-rating in the wake of its state supreme court ruling that its charter school law is unconstitutional.

The report rightly points out that the policy recommendations forming the backbone of the report represent “cornerstones of excellence” but cannot determine quality on their own. State policy is just one part of the quality equation, and NACSA notes that “authorizers often develop practices that work around weaknesses or vagaries in state law.” Implementation is paramount; nowhere is that more true than in Fordham’s home state. Ohio earns full points for requiring authorizers to submit annual performance reports, but authorizers themselves determine the rubric for scoring their schools, resulting in zero comparability and wildly different definitions of quality. Ohio’s closure law is among the oldest in the nation, yet it hasn’t accomplished much and is currently on pause. The state put a meaningful authorizer evaluation into law, but the first round of ratings has been rescinded. Current recommendations on the updated evaluation, if put in place, are so onerous that likely no authorizer would earn high marks. Still, to the extent that states can pull certain policy levers and set a minimum framework for quality, they should. The 2015 analysis gives reason to hope that many already are.

Source: “On the Road to Better Accessibility, Autonomy, and Accountability: State Policy Analysis 2015,” National Association of Charter School Authorizers (November 2015)

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.