The interdependence of strong authorizers and great school operators

Alex Medler

Here follows the eighth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

To achieve success and scale in the charter sector, nothing else matters without (1) strong authorizing and (2) strong applicants.

The highest-performing charter sectors can’t be measured just by the difference between the average performance of charters and traditional schools. What matters is the full portfolio of schools. Success means there are lots of charter schools and most of them are great, while few schools are failing. If we look at some of the highest-performing jurisdictions—Massachusetts (or really Boston), New Orleans, Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), New York, and Washington, D.C.—we see strong authorizing and a supply of strong charter applicants. The absence of either fatally undermines quality and scale.

Various support structures lead to regular crops of strong applicants. Because there is no single support that matters most, the nature of the best structure will depend on local assets. Strong authorizing includes the approval of strong proposals, as well as the regular rejection of weak applicants and the timely closure of failing schools. These elements are at the heart of NACSA's One Million Lives campaign. Any jurisdiction would benefit from strong authorizing and great applicants.

Good authorizing is a balancing act

Bad authorizers can either be so hostile they approve nothing or so lax they deny nothing. Achieving a reasonable middle ground requires us to address both types of bad authorizing. Earlier in this series, Jed Wallace and Elizabeth Robitaille at the California Charter Schools Association argued that success can exist in a state without strong authorizing. California has overcome many hostile authorizers, but it has not achieved widespread rigor; and while the state has some authorizers that have improved their practices dramatically, many have a long way to go. As Greg Richmond pointed out earlier this week, California continues to suffer from weak schools.

States that depend on unwilling district authorizers and appeals processes can get good schools open in spite of hostile authorizers. But appeals and litigation are ineffective strategies for improving the authorizers that are not rigorous enough. Weak authorizers that are conditioned by the cost of litigation or a fear having their decisions overturned on appeal rarely respond by creating great authorizing systems. Instead, they manage the risk of losing in court or in appeals by saying “yes” more often, even when they should say “no,” or they dismiss all their losses as politically motivated, even when they lose an appeal for legitimate and substantive reasons. Feeling beleaguered, they refuse to revisit their practices to find ways they could improve their authorizing as well as their chances of prevailing in the future. Their complaints about the politics become evidence to charter supporters that they were acting politically in the first place, and an even more politicized appeals process emerges.

This isn’t just a Californian issue, either. Similar dynamics have emerged in Colorado and Florida. Appeals and litigation may be a “workaround” to get schools approved, but for screening out weak applicants and closing failing schools, strong authorizing is a better solution.

The interdependence of great authorizers and great operators

Strong authorizing and great operators rely on each other for success. The best authorizing is meaningless if there is nothing worth approving, and the best idea can’t help kids if it is not approved. That is why all successful jurisdictions have strong teams advancing proposals and at least one quality authorizer—using rigorous processes—able to identify and willing to approve strong applications.

Meanwhile, nothing the best charter school does to help its own students learn can reduce the harm a terrible school inflicts on the kids enrolled in it. For the charter school sector to succeed, strong authorizers and great school operators need each other.

The synergy of authorizing and strong applicants is necessary because the support structures that help quality operators to thrive and grow have limited impact on the worst applicants. These same structures cannot make the worst applicants promising, the failing schools good, or the unscrupulous operators upstanding.

There are many reasons for this limit. First, many applicants do not have the skills to pull off something as complex as designing and operating a school. Other applicants are not interested in success and are motivated by other desires—e.g., power, glory, or riches. Second, the organizations supporting excellence are run by smart people with limited resources. They recognize a hopeless cause when they see it and will not waste resources. Third, the groups that do help weak applicants, like the Charter Support Organizations, have tools that can help a bad applicant look a little better. For example, they can provide language to cut-and-paste into a charter application that an authorizer expects to see. But they can’t turn it into a great school. Finally, the handful of inspiring anecdotes of successful take-over efforts that “solved” bad charters are diluted by the immense sea of failing schools. Furthermore, these worthy turnarounds tend to be so comprehensive that they are better described as new schools anyway. As a result, all good jurisdictions rely on strong authorizing to ensure that the perennial flood of weak applicants is denied and that failing schools are closed.

Strong authorizing is complicated work

Strong authorizing requires practices that identify promising applicants and approve them. For more on what it means to be a great authorizer, review NACSA’s Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. Strong authorizing also means that there is no authorizer in the jurisdiction willing to approve weak applicants or keep bad schools open. Unfortunately, a single rogue authorizer approving weak applicants and refusing to close failing schools trumps the work of all the strong authorizers in that jurisdiction.

