Charter applications tougher but better?

As the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) prepares to meet in Salt Lake City next week, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the art of authorizing.
I’ve had the opportunity to observe four charter school applications over the last year and a half–that’s how long it takes these days.  The guys at Uncommon that are still opening schools in NJ off their original 5 page app must be smiling.  These days applications are 800 page documents delivered in truckload quantities.  Reviews are far more rigorous with lots of rejections and deferrals.  Here’s a few more random observations:

  • the cost has reduced the number of mom & pop apps; that’s probably good
  • most states have outlawed innovation–really, you can’t propose anything new–but love traditional long day, long year apps; it’s all about scaling schools that are less bad than what we’ve got
  • most districts still hate the idea of losing revenue and oppose charters on those grounds but a few cities are adopting a multiple operator portfolio strategy and are courting high performing operators
  • most authorizers hate EMOs (for-profit operators) despite a strong track record and either decline or require non-profit charter seeking entities to pretend they could operate the school
  • bureaucrats optimize on risk avoidance not outcome maximization

Here’s a couple things every authorizer in SLC could take home and do:

  • create an ‘easy-pass’ application addendum for expansion of quality operators
  • add an ‘innovation’ category and provide provisional approval for interesting and promising school proposals
  • add a virtual school category and encourage laws adapted for schools that blend online & onsite learning–seat time is out, performance is in
  • ask yourself if an 850 page printed proposal is really better–this is getting ridiculous
  • survey denials and deferrals and make sure decisions are sound

With a few tweaks to charter authorizing, we could use ARRA funds to create another 1,000 great schools and not kill the edupreneurs trying to do good things for kids.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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