By: Rob Kimball
Within the richness and diversity of the ed reform sector, the practice of charter school authorizing isn’t the trendiest. For much of the country, authorizing charter schools is analogous to the licensing bureau, and working at the DMV is not cool, even in ed reform. However, much has been written about Michigan’s robust charter school sector, and the multitude of charter school authorizers in Michigan is leading to a paradigm shift of authorizing in the mitten state.
Grand Valley State University (GVSU) is a state public university based in Grand Rapids, MI that supports the vision of a P-20 public education system by authorizing 61 charter schools across the state (31 of GVSU’s schools are located in greater Detroit). GVSU has long embraced the nuts and bolts of authorizing that NACSA advocates for; e.g. performance charter contract terms, closing weak schools, financial audits, revocation criteria, etc. (15 schools have lost their GVSU charter since 1995). For the most part, these strategies for quality are outcome based and any response is reactive by nature. While outcome based efforts are the core function of authorizing and help maintain the critical autonomy elemental to the charter school model, the competitive Michigan authorizing environment has encouraged authorizers like GVSU to seek out proactive measures to ensure quality in their portfolio.
GVSU is seizing the opportunity to proactively instigate performance by recruiting quality charter applicants and providing targeted learning opportunities for key change agents within portfolio schools. Applicant recruitment is competitive. Reform minded cities are numerous and all are vying for the same thing, replicable schools with strong track records. So, GVSU coordinates partnerships between local community organizers and philanthropies for applicants; additionally, successful applicants have access to GVSU’s zero-year office space in Grand Rapids and Detroit where charter networks organize their Michigan operations before welcoming students (and paying for a facility…).
Recruited to Michigan by GVSU, Lighthouse Academies has used GVSU’s zero-year office space for the past year to coordinate enrollment, interview staff, and coordinate operations while their school facility is being developed in SW Detroit. Locating a new school is a complex task in itself, much less in a new, unknown state and a hyper-competitive charter market like Detroit; accordingly, GVSU developed a web based mapping program (mi-school.net) to consider student population and neighborhood characteristics in relation to area schools’ performance. The website not only tells applicants where students live but also information that can help determine what type of programming may best serve the students.
While ever-vigilant of maintaining school autonomy, GVSU also instigates performance by providing optional targeted assistance to portfolio schools in form of professional development workshops and reduced tuition for GVSU graduate degree programs. In partnership with Richard Lemons of the CT Center for School Change, GVSU’s portfolio of schools work together to continuously identify innovations and best practices within the portfolio schools through a series of meet-ups focused on examining the practice of teaching and learning all the while being Additionally, GVSU makes available assistance in student assessment NWEA MAP data analysis, reading instruction, and school culture.
The paradigm of the “authorizer is the gate keeper” limits the capacity of charter sector to competitively encourage innovation and aggressively scale quality. Michigan’s competitive multiple higher education institution authorizer environment fosters proactive authorizers serving the role of “market makers.” September 16-17 in Grand Rapids, MI, GVSU and the National Charter School Institute are convening a discussion on bringing authorizers to version 2.0. All stakeholders including lenders, policy makers, authorizers, and operators are welcome to join the conversation.
Rob Kimball is the Sr. Director of Operations & Policy at GVSU’s Charter Schools Office. He’s a former teacher; Education Pioneers Fellow; graduate of Northwestern University, University of Michigan, and Grand Valley State University; and currently part of the NACSA Leaders Program.