Non-educational governmental entities (NEG) are a rare type of authorizer—there are only three! In all three cases, the NEG is a city and/or mayoral office. In a mayoral authorizing structure, authorizing staff is located within the office of the mayor. Instead of a board making final high-stakes authorizing decisions, the mayor is the decision maker.
While uncommon, NEG authorizers have potential, especially in responding to and centering community-centered authorizing, and NACSA believes more states should consider allowing this authorizing type as an option via state law. We will explore advantages and disadvantages of NEGs, and will hear from NACSA’s president & CEO, Karega Rausch, about his experiences as an authorizer with the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office.
- Political support. Unfortunately, education—including charter schools—can be highly politicized. When authorizing is located within an NEG, like a mayor’s office, the elected official(s) can lend some of their political capital to the cause, helping to bring credibility and goodwill to the issue.
- High visibility. Quality authorizing has direct access to decision makers and key stakeholders in order to elevate authorizing issues. When authorizing is located within an NEG, the mayor and their staff can ensure important charter school issues do not get lost within layers of bureaucracy.
- Local knowledge. The very mission of a mayoral office is to serve a specific community, and as such, their staff and systems are often structured in ways to solicit and act on community input. This local knowledge can ensure that when it comes to charter schools, local families and community voices are prioritized.
- Access to public and private resources. NEGs often have access to financial resources, such as community grants, that charter schools or the communities they serve could benefit from. As authorizers, they can inform their portfolios of these resources and shepherd them through the complexities of accessing them.
- Lack of inherent educational expertise. Being a NEG may mean that few people on staff have relevant education and authorizing experience. However, if resources are appropriately allocated, then this challenge can be overcome with smart hiring and staffing structures and practices.
- Sustainability with political turnover and shifting priorities. Many local governments have term limits for their mayors, making turnover inevitable. On average, every eight years most cities have a new mayoral administration. This political uncertainty can be daunting, but to-date, none of the existing NEGs have lessened their commitment to authorizing, despite political turnover.
In a recent conversation with the president and CEO of NACSA, Karega Rausch reflected on his time as an authorizer with the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office. A condensed version of the interview follows.
What are the benefits of mayoral authorizing?
From my experience, the biggest advantage was being close to community. By definition, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office had to be inherently responsive. As in most mayoral offices, we had neighborhood liaisons whose sole job was to listen to local communities and to deliver pragmatic solutions to those needs.
Tell us about a time you think the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office exemplified the ways mayoral authorizers can center community?
I can think of a few examples. This is a simple one, but mattered a lot to the school—there was a brand new charter school coming on board and there was some red tape related to getting a school zone sign to let drivers know to slow down. The school did all the right things and went through the requisite channels, but they needed the process expedited. So, it wasn’t hard for me to walk down the hallway to the director of Public Works and ask them to bump the issue up the priority list. And it got done two days later.
Another example is related to access to capital. Back in 2010, charter schools were still seen by a lot of investors as a risky kind of thing, not because they were bad but because they were still fairly new. And so many charter schools were having difficulties accessing financing, so the mayor’s office actually created a program, working with a philanthropic partner, to provide low-cost financing. I think the really cool and interesting part was that the city put its moral obligation behind each of those deals. What that means is that if for some reason, the school was going to default on its loan, the mayor’s office would cover any shortfalls. This made a huge difference and provided some high-quality schools with access to capital for their facilities.
And then finally, I’ll give the example of Indianapolis’ Excel Centers. Currently, there are approximately ten centers across Indiana, and there are also centers in DC and Tennessee. But they all started with a community meeting in Indianapolis that an enterprising charter office staff member attended. At the meeting, community members expressed that the current GED programs that were being offered at the time were insufficient. This led to a conversation with the CEO of the education program for the Goodwill Industry of Central Indiana, a local community organization whose mission was to help people find, prepare for, and keep jobs. They did tremendous work and saw an opportunity when we shared the need for something better than the local GED programs. A few months later, we had a charter application for the first Excel Center that was designed to serve students who were over-age and under-credited and to get them a high school diploma. And because they were rooted in the community and had prior experience with the community, Goodwill understood the barriers students who were over-age and had dropped out faced. They were able to leverage resources and tap into existing programs to help address issues from transportation to child care. It was wildly effective and a great example of an authorizer like the mayor’s office hearing what was happening in the community, knowing partners, and having a conversation with an entity that said ‘Oh this could be fantastic for us’ and then letting them make it happen.
Given the potential for success, why do you think so few states have NEG authorizers?
When charter legislation was being considered in Indiana, the Mayor of Indianapolis at the time, Bart Peterson, said ‘If you give me this authority, I’ll use and it and will do good things.’ So, it could mean that more mayors need to say that they want the opportunity to step up and make the model work for kids and families.
I think there also may be some concerns among policymakers around changing administrations and what that means for long-term sustainability. But Indianapolis is a proof point! There have been three different mayors since becoming an authorizer—two Democrats and one Republican—and they have all been “singing from the same hymnal” around the importance of charter school quality, the importance of expanding access, and demanding that schools do excellent work. Meeting unmet needs, listening to communities, and building opportunities is good politics, in addition to being the right thing to do for kids.
 As of 2018: https://www.qualitycharters.org/authorizing-by-the-numbers/authorizer-demographics/
 The cities/mayoral offices that authorize are Indianapolis, IN; Milwaukee, WI; and, Cleveland, OH.