Helpful tools for covering authorizers and their impact on charter school quality.
Despite the integral role authorizers play shaping the quality and availability of charter schools in every city and state, they remain one of the least explored aspects of charter school coverage. Because most charter school problems are manifestations of authorizing problems, reporters have an opportunity to create greater impact in their communities by including authorizing in their charter school coverage.
Authorizers are the roughly 1,000 legal entities across 44 states that decide who can start a new charter school, set academic and operational expectations, and oversee school performance. They also decide whether a charter should remain open or close at the end of its contract.
Authorizers are responsible for the quality of the schools in their portfolio. They ensure each school they oversee has the freedom to adapt and meet the needs of its students, while ensuring it meets performance expectations, treats all students fairly, and spends public tax dollars appropriately.
Their oversight is based on the premise that it is a privilege to educate children, s privilege is earned based on school performance, not granted into perpetuity.
Authorizers vary depending on state law. Nearly 90 percent of authorizers across the country are local school districts, but they can also be state education agencies, independent chartering boards, universities, mayors and municipalities, and non-profit organizations.
Some states have many types of authorizers (Indiana, Ohio, Michigan), while others have only a few (Massachusetts, New York, Arizona). Best practice is to have more than one type of authorizer in any jurisdiction (e.g., the local school district and an independent chartering board); however, in six states, school districts are the only bodies that can approve and oversee charter schools.
All authorizers should be able to provide:
- A copy of the charter contract that sets expectations for the school from Day 1
- An annual report on each charter school they oversee, containing basic information about the school, demographic data, and a summary of its academic, financial, and operational performance to date
- Records and rationale behind high-stakes decisions made about the school (e.g., why the authorizer voted to approve the application, renew or revoke the school’s charter, or close the school)
Common Charter School Problems that are Authorizing Issues
Because good authorizing is often misunderstood, the public has trouble connecting problems at individual schools to larger structural problems: in most instances, the system of oversight has failed their community, not the charter model itself. Below are some common charter school problems that are manifestations of poor authorizing and oversight.
- Waste, fraud and abuse. Authorizers are responsible ensuring schools spend public tax dollars appropriately. Good authorizers design oversight processes to catch any suspicious activity, including requiring financial audits of schools conducted by a qualified independent auditor and reviewing major contracts for conflict of interests during the application process. One-off instances are often examples of accountability and oversight in action, where as a repeated pattern of schools with issues suggests a larger problem in oversight.
- Schools not serving all students. Good authorizers help increase students’ access to good charter schools by helping parents get information about the schools, ensuring the process for applying to schools is family-friendly, and that each school’s admissions process is fair. Authorizers should also ensure that students with disabilities and English Learners are being accepted and served at the school.
- High rates of suspensions and expulsions at charter schools. Good authorizers make data on suspension and expulsion rates at each school available to the public, and flag concerns about high rates to a school’s leadership so that they can find a solution to address the issue at the school level. These rates can—and should—inform the authorizer’s decision about the school’s ability to remain open (or expand) at the end of its contract.
- Many low-performing schools in a community: A good authorizer upholds the charter bargain—increased autonomy in return for accountability—by closing schools that aren’t serving a community well at the end of their contract. Closure is a sign the system of oversight is working: Authorizers are responsible for the quality of their portfolios, and one cannot be a good authorizer of bad schools. A pattern of low-performing schools in one portfolio suggests poor oversight.
- An application process where no schools are reviewed or approved in a year: A good authorizer is dedicated to providing more options for children through the creation and replication of high-quality schools. An authorizer that isn’t reviewing new proposals isn’t doing its job. While it is possible that an authorizer failed to receive any quality applications in a year, this can also be a sign of a hostile authorizer that is failing to live up to its responsibilities to the community.
- Staff recommendations that don’t align with final decisions: A good authorizer is structured so that staff make high-stakes recommendations—based on what will drive student outcomes—directly to its board. While some disagreements are to be expected, a pattern of misalignment between the board and staff suggests politics may be at play, rather than what’s best for children.
- Authorizer accountability
- Multiple authorizers in a given jurisdiction
- Authorizer shopping (when a struggling charter transfers to a new authorizer to avoid accountability)
- Alternative accountability for schools
- Virtual charter schools
- Authorizing 101 Video Resources:
Resources & Available Data
- Best practices in charter school oversight (academic, financial, operational)
- A list of authorizers allowed by state
- Federal charter school policy (Charter Schools Program, How ESSA impacts charter schools and authorizing)
- National data on charter school authorizing, including the total number of authorizers, and information about charter school openings and closures across the country
- Trends in charter school proposals and approvals
- Data on charter school openings and closures
Questions to Inform Coverage During Each Stage of the Charter School Lifecycle
Applications & Openings
Is this charter school likely to be successful from the start? Did the authorizing staff’s recommendation align with the final vote by the board? If not, why?
Educational & Operational Plan
- Who does the school plan on serving and how does this align with community needs?
- How does the school plan on serving students with special needs?
- Are the achievement goals ambitious but realistic?
- Does the school show evidence that its educational plan is likely to work?
- Does the school have a facility identified? Is the plan realistic in terms of timeline and budget (e.g., Identification of the steps between lease execution and school opening)?
- Who plans on leading the school? What is that leader’s experience and track record?
- Who is listed as board members? Are they actively involved in the process, or just listed on the application?
- Does the school’s governing board possess an adequate array of skills and expertise to effectively govern a charter school?
- Is this a replication of a charter school that exists elsewhere? If so, how is that school doing?
Finance Management & Contracts:
- Are the education plan priorities reflected adequately in the budget (e.g., if the school wants low classroom sizes, is it reflected in the staffing budget)?
- Does the budget accurately reflect what it costs to run a school, the available funding sources and market rates?
- If any part of the budget relies on fundraising, what evidence have the applicants provided that they will be able to secure those funds?
- Is the school planning on contracting with an educational service provider/management organization? If so, does the management agreement make sure the governing board has the ultimate responsibility for the school’s success and that it controls the school’s finances?
- Were any perceived conflicts of interest identified in the key contracts (e.g., facilities lease, third-party educational service provider/management organization)? If so, how were they resolved?
Ongoing Oversight & Monitoring
- Is this school serving the community well? How is the school living up to the academic, financial, and operational expectations included in its performance contract?
- Is the school serving the students it said it would in the proposal?
- Has the authorizer flagged any concerns with the school’s performance to date, and if so, what actions has the school taken to address these concerns?
- Reminder: The authorizer should be publishing an annual report on each charter school it oversees that contains basic information about the school, demographic data, and a summary of its academic, financial, and operational performance to date.
- Has the school achieved the academic, financial, and operational performance goals included in the charter contract?
- Has the school lived up to its mission and promise to the community over the contract?
- Have there been any major interventions over the term of the contract? If so, how have they been resolved or are there any remaining issue? Has the authorizer flagged any additional areas for improvement?
- Is this the school’s first renewal? If not, were there any performance issues discussed as part of the last renewal process?
- Who wasn’t the school serving well?
- Are there parents with stories that support the authorizer’s assessment of the school’s performance to date?
- What expectations and performance measures did the school agree to in its contract?
- How had the authorizer been monitoring the school? What did the authorizer find? Ask for past annual performance reports, which should be publicly available.
- What has the authorizer done to course correct in the years between the school’s opening and now?
- How much money was being spent for the results the school was achieving? Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars?
- What is being done to ensure a smooth transition for students to better schools?
- Once the immediate transfer needs are addressed, what actions are being taken to create more great options for the community in the long term?