Charter schools may look different from state to state, but one common denominator is that each charter school has an entity that is charged with defining school autonomies and holding the school accountable. But what do we call this entity: sponsor or authorizer?
When the idea of charter schools was first conceived, Minnesota legislators focused on innovation, experimentation, and flexibility and believed that new and better school models would organically emerge and help shape the traditional school sector. They imagined autonomous schools and “sponsors” helping these autonomous schools succeed. Many sponsors created schools that were an extension of their mission or social service programs. Innovation and autonomy in the charter sector continue to shape public education today with new models like blended learning, programs with longer school days, and non-traditional teacher compensation policies. And while we hear of many schools’ successes under these new and different models, we also hear of atrocious school failures. There are many claims, some valid, that failing schools are not held accountable; some point to the system-wide failure of sponsors.
What legislators in those early years didn’t consider fully was the other half of the charter bargain: accountability. Maybe it was the “Minnesota nice” in them (a term of endearment from a fellow Minnesotan). Maybe it was the opinion that all students were above average. Or maybe it was just too early in the evolution of charter schools to understand how the charter model, that looked great on paper, would develop in the real world. As the charter school law was adapted and adopted across the country over the last 20 years, these entities that support, cheerlead, and fist-pump charter schools morphed into “authorizers.” With a new name came renewed focus on the charter bargain. The term “authorizer” is more consistent with the legal obligations assigned to them. Authorizers approve schools, evaluate them, and determine whether they should continue to serve students or close.
Many states still use the term “sponsor” to describe the entity that holds schools accountable, but more and more states are choosing to use “authorizer” to describe this accountability mechanism. In the places where sponsors hold charter schools accountable, they often also must provide services inconsistent with these legally-assigned duties. Some states still require sponsors to provide technical assistance to charter schools, creating a problematic conflict for the sponsor when it has to evaluate the school. As charter schools evolve into the next twenty years, we expect to see clearer and more aligned understanding of the role of the authorizer in both defining autonomies and holding schools accountable.