Thirty years ago, as the concept of chartering began to spread nationally, a new breed of public servants were born. Their role: convert the grand vision of chartering into concrete actions associated with charter school authorizing, including deciding which schools should and should not open and monitoring and evaluating performance of schools that did open.
Chartering represented a completely new world for public education, offering more quality opportunities for students and families but also posing new risks. While hundreds of new charter schools proved successful out the gate, others did not and required well-considered intervention.
Early on, the movement relied on extraordinary authorizing efforts of remarkable leaders like Josephine Baker, who played a key role as Chair of the DC Charter School Board, overseeing authorizing responsibilities of the district. Bart Peterson, former Mayor of Indianapolis, is credited for creating a strong municipal authorizer and charter school sector that thrives to this day.
Leaders like Baker and Peterson represented a variety of organizations that began to assume authorizing responsibility, including school districts, city and state government offices, universities, nonprofits and more. But their contributions didn’t always result in high-quality authorizing decisions. Indeed, overall academic performance of chartered schools was not at the level that had been hoped for.
Strong Authorizers Come Together to Improve Charter School Performance Nationwide
New ideas and supports were soon presented that fundamentally improved authorizing nationally and set the chartering movement on a trajectory for even greater positive impact.
The Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University – then led by Dr. Jim Goenner who is now President and CEO of NCSI – became the first higher education institution to charter a school and develop a technology platform and other supports for authorizers. This emergence of tools, and leaders willing to embrace them broadly, led to an informal network of charter school authorizers coming together periodically to share knowledge and best practices.
That in turn led to formation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). NACSA focused then and now on helping charter school authorizers open new schools, close underperforming schools, and improve and expand good schools—ultimately leading to millions of children receiving a better education. Initial research from CREDO showed the quality of the national charter school sector was improving, and stronger authorizing practices were credited as playing an essential role – a trend that continues today.
Pressure to Politicize Authorizing
Early on, the role of charter school authorizers seemed so straightforward that little focus was placed on them, while the politics of chartering got most of the attention. But as chartering spread across the country, concern grew about the wide variance in how charter schools were approved to open, quality standards they were measured against, and accountability measures for charter schools that failed to perform as promised.
By nature, chartering is not a prescriptive policy for improving schools. Rather, it is a way for policymakers to challenge the “givens” of the existing system by harnessing the powerful dynamics created by choice, competition, standards, and accountability. But having a strategy and getting it properly implemented are two different things.
Today, authorizers are facing new political pressures to pivot away from making decisions solely based upon the needs of students toward prioritizing protection of the status quo. If politically motivated authorizing gains momentum, it could lead to new regulatory burdens enacted upon thousands of successful charter schools, undermining their effectiveness.
The New Generation of Authorizing
The destiny of the chartering movement remains in the hands of authorizers. Fortunately, many of today’s authorizers are as strong as we have seen, as is their commitment to share their learning as they take on new authorizing challenges. Michelle Walker-Davis was recently appointed to carry on the excellent authorizing work of the DC Public Charter School Board. Ashley Berg is returning as Executive Director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. Karega Rausch, recently appointed president and CEO of NACSA, is helping ensure new schools consider the unique needs of communities they seek to serve. And NCSI is committed to more effectively evaluating the performance of alternative schools through the A-Game framework.
As the Covid pandemic continues to place burdens on our public education system, unprecedented demand from parents for different and high-quality schools increases. We have many reasons to be optimistic that chartering will see even brighter chapters in our fourth decade and beyond as those entrusted authorizers embody a spirit of collaboration in serving students and families well.
For today’s authorizers to successfully carry the torch, they must be supported with effective tools, share their knowledge, and remain committed to the chartering principles. Across all these needs, NCSI remains a trusted partner for authorizers and optimistic that chartering effectiveness will continue to grow in our movement’s fourth decade and beyond.