CHOICES FOR PARENTS
Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
Downloadable File PDF (2 MB)

Authorizers Provide Meaningful and Transparent Oversight

All of these authorizers understand that their major responsibility to the public is to monitor their schools' academic performance and compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Beyond carrying out their basic oversight responsibilities as defined in the charter law, these offices have found that ongoing and close monitoring allows them to help schools improve and helps them to make well-informed decisions about whether to renew or revoke a charter.

Each authorizer monitors its schools using a variety of methods. All require some amount of documentation, including annual reports, evidence of legal and regulatory compliance, student assessment results, and nonacademic data, such as student attendance rates and the results of parent satisfaction surveys. They also use site visits to gather additional information about compliance and students' experience in their charter schools. In each of these authorizing offices, both document collection and the site visits are informed by the office's philosophy of charter oversight. Leaders have thought through the appropriate balance between their oversight responsibilities and their duty to respect charter schools' autonomy, and they train their staff members to respect this balance every day in interactions with schools.

Use information and technology to streamline compliance

Charter schools are subject to many regulations imposed by state law.15 Each of these authorizers has found ways to streamline compliance and reporting requirements to make their state's demands more achievable for their schools, which tend to have smaller staffs and fewer leaders. For example, one of the ways these offices collect the information needed to fulfill their oversight responsibilities while respecting schools' autonomy is to be very clear up front about the information they require (such as annual reports) and the form in which they expect to receive it. New school operators know that as charter school leaders, they will be held accountable in ways that traditional district schools are not. For example, if they do not meet the terms of their charter, charter schools face possible closure. Therefore, many of these leaders report that one of the most important things their authorizer can do to help them meet their goals is to communicate their expectations up front. Chicago has found that providing information about accountability requirements early on has an additional benefit. According to Katie Weaver, the director of accountability of the Office of New Schools, "Giving the information to the schools up front really promotes their autonomy. This way they don't have to call us at the last minute to figure out how something is going to work. They can go back to the documentation they received early on and find the information and the contact person they can call to get more information."

Figure 10. Educational Service Provider Agreement (Excerpted From CMU Provider Policies)

EXHIBIT A

[Date]

Central Michigan University Board of Trustees
Mt. Pleasant, Michigan

[Name of Public School Academy]
[Name of City], Michigan

Re: [Name of Public School Academy] Educational Service Providers (ESP) Agreement with [Name of ESP]

Ladies & Gentlemen:

In my capacity as legal counsel to [Name of Public School Academy] (the "Academy"), I have represented the Academy in connection with the proposed Educational Service Provide agreement between the Academy and [Name of ESP]. As Academy legal counsel, I have reviewed copies of the following documents:

  1. The Educational Service Provider Agreement, dated as of [Month, Day, 1999], (the "Agreement" ), between the Academy and [name of ESP].

  2. The Central Michigan University Charter Schools Office Educational Service Provider Policies ("Policies").

  3. The Contract to Charter a Public School Academy and Related Documents, dated [Month, Day, 1999], (the "Contract"), issued by the Central Michigan University Board of Trustees to the Academy.

I have also reviewed other documents, instruments and Academy Board minutes related to the Provider of the Academy which are required or have been requested by the University Board prior to the issuance of the Contract. I have also reviewed the articles of incorporation and bylaws of the Academy, and originals and copies of such other documents, records, and statements of facts as deemed relevant, and I have made such other investigations and inquiries, as I have determined necessary for the purpose of rendering the opinions set fourth herein.

Based upon the foregoing, I am of the opinion that:

  1. The Academy is a Michigan nonprofit corporation duly organized, validly existing and in good standing under the laws of the State of Michigan and has full power and authority to enter into the Agreement.

  2. The Academy's execution, delivery and performance of the Agreement does not violate any term or provision in the Policies and to the best of my knowledge after due inquiry, the Academy Board has compiled with all terms and provision in the Policies.

  3. The Academy's execution, delivery and performance of the Agreement does not permit or require an improper delegation of the Academy Board's:

    • statutory and fiduciary responsibilities under applicable law; or
    • obligations and duties under the Contract.

