Indianapolis, leading the dialogue on charter authorizing

City-County Council members in Indianapolis convened a panel of experts yesterday evening to discuss the impact of charter authorizers on school quality. The Council invited Fordham’s Terry Ryan, Mind Trust’s Dave Harris, radio personality Amos Brown, Indianapolis Public School Board member Caitlin Hannon, and National Association of Charter School Authorizer’s (NACSA) Amanda Fenton to share their advice and experience in charter authorizing. Currently, Indianapolis’ 31 charter schools are authorized by Ball State University, the newly formed Indiana Charter School Board, and the Indianapolis Mayor’s office. The discussion was intended to help city leaders understand what charter authorizers do, as well as the pros and cons of having multiple authorizers within one city or state.

The background to this meeting was the passage of House Bill 1002 in 2011, which has increased the number of authorizers in the Hoosier State. The legislation granted the Indiana Charter School Board and private universities the ability to become authorizers of schools, in the hope that it would broaden the amount of charter schools serving students. Dave Harris, however, argued that expanding the authorizer market was a “solution to a nonexistent problem” for Indiana. Harris, who helped create the Indianapolis mayor’s authorization office, stated that authorizers in Indianapolis have not reached capacity and that including more authorizers in the city would allow low-performing charters to “shop around” for an authorizer, in order to stay open.

Drawing on his experience here in the Buckeye State (Fordham authorizes 11 charters in Ohio), Terry also cautioned the Council about the potential downsides of having too many charter school authorizers. According to Terry’s presentation, Ohio’s plethora of authorizers—as of 2013, there were 66 authorizers, the majority of which are local school districts or ESCs—has created less-than ideal conditions for the growth and development of a high-quality charter school sector. Yet Terry also suggested that only a single statewide authorizer, or very few authorizers, may also stifle the development of high-performing charter schools.

The discussion also touched on topics such as the costs of quality charter school authorizing, and the fees associated with it (authorizers may charge schools a fee, though the Indianapolis Mayor’s office does not), common charter-district enrollment policies, and the state’s role in approving, overseeing, and terminating (if necessary) authorizers. At the end of the discussion, which the Indianapolis Star’s Scott Elliott called “thoughtful and respectful,” the panelists agreed that strong authorizing practices are critical for Indianapolis, as charter schools continue to grow and as Indiana moves into a multiple-authorizer environment. Ohio’s local leaders ought to take note, and follow Indianapolis’ lead in organizing a constructive dialogue between political, charter school, and district leaders around charter authorizing practices.

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