Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Alex Medler, vice president of research and evaluation at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).

Readers of Education News Colorado are accustomed to fights over charter schools.  The decisions to approve or close charter schools in Colorado are made by school districts and Colorado’s Charter School Institute. Their decisions are based on the work they do in their roles as authorizers.

Collectively, the practices of Colorado’s charter school authorizers may be less than compelling news.  But their work is crucial to shaping the degree of quality and innovation that families find in our charter schools.

For the last couple of years, Colorado has been engaged in serious discussions about the standards that ought to apply to charter schools and to charter school authorizers.  I had the privilege of chairing a statutorily-created commission that met for a year to discuss these standards. In August, the 1412 Commission, as it is known, forwarded recommendations to the legislature and the State Board of Education.  The Commission had recommendations for both charter schools and their authorizers, but I will focus my commentary today on the standards proposed for authorizers.

Part of the impetus for this commission’s work came from frustration over the appeals before the State Board of Education regarding charter denials and revocations.  Parties on both sides complained that when a school was closed or an applicant denied, it was hard for the board members to know if the district had given it a fair review.

Instead of arguing whether a school was succeeding or failing, or if a group of applicants were likely to succeed, people wondered whether the district had acted fairly and wisely.

Partially to help settle questions like that, the 1412 Commission recommended that the state adopt a set of industry standards for charter school authorizing that were created by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).  These Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing, which are currently in the proposed State Board rules, reflect a national consensus on best practices in authorizing. They were developed over the last ten years by NACSA, which created them by convening and working with entities all over the country trying to support a quality charter school movement.

The practices recommended in these standards balance the core principles required of all good authorizers.  Authorizers must maintain high standards, while protecting school autonomy as well as the public interest and students’ rights.

When authorizers do a good job of implementing practices that comply with these standards, they will have a much better sense of which applicants deserve to be approved, and which schools need to close.  They will also be much more convincing when they try to defend those decisions. And equally important, charter schools will have the space they need to focus on their own work.

Having chaired a year’s worth of hearty debates, I can assure you that the 1412 Commission included a diverse group of stakeholders representing charter schools, districts and traditional public schools, parents, teachers, and other people who care about these issues. It was jointly staffed by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

When Colorado officially adopts these standards, as I hope it will, our state will have made a solid step in the direction of de-politicizing the most important decisions around charter schools.  But there will be more work ahead of us.

 

As with any set of standards, establishing them is just the first part. Next we have to figure out how to act on them.  That will take work, time, political commitment, and resources.

NACSA recently released a study that grades the nation’s authorizers on a 12-point Index of Essential Practices.  The index is based on NACSA’s Principles & Standards.  Taking data from more than 120 authorizers who responded to our 2011 survey of authorizers, the study reports whether each authorizer implements each of the recommended practices.  Knowing that the work in Colorado was underway, we intentionally sampled all the authorizers in Colorado.  The specific answers of Colorado’s Charter School Institute and more than 20 school districts are included in the final report.

The authorizers that responded to our survey have joined this effort to strengthen authorizing by their first step of showing what they do.  They all deserve credit for sharing their current practices.

As you might expect, Colorado’s authorizers are all over the map. Some, like Denver Public Schools, do almost everything on the list.  Others do not fare so well.  It is NACSA’s hope that people will use that data constructively to begin or renew efforts at establishing quality authorizing programs across the state.

Some will look at the results and suggest that some authorizers have tried to get credit for practices they don’t do — or that they don’t really do very well.  It does matter how well people implement each of these practices.  So in the long-run, more important than the specific answers to the NACSA survey are the steps we take in the months ahead.

In the meantime, this report provides a starting point.   Authorizers and others should ask, which of these practices do we need to put in place?  And of those we already implement, how can we do them better?

NACSA has resources to help in this effort.  And Colorado is in many respects a national leader because of the collaborative efforts of the CDE, the charter school league and the Charter School Institute to create model materials that authorizers can use to improve their practices.  These model materials, as well as the state’s Charter School Support Initiative, were all recommended by the 1412 Commission as tools that authorizers should adopt for their own use.

Charter schools are an important part of Colorado’s public education system. These schools and some of the challenges they raise for districts are here to stay.  Hopefully, by clarifying how authorizers should operate, we can focus more of our efforts on creating high-quality schools and spend a little less time preparing for political drama.