In addition, the Agreement does not conflict with any of the provisions of the Contract.

Very truly yours,
[Name of Academy Legal Counsel]

Education Service Provider Policies
Page 5 of 5

Staff members in the Massachusetts office have invested a considerable amount of time and thought in revising and improving the materials they give to schools to explain their oversight and monitoring system. The Opening Procedures Handbook is an example of their guidance, rich with detailed information about what schools need to do in order to meet a host of state regulations and requirements. In order to make such guidance more accessible and useful, staff members have included task checklists, due dates, and sidebars with crucial information highlighted. (See fig. 11 for an excerpted checklist.) Written in a straightforward style, the documents avoid heavy use of jargon and frequently refer readers who need more detail about a specific topic to additional sources of information. These sources include written materials as well as contacts within the Massachusetts office who can answer questions about a specific topic.

The Massachusetts office also has produced several documents that explain how it monitors schools to see that they are meeting the terms of their charters. These documents are intended to clarify the schools' responsibilities from the outset. One document gives readers an overview of the entire monitoring process. Organized in a series of action steps, the Guidelines for Writing Charter School Accountability Plans16 takes the reader from the beginning of the process, submitting an application, through writing an accountability plan, submitting annual reports on the school's progress in meeting accountability goals, preparing for annual site visits, and finally applying for charter renewal and participating in a lengthy renewal inspection.

Authorizers in Michigan have considerable oversight responsibilities, in large part because state law requires charter schools to adhere to many of the same regulations and policies that govern traditional district schools. To ease the reporting burden on its schools, the Charter Schools office at CMU commissioned the design of an electronic system to track and maintain information regarding schools' compliance. The Authorizers Oversight Information System (AOIS) allows authorizers and schools access to an online compliance recordkeeping system, provides a daily account of a school's compliance status, and helps track school performance and academic achievement. AOIS is also an electronic filing system, so every document associated with a school is readily available from any location.

Figure 11. Sample From Massachusetts Department of Education Opening Procedures Handbook

SUMMARY OF ALL ACTION ITEMS

Action Items - Governance
Due to immediately after charter is granted.

Obtain a sufficient number of copies of the Administrative and Governance Guide for each board member and the school leader(s).

Submit Organizational Chart to the Charter School Office.

Complete Board recruitment so that minimum membership requirement (as defined by the bylaws) are met.

Submit a letter requesting approval of new members of the Board of Trustees to the Charter School Office.

Submit a resume for each of the proposed Board of Trustee members to the Charter School Office.

Submit an original financial disclosure form (for the previous calendar year) for each of the proposed Board of Trustee members to the Charter School Office.

Prepare bylaws.

Self-assess bylaws using the Guidance for Charter School Bylaws checklist (Appendix A).

Obtain Board of Trustee approval of bylaws.

Submit Board of Trustee-approved by laws to the Charter School Office for DOE review.

Action Items - Enrollment Policies and Application for Admission
Due prior to the start of the school's initial application and enrollment process.

Self-assess the Enrollment Policy and Application for Admission.

Obtain Board of Trustee approval of Enrollment Policy and Application for Admission.

Submit Board-approved Enrollment Policy and an Application for Admission to the Charter School Office for DOE approval.

Action Item - Management Contract (if applicable)
Due 120 days in advance of the intended start date of the contract.

Submit the Management Contract to the Charter School Office to begin the process of Department of Education Review, as detailed on page 32 of the Administrative and Governance Guide.

Action Items - Student Learning Time
Due August 1

Carefully read MGL Ch. 69 § 1(g), MGL Ch. 71 § 29, and 603 CMR 27.00.

Prepare annual school calendar and student schedule, consistent with 603 CMR 27.00 and the school's charter application.

Obtain Board of Trustee approval of school calendar and schedule.

Submit Board-approved school calendar and sample student schedule to the Charter School Office for review.