NACSA recommends that states establish at least one statewide, quality authorizer operating in addition to the local district. We recommend against establishing a large number of authorizers. None of the successful jurisdictions give charter applicants and failing schools access to more than three authorizers. Two jurisdictions have only one. We promote policies that define standards of authorizer behavior and hold authorizers and schools accountable for their work and their results. Finally, policies that lead to the default closure of failing schools ensure that bad schools close.

The record of strong authorizers

The highest-performing jurisdictions have strong authorizing. For full disclosure, NACSA has administered the review of charter applications in New Orleans for multiple authorizers and for the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee. In New York, the quality of SUNY’s authorizing work, with its own rigorous and robust approach, can be attributed to a series of strong leaders and a sustained institutional commitment. While the other authorizers in New York have an uneven trajectory, the state has not suffered an authorizer willing to give anybody a charter for the asking. Washington, D.C., has also benefited from strong authorizing—at least after the district got out of the business. D.C. started with two authorizers, the district and an independent charter board. Strong leaders at the D.C. Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB) have focused on providing scale, quality, and equity. Many failing schools that were approved by the district’s authorizing shop in the early years later transferred en masse to the DCPCSB when the district ceased authorizing. Now, the DCPCSB’s demonstrated record of closing the worst schools in their portfolio is beginning to show its positive effects.

Massachusetts is the oddest example of “strong authorizing.” In the initial years of the charter effort, the Massachusetts Department of Education was among the nation’s most, if not the most, rigorous and committed authorizers. Administration changes led to a long period of inattention. While the transition and bad state policy effectively stopped growth in the state, the initial rigor of the early years produced a set of schools that have thrived and performed at very high levels during the long winter of inattention. This may indicate that the authorizer activity at the front end of the charter life cycle is perhaps the greatest single lever, as long as it takes place soon enough. Once a bunch of bad schools are up and running, the next-most-important lever becomes the ability to close failing schools.

Emerging best practices

More recently, as charter sectors have grown, good authorizing has involved protecting the interests of all students and the taxpayer. This is reflected in more attention to enrollment patterns; common applications; discipline, suspension, and expulsion policies and student retention patterns; the design and provision of special education and services for English learners; the proactive recruitment of operators who can succeed with targeted populations; the placement of schools to address specific community needs; and the use of chartering to turn around failing schools. These are all emerging aspects of what “good authorizers” may need to do to manage the interests of all students through chartering.

Ensuring these systems serve all students well is important for two reasons. First, and most important, it is good for kids. Second, shortcomings and outright failures in student equity and inappropriate public stewardship seriously undermine the public commitment and support it takes to sustain this work over the long term.

These systemic improvements must be pursued while protecting the autonomy and independence that all charter schools require to innovate and succeed. Fortunately, the strong performance management that gives authorizer the tools they need to make high-stakes decisions also provides transparency and predictability to operators. Getting accountability right actually reduces the burdens on schools and the opportunities for authorizers to micromanage.

Strong crops of applicants: A local affair

Of course, authorizers don’t create and run schools. A strong crop of applicants can be influenced by a variety of factors and can include different types of applicants. Which specific supports produce the strongest set of applicants depends on local assets.

In Boston, the biggest advantage in generating a strong cohort of applicants may be human capital created by the local academic institutions. New York has immense resources in human capital, finance, and entrepreneurial nonprofits. It is an attractive place for young leaders to want to live and work, and it has provided charter schools with buildings. In Tennessee and New Orleans, state policies creating a Recovery School District (RSD) produced many advantages. Strong applicants benefit from facilities that attract the best CMOs and allow them to shift resources from rent to operations. They also enjoy federal money, from the post-Katrina recovery in NOLA and a Race to the Top grant in Tennessee. Federal funding has supported both the creation of strong schools and state-level efforts to strengthen oversight. There is also substantial philanthropy in both places.

I am confident other wonks will contribute evidence for all these items. How each jurisdiction generates their own best cohort of charter applicants will remain a local affair based on regional assets.

Why strong authorizing and strong applicants must matter

Strong authorizing and strong cohorts of schools benefit from inescapable logic. If there are no capable school founders coming forward to open schools, how could this movement possibly succeed? If authorizers will not approve the strong applicants, the founder’s skills and ideas don’t matter. Once schools are operating, if there are ten charter schools in any portfolio, and their authorizer closes the two worst-performing schools, the resulting portfolio will have a stronger ratio of success to failure than it did before. That is the result of arithmetic and logic. The success of these elements doesn’t require a researcher to infer anything.

Other writers’ favorite causes also matter. We should each do everything in our power to help improve education for all kids. But strong authorizing and the absence of weak authorizing, as well as cohorts of strong charter applicants, are necessary to our ultimate success.

Alex Medler is the vice president for policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.