Authorizing for Impact: What We Learned at the 2019 NACSA Leadership Conference


Authorizing for Impact: What We Learned at the 2019 NACSA Leadership Conference

Dr. Bettina Love kicked off the 2019 NACSA Leadership Conference with a passionate and provocative keynote asking us all to put something on the line to build something better and bigger for the students we serve. Her remarks set the stage for a week filled with new voices, new approaches, and new questions about how high-quality authorizing fits into broader education reform efforts.

Several themes emerged, and within each, there are some important policy takeaways that will likely influence our work in the coming months.

Do We Need New Ways of Evaluating ‘Innovative’ Models?

One recurring theme was the unique challenges faced by educators employing non-traditional educational approaches. For example, the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition and the National Charter Collaborative led a session about the challenges for intentionally diverse and culturally affirming charter schools and how authorizing policies impact the creation and success of these schools. In another panel, NACSA’s Vice President of Research & Evaluation and a representative from Pearson Education discussed whether virtual charter schools require an entirely different policy approach.

There are also policy questions for expanding charter schools into new geographic markets. Bellwether Education led a discussion on the unique conditions rural charter schools operate under and policy considerations to support these schools.

As the charter sector matures, policy changes may be necessary in order to maintain a commitment to innovation.

How Can Authorizers Protect Equitable Access?

Many sessions explored whether authorizers should work to ensure equity in charter schools and, if so, what policies are necessary to do so. Two sessions that explored these questions directly included a panel led by Public Impact on how authorizers and policy can keep highest-need students visible in accountability data, as well as a workshop led by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools on evaluating special education program plans.

These sessions and others presented important questions on how state policies need reform to ensure that protecting equity is a priority and not simply an afterthought. This aligns well with the equity and access policy resources we are working on and plan to launch in the near future.

Should Authorizers Help Improve Middle-Tier Charter Schools?

The charter sector has clear ideas of what to do with low-performing and high-performing charter schools, but, as the sector has matured, no consensus has developed around what policies should be in place for schools in the middle. Should authorizers provide additional support to help these schools improve? Should accountability standards be raised, threatening these schools with closure? Or should they simply be left alone?

These questions came up in at least seven sessions throughout the week. In one, the Detroit Children’s Fund argued “we can’t open and close our way to systemwide improvement,” supporting the argument that authorizers should support charter schools in improvement efforts. In another, WestEd discussed its recent research into “turnaround” options for charter schools.

Behind these sessions and others is a realization that, as the sector continues to mature, new policy responses may be necessary.

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The diversity of new ideas, trends, and questions was inspiring for the work ahead, and NACSA will continue to help advocacy partners use high-quality authorizing as a lever to solve some of our greatest public education challenges. Look for our first Equity & Access in Authorizing resource on student transportation coming later this month, as well as updates on how these trends will shape the upcoming legislative session.

Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at jasonz@qualitycharters.org