The Ferris State University (FSU) charter office adopted the AOIS system in 2003. One of the first documents that FSU-authorized schools receive after they are granted a charter is a copy of the year's "Master Calendar," a comprehensive document that contains every compliance and reporting deadline that the school is expected to meet throughout the year. As one school principal remarked, "This calendar is what keeps us on top of knowing what's coming and when. Otherwise, I'd have to be thinking about it all the time. The master calendar makes it so much easier." Using the AOIS system, schools submit their compliance documentation electronically and receive periodic reminders through an electronic calendar—for example, "In seven days, your board minutes will be due." FSU also reviews monthly bank check registers from each school, and requires a quarterly financial statement. Both are submitted electronically by each school and managed at FSU in the AOIS software. The electronic system enables FSU staff to quickly identify schools that are experiencing academic, financial, or compliance challenges.

With regard to academic performance, FSU also communicated clear expectations for student testing and annual performance goals. It makes extensive use of a Web site provided by the state department of education to track student scores on Michigan Education Assessment Program tests. With up-to-date performance data at their fingertips, FSU staff members monitor student achievement gains at each of their schools and can quickly identify and assist those schools that face academic challenges.

The SUNY Institute-authorized charter schools also receive a master calendar at the beginning of their charter term that provides a deadline for every document and a date for each site visit that is required, by both the SUNY Institute and the New York State Education Department, during the course of the school's charter term. Evidence of compliance with regulatory and legal requirements (pertaining to facilities, enrollment, grades served, open meetings, teacher certification, and NCLB requirements) is reviewed each year in the form of annual reports. The SUNY Institute provides sample reports for schools to follow and collects the majority of documents in hard copy form. Because it shares oversight duties with the New York State Education Department, the SUNY Institute also works to alert its charter schools to issues to which the New York State Education Department pays close attention to, such as fingerprinting of staff, so that when the information is required, the charter schools will be ready.

"Once we have approved a school, it really is our school. We want to work with them. The whole goal is that they are effective. That's why we try to be as transparent as we can from the very beginning, treat schools with respect, and have reciprocity in the relationship to the degree that we can as their authorizer."—Jennifer Sneed, Senior Vice President of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute

Use site visits strategically

While these organizations collect a lot of information regarding performance and compliance through electronic and paper submissions, relying solely on written documentation would not provide them with a comprehensive view of their schools. The majority of these offices also use focused site visits to gather information that is only apparent on-site at the school. The offices differed in the number and timing of visits, but most agreed that the visits were an effective monitoring tool.

The VOA of MN charter office conducts more site visits than many other offices—four per year. Two visits are informal, and two visits are formal in that the reviewers keep to a set protocol and follow up with a written report. According to Justin Testerman of VOA of MN, when he walks into a school for a visit, he is "looking to see if the reality is consistent with the information in the reports and other materials I have been reading." often, he can determine this quickly through observation. Is the student work on the walls regularly updated? Are students engaged and attentive? If the answer to such questions is no, he will bring it to the attention of the school leaders and ask them to explain why there is a discrepancy in information provided in reports and site visit observations.

California's charter division has invested a great deal of staff time in refining its site visit protocols. Because of limitations on the office's travel budget and the great distance between Sacramento and most board-authorized charter schools, schools typically receive one preopening site visit and one additional site visit per year from a member of California's charter division staff. These site visits follow a detailed protocol that has been developed with the help of external consultants. Staff members report that this one visit per year provides them with the information they need to make sound accountability decisions. The division also uses Web-based software to provide a virtual forum for state-authorized charter schools to check in with division staff and access twoway technical assistance.

California's preopening site visit mainly addresses the adequacy of the facility: Will it effectively and safely hold students and staff on the first day of school? (See fig. 12 for an excerpt from CDE's preopening site inspection checklist.) Subsequent visits assess the school's progress in governance and organizational management, education performance, fiscal operations, and fulfillment of the terms of the charter. The primary purpose of these visits is to assess the student achievement plan, perform a facility inspection, and review records (e.g., student attendance, financial, personnel). Visits typically involve an interview with the school director, staff, students, parents, and board members, and focus on teaching and learning through observation of classroom instruction. Written reports from the site visits inform the California office's decisions about charter renewal. If the school is having trouble, the frequency of visits generally increases.

