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There is a lingering myth in education reform circles that school districts hate charter schools and cannot be trusted as a charter authorizer if the sector is to be successful. This myth obscures important realities – and opportunities – for the charter movement. These are tough times for all public schools, and forward thinking districts want to make sure local charter schools have the support they need to be successful for students.
First reality check: school districts are at the heart of charter authorization.
About half of charter schools are licensed by districts, and nearly 90 percent of those who authorize are districts. In many states, they are the primary or the only authorizers. As leaders of state district authorizing associations in Colorado (which has the largest share of public school students in charters), California and Florida (which have some of the largest charter sectors in the country ), we work with district leaders who recognize charters as vital parts of their local school systems. These leaders do not see themselves for or against the charter; they just want to do their authorizing job well and see charter school students as children of their district. When given the opportunity to improve authorization, these districts adopt best practices such as National Association of Charter School Authorizers‘ Principles and Standards of the School Quality Charter Authorizing, and our associations are aligning our state-level supports for authorizers with the NACSA approach.
Second reality check: the importance of school districts to the charter industry will only increase.
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In some states, major policy changes portend further changes to district licensing. In 2016, Louisiana return of charter schools supervised by the state ordinator at the parish of Orléans. In 2019, Illinois decommissioned state authorizer, transferring 11 state-approved charters to the National Board of Education. While the Illinois State Board is still hearing the appeals, the districts will oversee future Illinois charter schools. That same year, California has increased its discretion restricting the criteria that the State Board of Education uses to adjudicate charter appeals; and transferring charters authorized by the board to districts and county offices of education. Additionally, a district can now reject a charter application based on its impact on finances and other community considerations.
If 2020 were any indication, powerful supporters of changes like these are likely to influence other states. The Democratic National Committee Platform 2020, if enacted, would make federal funding for new charters, extensions or renewals conditional on “a district’s scrutiny of whether the charter will systematically under-serve the most needy students.” Senator Elizabeth Warren’s position as a presidential candidate was to “allow school districts to serve as charter authorizer and allow school districts to reject applications that do not meet standards of transparency and accountability, to consider fiscal impact and pressure on district resources and to establish aggressive monitoring policies for charter schools. “ President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten welcomed these proposals, and the National Association of Education 2000 playbook for Congress and the Biden-Harris administration argued that “where they operate, charter schools should be licensed and held accountable by the same agency that oversees and assesses other schools in a public school district.”
Third reality check: State initiatives to improve and support district authorization are needed to meet a growing need.
One can have serious concerns about the policies described above and yet recognize the urgency of strengthening and supporting district licensing practices. One can be a serious skeptic of charter schools and fully embrace the principle that helping districts to properly license is in everyone’s best interest. Fortunately, people and organizations across the country, including our own, are working on it.
For three years, supported by a federal grant, the California charter authorizing professionals, the Colorado Charter School Authorizers Association and the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers brought together district staff to share their expertise and collaborate on improving quality clearance tasks. They helped design model resources and technical assistance strategies such as application packages, annual report templates and renewal manuals.
Our three states alone comprise about 30 percent of the nation’s charter schools and 40 percent of charter school authorizers. To help district leaders from other states hoping to pursue similar initiatives, we recently launched the National District Authorization Network. The network’s founding associations are in discussions with leaders from other states, including Georgia, Maryland and Oregon, where the authorizers want to start or expand their own efforts. We look forward to announcing more Member States in the coming months.
These initiatives are state-based for important reasons. State charter laws and policies vary. For example, the criteria that authorizers can use to deny or close a charter are set out in law, and how and to whom charter applicants and schools can appeal a denial or revocation depends on the state law. There are hundreds of small district authorizers – many of whom supervise only one or two charter schools – that have little or no dedicated full-time authorization staff. Instead, they divide responsibilities among central office staff with little time let alone training to clear the job.
Trying to move from ad hoc approaches to transparent and predictable systems, based on best practices, among so many small and fragmented licensing offices is almost impossible to do nationally. State initiatives can reach more small districts, tailor support to local needs, and create peer-to-peer networks that bring more districts into the community of trusted professionals.
That said, the work draws on local and national best practices. The leadership and expertise of groups like NACSA provide key lessons that inform efforts at the state level. State initiatives build their own localized versions of professional expectations, but they are keen to capitalize on national know-how. No one is interested in reinventing the wheels.
The pandemic has overturned the responsibility of charter schools and complicated surveillance. Forward-thinking districts are changing their own practices to pursue a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and achievements of charter schools, while strengthening the ability of charters to connect and reflect the communities they call home and to contribute to system-wide educational goals. Our network and our Member States are excited about this challenge and eager to partner with others.
Alex Medler is executive director of the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers. Melissa Brady is Executive Director of the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers. Tom Hutton is Executive Director of California Charter Authorizing Professionals.
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