Rapid Path for Proven Performers is Great; Also Need Innovation Authorization

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In the last few years, the charter school policy pendulum has swung from quantity to quality.  The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA, where I’m on the National Advisory Board), the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL, where I’m a director), the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and state organizations like the California Charter School Association, have all come out strongly in favor of rigorous authorization for new charters and strong accountability that results in the non renewal of charters failing to hit quality benchmarks.
This trend is mostly great–it has increased the likelihood that new schools will hit expected benchmarks and more likely that failing schools will be closed. However, the unintended consequence is that it is harder to get new blended and competency-based school models approved–dampening innovation at a time when it is desperately needed.
Education is in the early innings of the shift to personal digital learning where environments are blended, progress is competency-based, teaching is team-based, and online opportunities are numerous. This historical shift across so many fundamental dimensions suggests a need for more innovative new schools and a more differentiated approach to authorization is needed.
Differentiated authorizing.  A year ago I suggested that states should have 7 authorizing pathways including:

  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) on a full or part time basis.
  5. Turnaround: a two step process that would 1) create a list of certified vendors and 2) match them with turnaround or restart opportunities.  The first step could include collaborative solution development like Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority partnership with Agilix.
  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 statewide providers for one or more subjects (e.g., English, foreign language, STEM, etc). Louisiana Course Choice has made exciting progress on this pathway.

This week, NACSA issued a policy paper lending support to the expedited pathways for proven providers: Replicating Quality: Policy Recommendations to Support the Replication and Growth of High-Performing Charter Schools and Networks. These recommendations are important for states to consider particularly after watching Santa Clara County deny top performers Navigator and Rocketship.  Proven performing networks should have an expedited pathway to opening new schools. An overview of NACSA final recommendation reports are also available.
While a few districts are encouraging innovative school models (see our recent feature on Miami) there are few examples of authorizers proactively seeking innovation–most remain one dimensionally risk averse.
National grant programs like Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC, where I’m a judge) provide a framework for innovation and financial support for new school applicants.  Some applicants attempt to launch or convert schools within public school districts.  Others propose new charter schools.  Most applicants are edupreneurs working independently from proven networks and have a very difficult time raising money and getting new charter schools approved.  That’s why states need to proactively support new school proposals with innovation authorization pathways and why every city needs an incubator like 4.0 Schools.
Washington State.  Today my home state approved six new charters including two from the most innovative secondary network in the country–Summit Public Schools.  It was also great to see Green Dot’s proposal approved.  Their track record and capacity suggests that these will soon be the best public schools serving low income students in Washington State.
Also today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $500,000 grant to Charter Board Partners, a nonprofit (where I’m a director) that will work with charter schools in Washington to build strong, strategic boards that help schools and students succeed.
However, based on NACSA recommendations, the risk averse state board turned down a number of good proposals–a signal that the process discourages new operators and new approaches.
Even proposals supported and heralded by NGLC were turned down like Out of the Box Learning Studio (OBLS,see NGLC profile) supported by the Northwest Deeper Learning Foundation (where Caroline is a board member).  Reviewers dinged OBL for not having a facility lined up.  They also didn’t get the Buzz-based personalized curriculum (see feature on Michagan EAA’s development of this innovative platform for more on this proven platform).
As a result of the denial, Hannah Williams, OBLS, will be fund raising to tread water for another year rather than planning to open a school.  It’s an awkward and expensive process for an edupreneur with a national network of partners that just want to open a great school serving low income students.  I feel her pain–I’ve experienced this torture test as a grant maker, board member, and prospective operator–in every case I was confident that the proposed schools would have provided significantly better educational options for families than those that exist.
The NGLC grant process is encouraging innovation.  The Washington State charter school application process is discouraging it.  We can do better. It’s time for states to update 20 year old charter laws and for states new to the game to create a pathway that supports innovative new school models.
The most important trend in learning is the viral adoption of new learning tools and resources by teachers, students, and parents. They are ready for new schools that embrace new learning opportunities–it’s time for our public policy to catch up.

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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