Rather than rely on internal staff to conduct site visits, FSU's authorizing office hires four "field representatives"—retired principals, administrators, and district superintendents—to conduct site visits. These field representatives are responsible for four schools each, and they conduct at least six site visits to each of their schools per year, attend at least six meetings of the schools' boards per year, and submit written reports to the FSU authorizing staff with information about the school's climate, classroom instruction, parental involvement, facility conditions, and any concerns that require immediate attention or continued monitoring. In addition, staff members from FSU also visit the school informally, both announced and unannounced. In all, schools see someone from FSU, either a field representative or a full-time staff member, at least 12 times per year, on average. The use of field representatives allows FSU staff members to have a good sense of what is happening in its schools without having to dedicate office staff to constant travel. (See fig. 13 for field representative's job description.)

Figure 12. Excerpt From California Department of Education's Preopening Site Inspection Checklist

General Considerations   Comments
     
Facilities are sufficient to accommodate Estimated student enrollment and to
Carry out the curricular and instruction Program envisioned in the charter.
__Yes __No  
Site has adequate space for the support services the school intends to provide to Its students (i.e. nurse counselors, tutors, after-school programs, etc). __Yes __No  
Facilities include cafeteria or other suitable space for students to eat meals __Yes __No  
Building placement is compatible (i.e. music room is not next to library). __Yes __No  
Facilities are generally conducive to a learning environment. __Yes __No  
Site is away from freeways, railways, Flight patterns, excessive noise, Obnoxious odors, toxic, conditions Electromagnetic fields, earthquake faults, flood zones. __Yes __No  
Site has good access and dispersal roads. __Yes __No  
Site has separate bus loading, parking areas, and parent drop off areas. __Yes __No  
Facilities operation permits and certificates, including evidence of inspection by a structural engineer, fire marshal and occupancy certificates, zoning variances, building permits, etc. have been secured. __Yes __No  
Site has good access and dispersal roads. __Yes __No  
Facilities are sufficient to accommodate The administrative and business Functions, including the storage of Student and other records, reports, and documents. __Yes __No  
Facilities meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Including (1) accessible routes from Outside the school to entry and from the school entry to all the other buildings, and (2) stairs, ramps, toilets and signage that meet accessibility standards. __Yes __No  
Site and facilities are situated to minimize student contact with adults who do not have appropriate clearances as required by Education Cod Section 44237. __Yes __No  
Relocatable facilities are single story and meet local seismic safety requirements. __Yes __No  
Site has appropriate security (i.e. fencing, adequate lighting, alarms, etc.). __Yes __No  
Facilities are clean, sanitary, and free from conditions that would create a fire or other hazard. __Yes __No  
     
Building Exterior   Comments
Facilities are generally free of chipped Paint, cracked floors, uneven surfaces mold and evidence of leaks. __Yes __No  
Sidewalks, driveways, and outdoor play areas are relatively free of crack and uneven surfaces, and are good repair. __Yes __No  
Perimeter fences are installed as necessary and are in good repair. __Yes __No  
Graffiti or other signs of vandalism to the building are absent. __Yes __No  
School exterior needs minimal cosmetic repairs, painting, or additional lighting. __Yes __No  
Window and doors are intact and in good repair. __Yes __No  
Exterior stairs or handrails are in good repair. __Yes __No  
Exits to buildings are free of obstructions. __Yes __No  

The charter school staff of the mayor's office in Indianapolis also uses external teams for many of its school visits. The authorizing staff members conduct an initial preopening site visit to allow them to get to know the school administration, see the facility, and determine whether the school is in compliance to open. Thereafter, a group of experts (including current and former teachers, administrators, and district superintendents) from the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning at the University of Indianapolis conducts formal site visits to each school annually. The office uses these external teams because staff members have found that schools are more likely to use the improvement- oriented feedback they receive when the schools do not feel they are being targeted by the authorizing staff. Recurring visits by the same team gives schools an incentive to address problems because they know the team will be coming back to see improvements. Authorizing staff also frequently drop in at schools unannounced for informal visits or to pick up paperwork. These visits are helpful for fostering communication, bringing issues to the office staff's attention, and reminding schools of their upcoming deadlines.

