According to a paper released this week by the American Enterprise Institute, charter authorizers are putting too many meaningless application requirements on organizations that propose to open schools, thereby limiting school autonomy and creating far too much red tape.
The report shares lessons, provides authorizer Dos and Don’ts, and divides charter application criteria into categories of appropriate and inappropriate based on AEI’s analysis of application requirements from forty authorizers around the land. The authors conclude that:
- Charter applications could be streamlined to eliminate one-quarter of existing content
- Authorizers may mistake length for rigor
- The authorizer’s role is sometimes unclear
- While there is much authorizer lip service for innovation, the application process doesn’t lend itself to fleshing out truly innovative school models
AEI correctly notes the importance of the authorizer’s role as gatekeeper for new schools and points out that authorizers should establish clear goals, hold schools accountable, review key aspects of school applications for developer capacity, and monitor compliance and finances. Authorizers shouldn’t see themselves as venture capitalists, assume the role of school management consultants, deem themselves curriculum experts, or feel entitled to include pet issues in applications.
All true, and all wise. Where it gets sticky—and where this report makes a wrong turn—is distinguishing what kinds of information are legitimate and important for authorizers to seek at the application stage and what kinds are superfluous, or even dysfunctional. In the end, as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) also points out, the AEI authors put too much in the latter basket.
Fordham has been authorizing charter schools in Ohio for nearly ten years. We’ve walked this walk—and sweated and agonized and made tough calls and a few mistakes. Let me summarize how our experience does and doesn’t align with the authors’ conclusions.
Yes, some authorizers mistake volume for rigor; just because the application is umpteen pages long does not mean it’s a good application. And yes, sometimes the authorizer’s role is unclear. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Ohio, where we are still trying to get authorizers out of the business of selling services to their authorized schools. (One can’t objectively monitor a school’s performance if one has a hand in its operations.) And all too often we see “proven models” favored over potentially new and innovative ones. It’s easy to forget that well-known successes like KIPP and Success Academy—and in Ohio, United Schools and the Breakthrough network—were also unproven once.
Now to our disagreements. AEI’s list of overly burdensome requirements is too long and in some cases rules out information that we’ve found valuable, even vital, in determining which proposed charters deserve to be authorized.
- Explaining why an applicant proposes certain goals and performance metrics: AEI thinks this is excessive. In our experience, you're an irresponsible authorizer if you don't ask about this. Let's say the goals and expectations for students are low—why not have them explain? What if you think the goals are set too high? Why not ask them their thoughts? They may have a perfectly good explanation. What if the goals don't align with the curricular and instructional program (e.g., the application references STEM but contains no STEM-related outcomes)?
- Explaining how the school will meet all students’ needs: It's not unusual for applications to be very strong with a general education population but weak when it comes to educating children with disabilities, gifted students, or students with limited English proficiency. If an applicant can't articulate the basics on paper or in the interview, that applicant probably lacks knowledge regarding these areas—and may lack a plan for how to serve these kids. Asking how the school will go about it is critical.
- Presenting curriculum samples and justifying the choice: Let's say the curriculum will be teacher-created (or will rely on some new, off-the-shelf material). I'm not a curriculum expert, but I'd want someone on the review team to focus on whether it has substance. I've seen a number of applications for "Classical" schools recently, but very few of them, according to the review team, were truly taking a classical approach. Why not raise such questions? They may have a good explanation, but either way, you build your evidence base for a decision of whether or not to approve.
- Explaining how instructional methods will serve students: Let's say the school proposes a project-based model, yet there's much discussion in the application about what appears to be direct instruction. Could there be a reasonable explanation? The applicant should have an opportunity to put it forth.
- Justifying the choice of financial strategies/goals: Too many applications don't present viable financial plans. If an applicant proposes a budget in which the fund balance every year is extremely low and the margins very thin, you should ask about that. Maybe the school will be supported by an external organization. But what if it’s heavily dependent on borrowing? What if the proposers claim they can do it all on the state dollars? These are all issues that demand discussion.
- Explaining the advertising plan: Competition for enrollment is very tough. If an authorizer green-lights a school to receive millions in public funding, it is completely appropriate to ask how the advertising plan will help meet enrollment targets. Is the applicant just putting up billboards, or will it go door-to-door? Are they using strategies that we know work in a particular community? Do they show evidence of understanding their community?
- Explaining the plan to provide meals: There are federal funds involved here, as well as myriad compliance issues. Sure it’s appropriate to ask how this will work.
- Explaining any innovations to be used in the school: If something is truly innovative, why not talk about it before it hits the ground? What’s the basis for expecting it to work? There also might be something there to watch and share with others.
- Offer a rationale for choosing a specific location/community: This goes back to financial viability. If you already have ten schools in a ten-block area and someone is proposing an eleventh, it's perfectly reasonable to ask why the proposed school wants to locate there. If the authorizer approves the school, and it can’t meet targets and closes (especially mid-year), we put children and families in a terrible position, not to mention wasting many state and federal dollars.
Yes, some charter applications contain meaningless and excessive requirements, likely mandated by state laws and regulations. This paper should serve to catalyze further conversation on the topic of charter school autonomy and accountability, and where the problems (on both sides) arise. But it’s a mistake to place too much emphasis on shortening the charter application itself or to lessen the importance of key application requirements that ultimately strengthen the viability of the whole.
SOURCE: Michael Q. McShane, Jenn Hatfield, and Elizabeth English, “The Paperwork Pileup: Measuring the Burden of Charter School Applications,” American Enterprise Institute (May 2015).