There’s a right way to authorize charter schools; Mississippi chose the wrong way

This is not a good start for one of the newest states empowered to start up charter schools. The Associated Press has reported that the newly created Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board lacks the money and the leadership to do its job. It’s gotten so bad that the state’s charter association has asked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to contribute seed money to the board.

The worst part is this kind of trouble should have been anticipated. Until this year, Mississippi prohibited start-up charter schools; only low-performing public schools were allowed to seek charter status. But even though the state legislature has since approved the creation of independent charter schools, it budgeted no money for the state board that will authorize them and has demanded that the board’s executive director have a law degree. Mississippi governor Phil Bryant and Republican leaders made a lot of political concessions to get this charter law passed this year (the law allows no virtual schools, and districts with higher grades on the state’s report card can veto charter applications), but this neutering of the state charter authorizer shouldn’t have been one of them.

After twenty-one years of charter schooling, we know what it takes to do authorizing right, and this isn’t it. As a reference, consider what my colleagues Michael Petrilli and Ty Eberhardt wrote on the subject two years ago:

Since the charter movement began, we have learned a great deal about what is required of effective authorizers (thanks, in part, to the great work done at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools). These authorizers are responsible, professional organizations that believe in charters but equally in student achievement. They have expert staffs. They have sufficient resources (via school fees or a state appropriation) to play their role competently. And they themselves are held to account for their performance and that of their schools. For example, the Ohio legislature recently passed a law that will bar authorizers from opening new schools if their current schools are particularly low-performing. That’s well worth trying elsewhere.

Which state statutes are particularly strong on charter school authorizing?

Minnesota, the state with the top-ranked charter law for two years straight, according to the NAPCS, provides a good primer. Authorizers are able to collect sufficient fees to oversee their charters effectively. Before sponsoring a charter, the state requires them to undergo a thorough vetting by the commissioner of education, and then submit to a state review of their school-evaluation practices every five years. At every step, from initial authorization to renewal or closure, clear and comprehensive procedures exist for relationships among state, authorizer, and charter. States that already boast high-quality authorizers may not need that level of prescription, but for jurisdictions with legitimate quality concerns, the Land of 10,000 Lakes offers a strong example.

As of yet, it’s not fair to lump Mississippi in with states that have “legitimate quality concerns,” but if the Magnolia State continues on its present course, it’s just a matter of time before its fledgling charter sector devolves into mediocrity. Why? Look to the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, which asserts,

Authorizers have responsibilities to the public to ensure that charter schools are academically organizationally and fiscally sound. To fulfill these responsibilities, authorizers need human capital and financial resources. Sufficient public funding should be allocated to enable competent execution of core authorizer functions.   

In other words, the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board needs the freedom to recruit the human capital that knows how to authorize the schools with the potential to fly high. It also needs adequate funding and appropriate accountability for the money it spends.

Every new state that passes a charter law contributes to the overall perception of the national charter movement. That’s why the Mississippi legislature should reconsider its actions on charter authorizing. It might otherwise stumble in its first steps.

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