Results, yes. Straw men, no. Let's talk honestly about authorizing.

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Nelson Smith

Hold my beer.

Now, I’m all for vigorous debates about education policy, but when they start calling me and my friends the “new education establishment,” I gotta respond.

That is exactly what happened to my organization, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), in a recent Flypaper entry by Max Eden. Eden provided color commentary for a recent collection of essays published by the Center for Education Reform (CER). Both book and blog accuse NACSA of aiming to stifle charter schools with burdensome rules and bureaucracy (or as the book puts it “to coerce uniformity and therefore isomorphism in the charter sector”).

For those unfamiliar with this corner of the sector, NACSA, founded in 2000, works to grow charter schools by strengthening the still-young profession of charter school authorizing. The role is given cursory attention in many state laws, so NACSA has devoted much of its energies to defining, in broad consultation with the field, what sound authorizing looks like. Our Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing situate the work within three basic commitments: maintaining high standards, protecting charter school autonomy, and upholding student and public interests.

It bothers Eden, CER’s Jeanne Allen, and others that fourteen states have adopted these standards in statute, either directly or by reference—not to mention that state-based organizations such as the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers have tailored our standards to their own states’ landscapes. For all the critics’ fulminations, they’ve yet to say just what is so objectionable about these professional standards, which offer individual authorizers myriad ways to meet them. Hold onto your hats. Here are some truly shocking excerpts.

  • “A quality authorizer executes contracts with charter schools that articulate the rights and responsibilities of each party…”
  • “A quality authorizer…grants charters only to applicants who demonstrate strong capacity to establish and operate a quality charter school.”
  • “A quality authorizer designs and implements a transparent and rigorous process that uses comprehensive academic, financial, and operational performance data to make merit-based renewal decisions.”

The notion that these professional standards inhibit innovation in schools or authorizing is nonsense.

Checker Finn’s piece covered the pros and cons of CER’s compendium, and since many of the essays were previously published, their arguments have been previously rebutted—here and here, for starters. I’ll just add that I’m sorry to see so many respected choice champions—and friends—recruited into such a reductivist project that divides the world between “systems-centered” and “parent-centered” reformers (and consigns NACSA to the former camp, of course).

But I do want to respond here to one point in Eden’s blog, since it illustrates the importance of “stubborn facts.”

NACSA’s policy on “default closure” is more nuanced than Eden’s caricature suggests. Yes, we think that schools chronically falling below an acceptable floor of performance should face closure. But “default” means that closure is the expected—not automatic—consequence. As the policy statement on our website says: “In some situations, the authorizer or state may decide to keep a school open based on special circumstances, such as an alternative school serving a specific high-risk population, known as Alternative Education Campuses (AECs). A default closure mechanism should allow these exceptions.”

Eden cites the Washington charter law, saying “charters are automatically closed if they are in the bottom quartile of the state achievement index.” This simply is not true. Washington’s law allows an authorizer to keep an academically failing school open based on a comprehensive review of the school’s circumstances. This would seem to be exactly the kind of review Eden says he favors.

Eden, and others who claim the “parent-centered” mantle, should keep in mind that charters are public schools. Parents of private-school students may well decide to keep open an academically feeble school because it’s safe, or because their kids like going there. But the public has a direct interest in knowing that public charter schools are fostering student learning. That’s why authorizers are empowered to execute charter contracts that spell out academic goals and the consequences for not meeting them. When schools repeatedly fail to meet minimum standards of performance, states are right to respond by placing them on notice, which is what “default closure” laws do.

Education reformers have plenty to worry about these days. There are powerful currents pulling us apart. If the charter movement fails to have honest dialogue about the balance between parent choice and public accountability, our opponents will exploit our discord. You need look no further than the NEA’s new policy statement on charters, approved in an act of supreme irony on Independence Day, to see a common threat that should unite us.

Nelson Smith is senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.