Several schools report that their authorizer's site visits, when well structured and announced in advance, serve as a recurring incentive to reflect on school performance and collect information schools themselves will use. Unannounced and less formal site visits also allow school leaders and staff an opportunity to display their accomplishments and ask questions or share their concerns with the authorizing staff.

Approach oversight with a sense of purpose and respect for schools' autonomy

Each of these authorizers has carefully developed a point of view about how to balance adequate oversight with respect for schools' autonomy. Their approaches are different, but each office has an oversight philosophy that promotes the development of a monitoring process that is thorough but also safeguards schools' freedom to experiment with new approaches to governance, curriculum, and instruction. Having a philosophy about how to manage the monitoring-autonomy balance also has allowed these offices to develop their own approaches to another complex factor that is inherent in the authorizer's role: how to balance staff members' natural desire to offer support with the need to maintain their role as objective evaluators.

At FSU, staff members are so aware of the need to maintain this balance that they regularly refer to it as "The Line," which is their way of describing the border between adequate oversight and infringing upon schools' autonomy as well as between providing necessary assistance to schools versus running the schools' day-to-day operations. This "line" comes up during every staff meeting and is a part of every policy decision in the office. Before providing assistance, for example, staff members ask themselves whether they are setting a precedent: Is this something they should do for the school or is this something the school should do for itself? Staff members acknowledge that the line differs with every school; those that run into trouble receive more assistance and greater oversight from the authorizer, while those that are doing well require less. Staff members believe that this balance between oversight and autonomy in every policy decision and in their relationship with each individual school helps FSU maintain a strong and healthy authorizing relationship with its schools.

Figure 13. Ferris State University Field Representative Job Description

POSITION TITLE: Charter Schools Office Field Representative(s)
SUPERSEDES: New
EFFECTIVE DATE: January 2, 2003
DEPARTMENT(S): Charter Schools
F.L.S.A.: At Will
GROUP: Part Time
  • SUMMARY OF FUNCTION: Represent the Ferris State University Charter Schools Office to public school academies authorized by Ferris State University's Boar of Trustees. Field Representative(s) will attend academy board of directors meetings, visit observe academy classrooms and administrative operations and submit written reports to the Charter Schools Office.

  • CHARACTERISTIC DUTIES include the following . Other duties may be assigned.

Essential

  • During the fiscal year, attend at least six (6) board of director's meetings for each assigned academy.
  • Submit a written summary report of each board of directors meeting attended within five (5) days of the meeting.
  • During the academic year (September - June), make at least six (6) visits to each assigned academy and observe the instructional process and/or administrative procedures.
  • Submit a written summary report of each visit within five (5) days of the visit.
  • Immediately report to the Charter Schools Office any activity, that the Field Representatives believes, may be illegal, inappropriate, a safety hazard, or other, unusual circumstance. Such a report should be made by telephone, fax, or e-mail, without delay. A written summery of the circumstances prompting the report is to be submitted within five (5) days.
  • Attend scheduled Field Representative meetings with the Charter Schools Office Staff.

Marginal

  • Attend FSU Board of Trustees meetings when requested
  • Attend workshops and other training related to charter schools.
  • III. RESPONSIBILITIES: Reports directly to the Director of Charter Schools. Responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of designated information. Performs all duties in compliance with applicable University policies and procedures and state and federal requirements.

  • IV. REQUIRED QUALIFICATIONS: To perform this job successfully, an individual must be able to perform each essential duty satisfactorily. The requirements listed below are representative of the knowledge, skill, and/or ability required. Any equivalent combination of education, training and experience which provides the required knowledge, abilities and skills may be considered. Reasonable accommodations may be made to enable individuals with disabilities to perform the essential functions.

