Good authorizing is about function more than form; there is no one type of authorizer or authorizing structure that works best in all circumstances. Indeed, every authorizer type comes with its own set of advantages and challenges.
As authorizing evolves—with more focus on how to build excellent schools with communities—it is time to reflect on improving existing authorizing structures, and in some cases, considering new ones.
In the coming weeks, through this blog series, we will take a deeper look at a variety of authorizing structures, including their benefits and drawbacks. We will also discuss how new and different kinds of authorizers might be advantageous in certain contexts.
In the meantime, let’s start with what research tells us about the characteristics that advance some authorizers to head of the class. What did NACSA find in its comprehensive study (2018) on authorizers with strong school portfolios? The authorizers with the strongest school portfolios and performance outcomes implement foundational best practices and share these additional characteristics:
- Leadership. 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.
- Judgment. Great authorizers make decisions based on what will drive student outcomes, not based on checking boxes or personal beliefs.
- Commitment. Great authorizers work in institutions committed to quality authorizing—where it is visible, championed, and adequately resourced, not buried in bureaucracy or seen as less important than other institutional work. The people responsible for day-to-day authorizing functions have influence over decision making.
In addition to these critical criteria of leadership, judgment, and commitment, NACSA believes that excellent authorizers center and engage communities.
Knowing these are key ingredients, it is essential that policymakers follow a recipe for success when legislating authorizer structures.
- Identify institutions that will embrace the authorizing role. Quality authorizing is closely linked to commitment and capacity. Every state’s mix of authorizers should be committed to professionally fulfilling the role. Authorizers should be required to apply or register for the ability to authorize.
- Offer charter school applicants at least two quality authorizer options. The presence of at least two provides choice to applicants and promotes authorizer excellence. It also protects from hostile authorizers or those who don’t have the capacity. Although multiple authorizing options is recommended, sometimes too many authorizers can dilute quality without proper oversight.
- Give authorizers the resources to do their jobs. Authorizer fee structures or other funding streams should be available to ensure authorizers can build capacity and pursue excellence. Most authorizers are funded through a fee of two to three percent of per-pupil funding from schools or from a state budget line item. Irrespective of how funding is allocated, it should be set by the state and applied uniformly across all authorizers, and it should be low, yet adequate to do the job well. Furthermore, transparency in how resources are spent is essential.
- Hold all authorizers to high standards. Just as charter schools are held accountable, authorizers should also be expected to perform. A well-developed state system for evaluating authorizer performance against student outcomes—one that includes both academic metrics, as well as metrics that show growth in other important areas—and professional standards of practice can ensure all types of authorizers are effectively fulfilling their responsibilities. When the authorizer’s practices are weak or inappropriate, or their portfolio’s performance is especially poor, sanctions should be available. Similar to school oversight, authorizer oversight systems should be carefully developed, reviewed, and modified periodically to make sure they are not producing an undue burden on authorizers. They also should be examined to determine if such systems are producing intended results.
- Ensure statutory language allows for community collaboration. Statutory language should clarify what types of community engagement should be required or permitted, and permit authorizers to incorporate and prioritize community input as part of their authorizing practices. For example, incorporating community feedback from students and families is essential to quality decision-making and should be required or encouraged. However, allowing authorizers who have not properly engaged with and sought feedback from the community to veto charter schools should be discouraged or prohibited.