This post by charter school expert Alex Medler on a trend in charter circle circles known as “authorizer shopping”  was originally published on the blog of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

An op-ed in a recent Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette by NACSA’s President and CEO Greg Richmond warns people to beware of charter schools that engage in authorizer shopping.  This is a serious problem for those trying to close down failing charter schools in Indiana, and nationally.
shopping cart

“Authorizer shopping” occurs when failing charter schools try to avoid closure. They leave an authorizer that is likely to close them. They switch to a new authorizer with standards that are so low that the school no longer risks closure. We should not allow bad schools to do this and authorizers should be discouraged from being complicit in the act.

Because of state policies, in most cases the authorizer that loses the school can complain, but they are essentially powerless to stop authorizer shopping from happening.  In other cases, the first authorizer actually forces a charter school with unacceptable results to find a second authorizer rather than acting to close these schools themselves. The first authorizer might actually downplay the severity of the school’s problems to help smooth the transition to an unknowing recipient.

The authorizers that kick failing schools out of their portfolio without closing them –  just like those who take them on – are complicit in this problem. The authorizers that help their failing schools to shop elsewhere are basically saying, “This school isn’t good enough for our kids, but it is good enough for somebody else’s.”

Because of their complicity, kids will suffer.

There are rational reasons why authorizers engage in this behavior. The sending authorizer wants the school out of their portfolio. The school’s operator is a pain in their back. The school’s academic performance often makes the authorizer’s performance look terrible on the state accountability system. Rather than help those kids find a better school by closing it, these authorizers just want the school’s kids off their conscience and off their district’s academic report card. The authorizer appears to improve, but without any child benefiting. That may be rational, but it is morally problematic and another sign this is not good for kids.

The school often dupes the receiving authorizer into thinking the first authorizer was just hostile to their perfectly acceptable school.  Sometimes the sending authorizer exacerbates this optimistic appraisal by downplaying the schools’ failures. The receiving authorizer thinks, “If the school were really that bad, the first authorizer would have closed them. The fact that they have not done so is evidence the school isn’t really doing that badly.”  Unfortunately, the sending authorizer doesn’t have much motivation to correct this mistaken impression.

What the second authorizer doesn’t know is that the first authorizer is acting act like a risk-averse company with a terrible employee that they hope will leave on his own accord before they have to fire him.  The original employer wants the jerk to leave soon, but they would never speak badly about the rascal while he is looking for a new job. They stay silent out of a fear that being honest would make it less likely that the miscreant could get hired elsewhere, in which case he might hang around their business forever. If the problem worker manages to get hired by someone else, who fails to discover his problems, the potentially litigious act of firing a nightmarish employee can be avoided. Again, this is rational behavior for two of the three actors. This scenario works out well for the employee and the original employer; it is not so good for the naïve boss at the new business. The same holds for bad schools and their authorizers.

Authorizer shopping doesn’t prevent accountability completely. If the new authorizer is a quality authorizer, it will act to correct its fellow authorizer’s avoidance of its responsibilities by eventually closing the school. But this scenario is rare – good authorizers don’t take on bad schools – but even when it does occur, it can take several years to play out. Until then, the school gets to start their accountability clock over again. Four years later, they will make the case that, “Our authorizer is being mean to us because they just hate charters.” Where did I hear that before? Meanwhile kids continue to suffer.

In a sense, authorizer shopping is a sign that state accountability systems are starting to work – they are putting pressure on failing schools and their authorizers to act. Their action should be to close failing schools – not perpetuate a dance of the lemons.