7 charter authorizing strategies for scale & quality

I forgot an important 6th charter authorizing path that will continue to grow in importance–conversions.  With budget cuts and dysfunctional districts, more public schools are contemplating charter conversion.  To guard against ‘take the money and run’ (previously common in GA and elsewhere) where schools become charter in name only, a thoughtful authorizing pathway could ensure quality.
States like NJ are facing closure of dozens of urban Catholic schools.  Some buildings will simply be rented to charters, but others are clearly candidates for conversion to charter.   A bill was contemplated in NJ earlier this year with Rutgers as a speciality authorizer.
And Erik Syring reminded me of a possible 7th: instruction in a particular subject.  You may recall a post on PTO, Preferred Teacher Orgs, I suggested that teacher lead businesses could provide instruction on a contract basis across a district/state/region.  A language acquisition business could contract for statewide services that combined computer base instruction, virtual tutoring, and social networking (i.e., interacting with native speakers).  So here’s the updated (probably) all-inclusive list of authorizing pathways that ever states should have in place.

It’s time to rethink charter school authorization.  There are 5,000 charter schools in the US (about 5% of the total number of schools) and a push from the Department of Education for more.  Given that half of the charters aren’t any better than traditional public schools, there has been a push to tighten up authorizing (i.e., a multi-year performance contract to run an autonomous public school).  In an effort to screen out weak proposals and applicants, the application process has become much longer (i.e., 18-24 months) and more bureaucratic.

Giant federal grant programs create an opportunity for states to introduce the next generation of authorizing.  They should consider five distinct pathways:

1. Standard: first time applicants proposing a single school

2. Expedited: a short-form application with quick turnaround for operators of two or more high performing schools (with potential for multi-campus approvals)

3. Innovation: potential for conditional approval (i.e., shorter time frame with more review) for innovative school models that incorporate novel assessment systems, performance-based progress, unique staffing and compensation models, distributed learning (i.e., multiple locations including community resources), blended institutions (i.e., high school and college) and/or year-round learning.

4. Statewide: virtual operators seeking to enroll students statewide (or across a region under a reciprocal charter agreement)

5. Turnaround: a two step process that would 1) create a list of certified vendors and 2) match them with turnaround or restart opportunities

6. Conversion: a pathway for conversion of public and private schools with a requirement for state (not district) authorization to ensure real charter status.

7. Subject: a pathway for providers for one or more subjects (e.g., English, foreign language, STEM, etc).  Like #4, this would be a statewide authorization. Subject specific instruction vendors may fit more easily under a statewide preferred vendor list rather than an authorizing pathway–same for business management organizations, transportation providers, food vendors, etc.

While states are updating their charter and online learning laws, creating a multiple pathways authorizing strategy would help to accelerate growth of high quality options for American students.

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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