A decade ago, most charter school authorizers agreed it was not their job to help struggling charter schools. But times have changed, and best practices in charter school authorizing are evolving. Authorizers are exploring ways to support and encourage improvement in the charter schools they oversee, and some charter schools appreciate the change.
In a podcast for the National Network for District Authorizing (NN4DA), I sat down with leading authorizers from Colorado and California to discuss their initiatives. Authorizers interested in partnering with charter schools should consider these lessons and explore adapting them to their context.
District 49 near Colorado Springs (D49) created a leadership institute for all their charter schools. These multi-day professional development activities address reoccurring challenges in their portfolio, including frequent turnover among school leaders and a preponderance of leaders coming from non-traditional pathways. These dynamics left gaps in leaders’ knowledge and skillsets, which kept their schools from being as good as possible.
The D49 leadership institute focuses on common challenges, like relations between boards and leaders, and critical district priorities, like services for special populations. It also promotes distributive leadership and systems thinking. A broad pool of charter educators is encouraged to participate in the training to support new and aspiring leaders and future transitions. The participants give solid reviews and encourage more of their colleagues to participate.
D49 believes that charter students are still the district’s students. Franko explains, “As an authorizer, we feel it is really our duty to support our charters to be as successful as possible. In a district with just over 23,000 students, inclusive of our portfolio of 11,000 students in charters, as it goes with our charter schools, it goes with our district.”
Corey Loomis leads charter school initiatives for the Riverside County Office of Education (Riverside), which reoriented its work to partner with charter schools. Riverside is a direct charter authorizer and a support structure to local districts. By reorienting services directly to charter schools, Loomis believes Riverside’s charters are much more likely to have the support they need.
The traditional argument against authorizers trying to improve charter schools is two-fold. First, authorizers working with charter schools undermine the autonomy. Second, if the school still struggled, authorizers undercut their ability to close the school. Presumably, closing the school would be more challenging if a charter school could argue, “We wanted to fix things, but the strategies you made us implement failed. So, you can’t hold us accountable for struggling.”
Loomis disagrees and explains his transition in personal terms: “I never signed up to be a compliance officer; I’m an educator first. So, if we are student-focused, what does that mean? We are going to lean into the work, and we are going to support charters the best that we can, still managing that autonomy and that arms-length reach... What we are calling our new approach is beyond compliance.”
Initiatives to improve charters need not undermine accountability or autonomy. Improvements in policy and practice have made it realistic to expect authorizers to close the worst-performing schools. That still leaves many schools that won’t close but need to improve. We now have a lot of experience with charter closure, enough to know that it cannot be the only way to address problems in the sector.
Authorizing best practices have always been evolving. Many authorizers now use probationary renewals predicated on a school addressing noted deficiencies during a shorter charter term. A decade ago, policy wonks—myself included—were concerned about short probationary charter terms with prescriptive lists of required improvements. I was concerned shorter renewals would undermine eventual closures because there would still not be enough data, and authorizers would micromanage in the interim. But now this approach is working well and is widely accepted. Sometimes it leads to improvement. Other times, we see orderly closures that are less disruptive to students. Like probationary charter terms a decade ago, authorizer improvement initiatives probably won’t undermine closure when it is needed, and they need not erode autonomy.
Colorado identified about seventy-five of the state’s 260 charter schools as failing to meet state standards. Given historical closure rates, it is reasonable to expect that ten to fifteen of these will close voluntarily or not be renewed. The other sixty to sixty-five technically “sub-standard” charter schools will probably stay open indefinitely. Other schools have acceptable academic performance but severe problems with specific functions, like serving students with disabilities.
Authorizers in these cases are right to ask, “What do we do now?” And “If not us, then who is going to help?” Charter support organizations are increasingly focused on policy advocacy and generally responsive to their biggest operators and best performers in our hyper-politicized world. Unfortunately, struggling charter schools are more a political liability than a call to action in this environment.
Many districts have sincerely committed to the notion that students in charter schools are “their” students while respecting charter autonomy. Their commitment to excellence and equity includes an imperative to do what they can to help all their schools succeed. While some charters will refuse help, authorizers like District 49 and Riverside find willing partners. Wonks may still bemoan slippery slopes leading toward district tyranny, but charter school leaders decide whether to accept help.
The Covid-19 pandemic makes these developments timely. With the pause in testing and state accountability systems, authorizers may renew struggling schools they would have closed before the pandemic and Covid-related challenges complicate work in all schools.
Whether addressing new challenges created by the pandemic, facilitating continuous improvement, or remedying common challenges in an authorizer’s charter portfolio, attitudes toward charter-authorizer partnerships are changing. Though respecting autonomy and maintaining accountability remain central to authorizing, the authorizer’s role in supporting charter improvement is likely to expand.