Monday, July 17, 2017

Building a Better Charter Authorizer

There has been a bit of a kerfluffle going on in reformsterland over charter accountability. Kicked off by the Center for Education Reform's book about how there should be less accountability, followed by Chester Finn  (Fordham Emeritus) calling their ideas names. That conversation eventually led to this piece by Rick Hess, considering the different levels of regulation by charter authorizers, which itself leads to this question:

I think the more relevant question for charter authorizing is how authorizers can deliver meaningful oversight without descending into kludgeocracy.

Okay-- so what would a better charter authorizer look like. Acknowledging that I am, in fact, a modern charter skeptic at best, let me go ahead and see if I can describe what we'd need in order to build a better charter authorizer.

The Beer Goggles Problem

Pat's had too much to drink and it's last call, so Pat takes home a person who, in  the cold morning light, turns out to be ugly and unpleasant. The problem is not the alcohol or the late hour. The problem is not even that the pickup was ugly and unpleasant. The real problem is that Pat felt it necessary to take someone whom, no matter what.

The charter industry has a beer goggles problem. Particularly in states like Florida and Ohio, folks are so committed to getting lots and lots of charters up and running, they aren't very careful about what gets authorized. "We're going to get something authorized," they declare, with the determination of someone who's damned if they'll go home alone tonight.

So step one in charter authorization? Place the burden of proof on the charter proposer. Assume that the charter is unnecessary until proven otherwise. This may not seem helpful to charter fans, but it actually helps focus the authorization process on the real reasons the charter should exist instead of a bunch of bogus paper games to justify a choice you've already made.

Geographic proximity

The authorizer should be in the same community as the charter being authorized. I would have thought this obvious, but consider Bay Mills Community College, located in the uppermost wilderness of Michigan, and yet authorizing charters all the way down in Detroit, hundreds of miles away. There's no conceivable way that an authorizer far, far away can possibly exercise meaningful oversight of the charters they authorize.

Also, authorizers far, far away lack the stakes of taxpayers in the community who will bear the burden of paying for the charter. That's a basic accountability fail.

Democratically responsive

Charter authorizers are responsible for deciding which organizations will get a cut of public tax dollars, therefor they need to be set up to be responsive to the taxpayers. I'm partial to the idea of an elected board, but I'm open to other forms. I know that many charter fans don't care for this, but I'd argue that having actual elected individuals to exercise judgment would end the need for hundreds of pages of paperwork and regulations.

No financial stakes

Authorizers must have absolutely no stake in the charters under consideration. Anything else is an obvious and (even in Trumpian times) an unacceptable invitation to self-serving conflict of interest, fraud and misuse of public funds. Charter entrepreneurs may not be charter authorizers. Charter authorizers may collect no fees or regular payments from the charters they approve.

Require educational and financial competence

New York authorized a charter for a 22-year-old education amateur with no background in any of the skills required to run a school. Florida gave a charter to a former male model with no educational o financial qualifications.  Whatever screening process authorizers use, they have got to take off their charter beer goggles and consider whether there's the slightest chance that the charter entrepreneur has a clue about what they're doing.

The only industry that comes close to such slackness restaurantery, where people routinely decide they can run a restaurant because they ate at one once. Massage therapists have to b certified. People who want to be doctors cannot just call the state and say, "Hey, could you clear me to go ahead and perform surgery? I'm really really interested in and concerned about surgery, so maybe I should be cleared to open a hospital."

Any proposal to run a charter school must clear a requirement to posses the business and educational expertise required.

Eyeballs beat paperwork

Here's a point on which reformsters and I agree-- the belief that paperwork magically represents and controls reality is more naïve than believing in Santa. The ability to create a really good stack of paperwork doesn't show anything except the ability to fill out paperwork. Authorizers must visit and inspect the charters they authorize on a regular basis. Personally.

Accountability via paperwork is the weakest kind of accountability of all, subject to inaccuracy, mistakes, confusion, and just plain lies. And it almost always measures the wrong thing.

Academic sufficiency

I'm not expecting authorizers to hold charters to some super-duper level of academic awesomeness. But authorizers should be making sure that students are taking core courses and not majoring in basket weaving.

Require representative school population

It's not that hard to figure out or track-- charter population must mirror the demographic breakdown of the community being served. No segregation academies. No charters that somehow avoid any students with special needs. If y9ou want to set up a special focus charter that's fine-- but if your Super Science Academy is 80% white males in a community with 50% black students, there's a problem. It's up the authorizer to enforce this requirement.


Perhaps implied by the rest, but I want to be clear-- authorizers should be making sure that the charter's operation and finances are an open book, easily visible to the taxpayers who foot the bill.

Hands on the Plug

Authorizers must have the power to pull the plug, and to do it right now. Many states have stacked the deck so that it's harder to close a charter than to fire a big city teacher. If authorizers can't shut down a badly failing charter school, what's the point?

Cyber charters

Nobody should be authorizing any more of these. While cybers have some value for a narrow slice of the student population, they have largely failed and we should not be talking about opening more-- we should be closing down the ones we have.

Odds and Ends

There are other issues that are probably better addressed as matters of state regulation. For instance, every classroom should be staffed with an actual trained professional teacher. But that kind of "any warm body will do" foolishness needs to be stopped in state legislatures, not at the authorizer level.

Real Accountability Is the Solution

The overall solution to charter's mountain of paperwork is more direct and regular oversight by authorizers. Despite lots of talk about the charter deal being a trade of autonomy for accountability, in practice charter operators have worked hard to have as little accountability as they can get away with, which has led to settling for the illusion of accountability, and nothing creates the illusion of accountability like miles and miles of forms and paperwork and reports and official bureaucratic baloney.

Here's what I've told my students many times: What I would like to do is assign this reading and then have some great discussions about it in class, and that will not only fun and interesting, but it will give me a good idea of how well you read. But if I toss out questions and you just stare at me, it will be a whole bunch of pop quizzes and in-class essays and other assignments I have to come up with to tell what you did or didn't do. We can do this the easy way (which is also the better way), or we can do it the hard way.

This is the same issue. The best way for charters to cut out the mountains of faux accountability paperwork is to open themselves up to authentic accountability measures (no, carefully crafted PR initiatives don't count). And yes-- I recognize there are implications in what I'm saying for public schools as well. Charters can be liberated from paperwork mountain if they are willing to come live out in the open. If they really want to escape the grip of odious authorizers, they can do it by embracing actual accountability.


  1. It still seems to me that charters should only be authorized by the school district where they're going to be operating.

    1. I agree. To write this piece I just backed up a step and asked myself why I thought they were the best folks for the job.