The art and science of charter school authorizing

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For a quarter-century, the dedicated people who oversee charter schools have been working at solving one of the toughest problems in public life: How can public entities ensure that service providers do their jobs effectively and for a good price, and without micromanaging them into mediocrity?

This is not a problem unique to education. Far from it. Any activity funded with taxpayer dollars faces the same dilemma—from health care, to infrastructure, to garbage collection, and on down the list. Public administration experts like David Osborne urge the government to “steer instead of row” by outsourcing the provision of these services to for-profit or non-profit entities, and holding them accountable for results. That sounds straightforward—until you’re the one charged with actually doing the work.

It’s a blessing, then, that the charter schools movement has the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to plug away at this thorny question. For almost two decades, it has stood up for the autonomy-in-return-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter schools promise. And it's walked the talk—both by helping to authorize schools itself, and by examining what this bargain looks like in practice.

As someone who leads an organization that authorizes charter schools, I can tell you that it’s not always easy to distinguish rowing from steering. When one of our schools does poorly on its state report card or is facing a crisis involving student safety, it’s hard not to reach for the oar. Sticking to steering may sound good in theory, but it can look like an abdication of responsibility in practice.

Into the squall comes NACSA’s latest study, Leadership, Commitment, Judgment: Elements of Successful Charter School Authorizing. It’s useful, authoritative, and nuanced. It doesn’t pretend that there are easy solutions to authorizers’ many dilemmas, including: How much should one rely on proven models when approving new schools, versus showing an openness to innovation? What is the right response when an existing school is neither great nor terrible, but just chronically mediocre? Are there appropriate ways to offer “assistance” without crossing the line into micromanagement? What do you do with a school where someone gets caught pilfering funds, but the larger organization is sound and the school is working wonders for kids?

None of this will satisfy our libertarian friends, who seem to equate any form of assertive oversight with bureaucratic nanny-statism. Nor will it satisfy fierce opponents of charter schools, whose definition of “accountability” involves public-sector employees doing all the work of education, regardless of the quality of the outcomes.

But for those of us striving every day to do a better job in our authorizing responsibilities, this analysis is a Godsend. With clear examples and insights from some of the best authorizers in the country, it reaffirms the field’s commitment to school-level autonomy and accountability, and reasserts that good oversight can’t be “paint by numbers,” as one official put it. It is not management-by-spreadsheet, but the pursuit of good decisions, informed by data and wisdom, that keep the charter movement growing in size and quality.

Those of us at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation are honored to be selected as one of the authorizers profiled in NACSA’s report. We know we have much more to learn from our peers than we have to teach from our own experience, but that’s the mark of a great field—a true commitment to excellence, both for ourselves and our professional peers.

There are still no easy answers when it comes to overseeing charter schools effectively. But NACSA is helping us ask the right questions—and that is a mighty contribution.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.