What’s the Deal with Co-Dependent Authorizers?

I have been wrestling with authorizers that want to play a role in improving struggling charter schools. This goes against NACSA’s recommendations as outlined in our Principles and Standards of Quality Charter School Authorizing. We generally recommend that authorizers identify school’s failures and shortcomings. However, according to NACSA, after informing them of their failure and the consequences, the authorizer should not collaborate in the school’s self-improvement process.

In some cases, I don’t think the authorizers really believe in closing a failing school – ever. They may not think the problems are so bad; or they are afraid of having to close other schools with similar problems (which may not be charter schools). Or, they’re looking for ways to justify delay.

The authorizers that try to act as saviors are unlikely to fix the school. If fixing schools was easy, our school districts would have fixed all our traditional schools that are struggling by now. And to make matters worse, by try trying to fix schools, they undermine their authority, ability, and willingness to close the school should that become necessary.

Despite this view, the issue is still a regular topic of debate in the field. I’ve heard of three types of cases:

1. There are schools that are performing badly enough to create angst, but not badly enough to close. The school is going to stay on the authorizer’s portfolio, and as the authorizer is accountable for all their schools, the mediocre school makes them look bad. The authorizer feels obliged to make it better, in part to make sure they do not suffer shame in the media or consequences under the state’s accountability system.

2. A struggling school will likely be closed, but not until their charter is up for renewal in a few years. As they move toward the anticipated closure, the authorizer feels increasingly compelled “to do something to help” in the final years. They do so to strengthen their argument that “they did everything in their power before closing the school.” This is especially tempting if the closure can be appealed or if their action is likely to become controversial in the media.

3. A school transfers from one authorizer to another. The school faced closure under the previous authorizer. The new authorizer justifies their facilitation of a low-performing school’s forum shopping by arguing that “the school’s previous authorizer was hostile and didn’t give them the kind of support they need to succeed. So we’re going to take it over, and if they still can’t turn it around after they get our help, then we will close them down.”

All these cases lead to what I would call “co-dependent authorizing.” Like co-dependent relationships between people, there is a level of dysfunction by one of the members, in this case the school. That first dysfunction is exacerbated by the partner who tries to own too much of the responsibility for the problem, which introduces a second form of dysfunction.

Like counselors of such relationships when they occur between people, I feel compelled to tell the authorizers in these relationships that they are not the one who need to fix this problem. It is not their fault or responsibility. By claiming ownership of the problem, they are making it even more complicated and ugly than it needs to be. They are taking the school off the hook for dealing with its “stuff”, and they are enabling a long-term problem that might otherwise have been dealt with directly. Of course, I am absolutely unqualified as a counselor of people, so please take my relationship advice with the grain of salt that is intended.

When I hear these stories in the charter school world, I recognize the urgency and authorizer’s compelling interest in the school actually getting better. But, to absolutely over-extend the metaphor, I think the authorizers are suffering from two forms of relationship-induced myopia that blind them to the risks of their behavior:

First, they see themselves as capable of fixing the problem. If the school does not even own their problems, they will not likely accept the help or sincerely engage in changing behavior. Ask yourself, when was the last time these saviors successfully turned around schools that were broken?

Second, they are sure that after they try to help for awhile, they will be able to switch to a new role and call their partner on their issues when it is truly time to do so.
How does that work with your friends?

I fear in the charter world, a lot of kids will get hurt before the adults work this out.