NACSA is out with the fifth edition of its annual report on the state of charter authorizing.
I love this thing—great data on a critically important part of our field. If you’re interested in chartering, school-level accountability, or The Urban School System of the Future, you definitely want to check it out.
Almost a decade ago, NACSA produced the equivalent of industry standards—the stuff a high-quality authorizer ought to do. These relate to assessing charter applications, monitoring school performance, helping grow high-performers, revoking the charters of low-performers, etc.
This report assesses authorizers against what NACSA deems the 12 “essential practices” of the industry.
Overall, authorizers’ scores improved over last year’s, and large authorizers (those with 10+ schools) scored better than small ones.
Continuing a long-term trend, authorizers are increasingly picky shoppers—they approve far fewer applications than they did back in the day. The average approval rate is now 33 percent.
But many authorizers are still falling short on the back end of accountability: 34 percent of authorizers lack a clear, established policy to close underperforming schools.
Some of the report’s most interesting findings relate to the different types of authorizers (there are six kinds nowadays). The vast majority (more than 90 percent) are local school districts, but they generally authorize few schools apiece; their portfolios combine for only 53 percent of all charters.
Districts score lower than non-district authorizers overall, and their policies are far less friendly to replication than non-district authorizers,
In my recent policy brief arguing for a reboot of charter school governance, I said that states need to create the right policy environment to ensure that management companies aren’t acting as puppeteers determining all the moves of a charter school and controlling the governing boards that ought to be in charge. When boards are mere rubber stamps, questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest are sure to follow (look at the calamity that has befallen the American Indian Model charter schools in California to see how an ineffectual and subservient board can crash even the highest flying charter).
But as my colleague Kathryn Mullen Upton pointed out yesterday, there’s plenty of blame to go around when problems like this surface. Charter boards that agree to arrangements that effectively make them subordinate to managers and vendors are as much at fault, said Upton, who oversees the Fordham Foundation’s charter authorizing operations in Ohio. Moreover, authorizers that grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement bear responsibility, too.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has recommended policies that explicitly assert the independence of the boards that ordinarily hold the charter and ultimately answer to the public. These include performance contracts that not only show how a board will assess a vendor’s performance but will terminate the contract if necessary. And there ought to be laws, just as in Florida, that explain
It may seem absurd that one of California’s worst-performing school districts can kill the state’s finest charter school network. But that is the reality facing the 650 mostly poor and minority, but very high-achieving students enrolled at the American Indian Model charter schools. The Oakland Unified School District voted 4-3 last month to shut down the network after a state audit reported that a lack of financial controls allowed the charter’s former principal and chief executive, Ben Chavis, to improperly enrich himself with millions of dollars of school business.
It is, however, hard to see how the Oakland district could have responded differently. The audit, which was issued in June 2012, concluded that Chavis was able to channel $3.8 million from school accounts to his personal business interests—mostly because the charter’s governing board “failed to maintain and exercise its responsibilities, authority, and control.”
Indeed, the audit showed that a charismatic and assertive school leader had control over American Indian’s governing board instead of the other way around. Auditors found multiple examples of self-dealing and conflicts of interest in transactions that benefitted Chavis’ consulting, real estate, and construction enterprises—transactions that often put Chavis in the position as landlord to the schools he led. But there were no evidence that the board approved these dealings or ever put them out for competitive bidding. “The lack of due diligence and internal controls by the governing board has effectively granted [Chavis] and his spouse unrestricted
Compromise is rarely considered a political virtue. That’s why political analyst Peter Wehner made a distinction between compromise and prudence. “Compromise can’t be judged in the abstract,” Wehner wrote for Commentary. “It can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).”
The description helps us parse two different outcomes on school choice legislation in two states: Mississippi and Tennessee. In the former, at least one charter school advocate bemoaned the “compromised bill” that went last week to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a bill that finally allows start-up charters in the Magnolia State and an independent state authorizer but also allows better-performing districts to effectively neuter that new state body. In the latter, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam decided last week to pull his favored voucher bill before letting any legislative members of his party amend it. Haslam sought a limited voucher program for low-income students in low-performing districts, whereas Republicans lawmakers wanted to enlarge it to serve more families.
No doubt Haslam wants private school choice in the Volunteer State. Last year, he directed education commissioner Kevin Huffman to lead a task force to study how a voucher program would best work and embraced the concept in January when he appeared with Jeb Bush at a forum on education reform. But he
About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
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