Education/Skills
Minimum: Bachelors degree in education.
Preferred: Masters degree in education or related field.

Ability to:

  • Make sound decisions within parameters of authority.
  • Communicate effectively both orally and in writing.
  • Be tactful and courteous at all times.
  • Handle confidential material.
  • Attend meeting in inner-city areas at night.

Work Experience
Minimum: Three years of classroom teaching experience and demonstrated experience with managerial and organizational responsibilities in K-12 education.

  • This description is intended to indicate the kinds of tasks and levels of work difficulty that will be required of this position. It is not intended to limit or in any way to modify the right of any supervisor to assign, direct and control the work of employees under his/her supervision. The use of a particular illustration shall not be used to exclude non-listed duties of similar kind or level of difficulty.

At the Massachusetts Charter School Office, staff members face a similar struggle to preserve their objectivity as authorizers and not step into too much of a supportive role with schools. Schools frequently call individual staff members for help with everything from filling out the application to selecting an external auditor. When faced with such questions, Director Mary Street advises staff members to resist the urge to offer advice. As she defines it, their role is to "hold a mirror up to the schools." That is, all of their monitoring processes are designed to help schools see their own strengths and weaknesses, but not to offer them specific advice about how they should respond to these challenges. Therefore, to do their job well, staff members need to focus on improving these processes so they can provide the schools with the most accurate "mirror" possible. According to Street, offering specific advice not only compromises her staff's role as evaluators, but also means her office could be held accountable down the line for decisions that the schools make because of her staff's advice.

In Chicago, charter schools themselves are very definitive about the kind of assistance they request from their authorizer. Beatriz Rendon, executive director of the Department of New School Support in Chicago, offers this analysis: "As a group, the charter schools in Chicago are very aware of their autonomy." According to Rendon, several of the schools have expressed concerns that the most recent staff reorganization in her office might lead to a loss of independence on the part of the schools. "They were really afraid," she reports, "that we would come in and start telling them you have to do this kind of curriculum; you have to do this professional development." As a result of this climate, charter schools in Chicago are less likely to turn to CPS for advice about their school programs and more likely to ask about compliance issues. The majority of the phone calls the charter office receives are inquiries about issues such as funding, facilities, or special education requirements. Rarely does a school call to ask for advice or feedback related to the school's educational program.

Staff members at SUNY Institute say they are very conscious of the dilemma of finding the right balance between providing oversight versus going too far and impinging on a school's autonomy. With every report, piece of documentation, and site visit they require of their schools, the SUNY Institute staff members ask themselves, "Is this [information] convenient for us, or is it good for the school?" Over the years they have been tempted to increase their compliance requirements and lengthen their site visit protocol in order to gather additional information about their schools' day-to-day operations, but they have tried to resist this temptation by consistently revisiting the purposes of their oversight: to ensure that schools are meeting their performance, regulatory, and legal obligations and to provide information that the schools can use to help themselves improve.

All of these authorizers require different levels of reporting about the schools' financial condition. At one end of the spectrum, officials in the California charter division require schools to submit a preliminary budget, two interim budgets, and annual audits. other offices require a bit more reporting: the SUNY Institute-authorized schools must submit evidence of fiscal compliance periodically throughout the term of their charter (including a five-year projected budget, one-year cash flow projection, annual audits, and quarterly financial statements). Requirements in Indianapolis are similar: Schools are required to submit quarterly financial reports to the mayor's office and conduct an annual audit. Staff members in the mayor's office review these data closely to determine whether or not the school is financially sound. FSU monitors schools even more frequently and closely. Staff members there review monthly check registries from each school and require quarterly financial statements and annual budgets and audits. At 36 months into their charter term, schools also must submit a statement regarding their assets and liabilities. In order to reduce the reporting burden that this could potentially place on schools, staff members at FSU have focused their efforts on developing an electronic reporting system that allows schools to submit all required documents automatically.


   13 | 14 | 15
TOC
Print this page Printable view Send this page Share this page
Last Modified: 05/26/2009