Time to focus on the other half of the charter-authorizer marriage

What is the nature of the relationship between a charter school authorizer and a charter school board? Fordham’s Terry Ryan often makes the case, just as he did at the recent conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, that it’s similar to a marriage. Spouses bring their own interests and agendas to the union, and it takes a system of checks and balances to keep the marriage from failing, as so many do.

Katie & Porter's Wedding
The marriage between charter schools and their authorizers can be challenging.
Photo by Kimberly Vardeman.

To date, most of our policy discussions have focused on holding one partner in the authorizer-charter relationship accountable: the school itself. Two recent papers suggest we should pay more attention to the inputs and outcomes of the significant other.

One paper comes from David Osborne for the Progressive Policy Institute, who argues that “the key to quality in the charter sector is quality authorizing” and calls for authorizers to do more to close the worst-performing schools (Fordham’s Ryan reviewed the paper this week on the Ohio Gadfly Daily). The other is a policy brief that comes from Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and recommends strengthening state laws that encourage performance contracts between authorizers and charters and even suggests greater accountability of the authorizers themselves.

StudentsFirst says that state laws are too often silent on the responsibilities of the authorizers (most often school districts) and they generally lack references to performance metrics that should guide the renewal or acceptance of a charter application. Moreover, Rhee’s group suggests that many school boards are doing a poor job of authorizing because they either don’t have the desire to do the job right or they don’t know what sound authorizing principles look like.

This is where Rhee can bring her strength and national influence to bear. StudentsFirst is recommending greater diversity among the nation’s authorizers (90 percent of all authorizers are school districts) and the group suggests that more statewide charter commissions, among other alternatives, could do the job. An independent charter commission that embraces principles of quality and transparency, either voluntarily or by law, would have the impact that both StudentsFirst and Osborne are seeking. But, in many cases, it takes a heavy political lift to establish. Of anybody, Rhee is well suited for that task.

Independent chartering boards oversee just 15 percent of the nation’s charter schools, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Three states established chartering boards last year, but Georgia lost its own when the state’s Supreme Court said the commission violated the constitution by approving charter schools over the objection of local school boards (Georgia voters will have the chance to re-establish the commission at the ballot box this November). That decision followed a similar conclusion in Florida, where an appeals court in 2008 declared the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission unconstitutional.

Rhee and StudentsFirst can’t stop the status quo from seeking relief in the courts, but they can bring backing to legislators facing strident school board opposition. Rhee has the bully pulpit, and now a laudable model charter bill, to accomplish her goals. She and David Osborne are right to point out the need for greater accountability among charter school authorizers, but StudentsFirst is uniquely positioned to push for state laws that enhance accountability and the conditions that allow high-performing charters to flourish.

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