Charter authorizer challenge

The NY Times had a lengthy piece over the weekend on charter schools.  Readers of these pages will find little new in the data disagreement (CREDO v Hoxby), or the trusim that the mere designation of “charter” is no guarantee of success, but there was one point of agreement that I found  compelling:

What most experts can agree on is that charter school quality varies widely, and that it is often associated with the rigor of authorities that grant charters. New York, where oversight is strong, is known for higher performing schools. Ohio, Arizona and Texas, where accountability is minimal, showed up in Ms. Raymond’s study with many poorly performing schools.

This, as well, is hardly new, but the idea that the charter authorizers (usually school districts) are themselves a major determinant of charter success has largely escaped the public debate.  Now I would add Denver to the historical list of top authorizers (although the critical ability to close poorly-performing charters is nascent), but even this ability is on a political tightrope.

Critical to the continued development of local school boards (as I wrote two years ago) is a shift from acting solely as a school operator to also managing an array of independent organizations that run schools and provide services.

This is not a simple transition — school boards rarely think of themselves an managers of independent organizations, and often they have no framework for recognizing what sort of skills and tactics are required.  However it is made far harder as many elected officials (particularly those with higher political aspirations) depend heavily on the political support and contributions of groups for whom charter schools are a threat to both membership and job security.

And lastly, many of these same officials are reluctant to make unpopular decisions — like closing poorly performing charters — that might upset any members of their existing or potential future constituencies. This invites contradictory positions, with even anti-charter board members voting to keep poorly performing charter schools open — as if they desired the continued failure of these charters to serve as a useful political punching bag while pleasing the inevitable parents who want the school to remain open.

What is required instead is continued research (building on studies like this) that looks at best practices and rankings of authorizers, and then compares the schools in those top districts with their traditional peers.  Secondly might be a comparative study of charters and TPS in districts with mayoral control — where the political process that so clearly contorts some authorizers is eliminated.

Now, don’t be fooled, as some ideologues will put forward not specific ideas on improving the authorization process, but merely impediments to charters at all.  But most practically the challenge should be placed squarely on the school boards themselves.

There should be no more question about the relative success of charter schools in DPS, thanks in no small part to the history of effective authorizing.  Nor, given the overwhelming parental support and substantial waiting lists in Colorado, do I think anyone serious believes in eliminating charters all together (or political stunts such as a moratorium, which is contrary to state law).

But will elected board members in Colorado’s 170+ school districts take seriously their role of authorizer and of themselves ask: not what can we do to dismantle the authorization process, but what can we do to improve it?

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