This commentary was submitted by Denise Mund, former charter school consultant for the Colorado Department of Education, Dave Martin and Brad Miller. The three are with Charter School Solutions, a limited liability company.
Now, more than ever, school districts must consider the authorization and management of charter schools as an essential part of their portfolio of responsibilities. Effective tools are increasingly available to assist in these duties. While choice and parental involvement are woven into the ethos of Coloradans, so too is accountability and responsibility.
Districts must approach charter school authorization with the same level of professionalism that attends the rest of their educational functions.
A recent case before the State Board of Education offers a good illustration.
The state board was asked to make a decision in a case involving Falcon School District 49 and Imagine Schools Inc., an educational management organization, which was appealing the denial of its Pioneer Imagine Academy charter application.
The appeal concerned a school district with a record of supporting choice and charter schools, and a management company currently operating a successful school in the same district with relatively high scores and overall stability.
The matter was decided in favor of the district on a split (3-3) vote by the State Board.
How is it that a district that stands in favor of charter schools would seek to deny the approval of a seemingly solid application that would in effect replicate a successful model? The answer to this question may be supplied by a quick history lesson.
There was a significant shift in the charter school movement in the last few years, and the impact of that shift is being felt in a number of ways. The Cesar Chavez School Network situation, which began in 2009, focused attention on the need for competent school governance and oversight.
The fallout from the Cesar Chavez situation spurred a number of positive changes for charter schools. State charter school leaders, with the intent of improving charter school quality, created a variety of model documents to better define charter school and charter school authorizer quality.
The Falcon case was driven by the district’s conclusion that the management agreement between Imagine Schools and the local board of the proposed school was unfairly one-sided in favor of the management company.
While difficult to discern through the otherwise confusing exchanges during the appeal process, the votes in support of the district were based on this issue.
As an interesting aside, the school district’s argument was not simply that a one-sided management agreement was bad for the particular school, but also that as a matter of public policy the State Board of Education should require better controls for such arrangements in order to shift the lever of power back to the local community as a means to empower parents in their own children’s education.
Prompted by the Chavez case, the Colorado legislature set out to address issues of charter school governance and accountability, particularly with respect to the use of education service providers.
In response to that blatant misuse of public funds and conflicts of interest, the legislature responded with House Bill 10-1412, which created a state advisory committee to recommend charter school and charter school authorizer standards.
In its final report, the H.B. 10-1412 advisory committee made recommendations for the State Board of Education to adopt rules for charter school and charter school authorizer standards. Other policy recommendations in the committee’s report will be considered during this legislative session through a variety of proposed bills. The committee held hearings on management companies, online education and nondiscrimination issues as a part of its work.
Further, leaders in the charter school community (the state Charter School Institute, the Colorado Department of Education and the League of Charter Schools) collaborated to develop model contract language and an addendum to that publication, called “Education Service Provider (ESP) Agreement Guidelines.” (ESP is the generic term for both for-profit and nonprofit management companies.)
These ESP guidelines were written from research conducted nationwide on effective charter school authorizer practices. Each of the issues debated in the appeal hearing are addressed in the ESP guidelines and undergirded the school district’s arguments for denying the Pioneer application.
About the same time, the collaboration of the three state groups mentioned above created a Standard Application and Review Rubric that became the model for charter school applications, with more extensive application requirements than state statute. Now asking for management companies to disclose financial statements, academic achievement data from the other schools they operate and a draft of the proposed management agreement, are all routine.
Most of the early charter schools that opened in Colorado were grassroots startups and not operated by management companies. It wasn’t until about 2004 that management companies became much of a factor in the state. In other states, where there are more management company-operated charter schools, a myriad of lessons have been learned. Colorado’s charter school leaders relied on such lessons when creating the model documents in use today, which should prove valuable as school districts statewide accept their role as quality authorizers.
Disclosure: A Charter School Solutions member provided the oral argument on behalf of Falcon School District 49 in the Imagine appeal.