Key Findings

Leadership, Commitment, Judgment

Elements of Successful Charter School Authorizing

Great authorizers—those with strong school portfolios and performance outcomes—implement foundational best practices that NACSA has promoted for years. But to achieve outstanding outcomes, more is needed. When compared to others nationally, great authorizers also share certain additional unmistakable characteristics.

Below are examples of demonstrated leadership, judgment, and commitment by some of the best authorizing offices in our nation. 

Great authorizers are dedicated to a mission of giving more children access to better schools through the proactive creation and replication of high-quality charter schools and the closure of academically low-performing ones.

In Action

The State University of New York’s Charter School Institute (SUNY) sent a clear message early in its existence with several high-profile closures of failing schools, which signaled it would put the interests of students above all else and that trustees and staff were serious about upholding standards. These early moves helped improve the quality of their portfolio in another way: stronger charter school operators who value tough but supportive oversight have flocked to them, while those desiring to fly under the radar or not interested in strong accountability have tended not to apply to SUNY.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools created a successful, well-vetted application process that is the key to the quality of its portfolio. With smart application and opening tools in place, the authorizer was able to successfully recruit both homegrown operators that grew into networks and national charter management organizations to the district. It was also able to remain focused on quality during a period of increased application activity that followed sweeping education reforms in Tennessee in 2009-11. In addition, their Office of Charter Schools advocates for charter schools within the district, helping them navigate intra-district issues and ensuring that schools receive the resources and support to which they are entitled. 

Example Practices that Matter

  • Great authorizers take an active role when a school is closed. This can include trying to find a replacement operator and project managing (either directly or through other organizations) the process of ensuring students have access to another school.
  • Unlike other areas of authorizing practice, authorizers are very hands on (sometimes quite intensively) in the pre-opening process, including directing schools on areas for change, collaborating with school support organizations, providing explicit informational and step-by-step resources for schools, and advocating on behalf of schools when necessary.

Great authorizers reflect their institution’s commitment to quality authorizing. Authorizing is visible, championed, and adequately resourced, rather than buried in a bureaucracy. The people responsible for day-to-day authorizing functions have influence over decision making.

In Action

The State University of New York (SUNY) Charter School Institute’s commitment to expanding quality options has been fostered by its structure of political accountability. The Institute is not part of the State Education Department, home of New York’s other statewide authorizer. The Institute’s leadership reports directly to SUNY’s Trustees (the final decision makers on high-stakes authorizing functions and decisions), providing important, direct influence on these decisions. The governor appoints the Trustees to seven-year terms, which provides the Institute with a layer of electoral accountability, as well as some insulation from influences and agendas unrelated to the Institute’s mission. This political independence gives the organization a kind of nimbleness.

Authorizing is one of three ways the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation works to increase school quality. The Foundation has maintained this organizational commitment to quality authorizing since 2005 by supporting—financially and in terms of human capital—a largely autonomous, highly visible authorizing operation. While day-to-day decisions are left to the authorizing staff, Fordham has an experienced and engaged leadership team (which includes head authorizing staff) and board of trustees. Their input helps to guide staff work and is critical to high-stakes decision making. Fordham’s commitment goes beyond quality authorizing of great schools: it seeks to be an exemplary authorizer for others to emulate.

Example Practices that Matter

  • Authorizing head (e.g., Executive Director) reports to Board and/or authorizing staff makes high-stakes recommendations directly to the Board.
  • Authorizing is a highly important and visible function within the larger “parent” organization.  The role of authorizing is explicitly mentioned in the larger parent organization’s strategic plan.

Great authorizers make decisions based on what will drive student outcomes, not based on checking boxes or personal beliefs.

In Action

Leaders and staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign have created a strong culture of professional judgment. Despite having created many of the processes and tools now regarded as best practices in charter authorizing, key application and intervention decisions—to a remarkable extent—are grounded in the professional judgement of staff. The highest value is often the collective wisdom of an experienced and highly-skilled team, whose understanding of quality is well aligned and routinely fine tuned. As a senior staff member put it, “Authorizing isn’t paint by numbers.”

When collecting key accountability data, Washington, D.C.’s Public Charter School Board allows schools to correct erroneous data, even if the deadline has passed. This ensures that high-stakes accountability is based on accurate information. They engage in a holistic approach to reviewing new and expansion charter applications, using a balanced assessment of strengths and weaknesses of leadership, academic program, finance, and equity that a scoring rubric would not. Board and staff join together for a final evaluation called “defense day,” where they debate what the decision should be. They have built a strong procedural foundation while building flexibility and discretion into decision making. 

Example Practices that Matter

  • Professional staff is not bound by protocols, templates, or other authorizing tools that limit their decision making. Staff has a clear belief and orientation that such tools assist, not dictate, decisions (a high degree of professional judgment is used in decision making).
  • Actively and intentionally acquire school data, including collecting data that may be disconfirming to perceptions. Data is actively explored, and incorporated into decision making (aligned with key decisions that need to be made, used to make all high-stakes decisions).