The autonomy-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter movement rests, crucially, on the effectiveness of the entities — known as authorizers — that have the ability to approve charter schools and the responsibility for holding them accountable. If authorizers are lax in their responsibilities — approving weak applications, failing to effectively monitor or assess school performance, or refusing to close low-performing schools — the accountability part of the bargain isn’t held up. But if they overstep their bounds, by limiting the kinds of schools they will approve, being overly prescriptive about requirements for school approval, or trying to micromanage schools they oversee, the autonomy part of the bargain goes missing. Getting the right balance between holding schools accountable and protecting their autonomy is a crucial question, both for authorizers and the charter movement as a whole, and since the start of the charter movement, it’s been the subject of heated debate — one that has intensified in recent years.
For decades, policymakers, foundations, and organizations like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA, on whose board I serve) have sought to ensure quality authorizing by building authorizer capacity and defining “best practices.” While these efforts have defined and increased the prevalence of foundational authorizing practices, policies and systems — such as clear and transparent charter approval criteria and processes, performance-based contracts, and annual financial audits of schools — they have also demonstrated that such rule-based practices and systems alone are not sufficient to guarantee the quality of an authorizer’s schools.
That’s why a new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers is so valuable: It’s the first to identify quality authorizers based on student outcomes of schools they oversee. And it dives deep into how these authorizers do their work. While the report’s methods can’t support causal conclusions about the relationship between specific authorizer practices and school outcomes, they do shed light on the “special sauce” that differentiates authorizers who oversee high-performing school portfolios from those with more mediocre results.
NACSA identifies three particular themes that characterize commonalities across these authorizers:
- Leadership: Great authorizers are willing to make politically difficult choices when doing so is in the best interests of students, and they work proactively to support the growth of high-quality charters and close low-performing schools.
- Judgement: Authorizers make difficult decisions using evidence-based professional judgement that takes into account nuance and complexity. They neither rely on simplistic algorithms nor allow their personal beliefs to dictate high-stakes decisions about schools.
- Commitment: Great authorizing requires institutions that are committed to quality authorizing. If authorizers are part of a larger organization, that organization has to value authorizing as an essential part of its mission. Authorizers need resources, authority, and respect to exercise their leadership and professional judgement.
As someone who served for the past eight years on the board of a charter school authorizer in Washington, D.C. (one of the authorizers profiled), and who has studied authorizing with NACSA and other organizations for over a decade, these characteristics resonate with my own experience. (Mike Petrilli, who leads the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, another high-quality authorizer profiled in the report, seems to agree.) Many of the decisions that I faced as an authorizer were incredibly complex. School performance doesn’t always point in a single, clear direction, and authorizers must often navigate tensions and trade-offs between competing values.
But creating conditions that allow authorizers to do this is more complicated than implementing a checklist of policies and practices. Authorizers’ ability to exercise leadership, judgement, and commitment depends on the unique alchemy of the individuals leading the authorizer, the organizational culture they create, and the external political landscape in which authorizers operate.
As Robin Lake of the Center on Reinventing Public Education noted in a recent blog post, more research is needed in this area — and it’s particularly important that research take into account the political and structural factors that enable or undermine charter growth and charter and authorizer quality.
Yet this report plays a valuable role in advancing the authorizing field. As the old saying goes: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re there.” By painting a picture of where quality authorizing needs to go, this report increases the chances that the field will get there.