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Level and Type of External Accountability
In designing charter school legislation, policymakers have focused a great deal of attention on the specifics of the authorizer-charter school bargain (i.e., that charter schools are given certain freedoms as long as they produce results). If charter school leaders cannot improve student performance, operate a financially viable organization, and satisfy parents who have a choice about whether to send their children to this school, then the school will be closed. On the other hand, if a school meets and exceeds the terms of its charter, it can continue to operate and even expand.
As with any bargain, there are two sides to this relationship. The research literature19 and the focus of charter school legislation itself indicate that policymakers have given far less attention to the authorizer side of the bargain. What happens if the authorizer does not set up a rigorous screening process? Monitor schools consistently? Hold schools accountable for results? Experience suggests that student performance suffers if these responsibilities are not carried out.
So, how should policymakers hold authorizers accountable for their performance? What types of entities should oversee the authorizer? What should they monitor? How should they measure results? How much oversight is desirable, and how much would be burdensome? What role, if any, should the public play in this process?
Charter school legislation regarding authorizer oversight varies greatly from state to state, both in terms of what agencies provide the oversight and what their roles are. To move toward a more coherent policy, one that manages the balance between responsible oversight and freedom to act, policymakers need to know more about what works best. The experiences of the authorizers featured in this guide offer some insights into what types of entities generally hold authorizers accountable and how they exercise their oversight responsibilities, but there is more work to be done to determine how authorizers themselves should be held accountable for overseeing a system of high-performing schools. By directing more resources to examine these emerging questions, policymakers, foundations, advocacy groups, and government offices could improve our understanding of what level and type of oversight is most desirable.20
On the surface, there are multiple levels of oversight for the authorizing staff in the Ferris State University Charter Schools Office. Staff members report to the university’s vice president for academic affairs and the dean of extended learning, and, ultimately, to the university Board of Trustees, which has the final say on all decisions about charter approval, renewal, and closure. But in actuality, these offices rarely intervene in the operations of the authorizing office. Neither the university administrators nor the board sets policy or guides the office’s mission. Instead, they focus on the big picture: ensuring that no charter school poses a serious risk to its students, its community, or the university. This hands-off role leaves the daily work and decision-making to the authorizing staff, which has the expertise and tools to work most effectively with its schools.
Authorizers in Massachusetts, New York, and California make recommendations to state-level bodies that ultimately grant charters and approve closures. In California, this takes the form of an appointed Advisory Commission on Charter Schools that makes recommendations to the State Board of Education, which then makes all final decisions. Through advocacy, presentations, and annual reports, the California charter office answers to both of these groups for the integrity of its relationship with its schools and for the quality of their academic performance. The situation in Massachusetts, where the statewide authorizer is the only authorizer, is similar. The Massachusetts office answers directly to the state commissioner of education, who makes recommendations to the Massachusetts Board of Education. The state board ultimately makes all decisions. The NYC Office of Charter Schools also makes recommendations to the NYC public schools chancellor who then proposes them to a legislatively empowered board—the New York State Board of Regents—for final decisions regarding charter approval, renewal, and closure.
In the cases of Massachusetts and California, the state board almost always follows the charter office's recommendation. This is not the case with NYC, where the New York State Board of Regents has been known to reject the recommendations made by the charter office. This situation is attributable in large part to differing levels of risk tolerance. In general, the NYC Office of Charter Schools is more open to innovative school models than the Board of Regents. When the Board of Regents disagrees with the proposed leadership, education focus, or location of a new charter school, its word is final.
Because of the way the charter school law is structured in Minnesota, the state commissioner of education ultimately approves and renews the charter, but the authorizing staff acts as a "sponsor" in the sense that it is responsible for ongoing oversight responsibilities. The state education commissioner in Minnesota does occasionally deny an application, particularly if the commissioner does not believe the authorizer will implement strong oversight practices.
As part of the Volunteers of America of Minnesota (VOA of MN), the Charter School Sponsorship Program also answers to the board of directors of this larger nonprofit for key aspects of its operations, such as its mission and budget. Yet it has a lot of freedom to design its own processes and to make decisions. The CEO of its parent organization—VOA of MN—is actively involved to the extent that he participates in the application process and is familiar with the processes and the schools, but the charter office director and school liaison have built the actual day-to-day operations themselves. They have created the materials and processes, and they field all school inquiries.
In every state with a charter school law, the state itself is ultimately responsible for the quality of education offered by charter schools. State policymakers can meet this responsibility by holding the authorizing organizations that directly monitor charter school quality accountable for results. In order to do so, the individuals who sit on these oversight bodies—the state board of education, the board of the larger nonprofit (as is the case with VOA of MN), and the university board of trustees (as is the case with FSU and SUNY)—must themselves be familiar with strong authorizing practices.