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Level of Operational Autonomy
Related to the issue of accountability is the level of autonomy under which these offices operate. Theoretically, higher-level bodies could pose a threat to an authorizer's autonomy by getting involved in the day-to-day workings of the office, but, in most of these highlighted offices, this situation does not seem to occur. While some higher-level entities do exercise their right to reverse decisions made by the authorizing office, state and city education boards, in general, have a lot of other responsibilities and seem content to leave the ongoing work of authorizing up to these offices. According to the authorizers themselves, other bureaucratic bodies that share joint oversight over charter school operations pose a greater threat to the authorizers' autonomy than do their own oversight bodies.
In New York, for example, both the SUNY Institute and the NYC Office of Charter Schools share oversight responsibilities for all of their schools with the State Education Department (SED). By law, the SED is empowered to interact directly with charter schools regarding compliance and performance and has the authority to revoke a charter—regardless of who granted it—if a school fails to comply with SED requirements or the terms of its charter. This situation creates an additional layer of compliance and reporting requirements for charter schools, as they must report both to their authorizer and to the SED. Staff members in the SUNY Institute and NYC offices have sought to protect their schools as much as possible from duplicative reporting requirements, but, in doing so, they have found it necessary to align many of their own policies or deadlines with the SED's established policies and deadlines.
The Chicago and Massachusetts authorizing offices both share some joint responsibility for the schools with other departments within their larger organizations. While the application, contracting, and performance reporting processes are managed by authorizing staff directly, other departments within the larger organization also require schools to submit reports (e.g., on school attendance) and meet compliance requirements. In Massachusetts, for example, there are two full-time staff members who oversee schools' implementation of federal programs. These staff members make regular site visits, field inquiries, and require schools to submit information about how they are implementing federal requirements. Charter schools in Massachusetts also are monitored by the program quality assurance unit in the department, which conducts coordinated program reviews of federal programs in all districts in the state. These reviews operate on a cycle that creates an additional layer of oversight for each of the schools.
In the past, charter schools in Chicago reported to multiple offices within Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Because many office personnel within these other departments (special education, finance, accountability) did not have experience with charter schools, misunderstandings occurred when these staff members did not know whether charter schools were required to meet particular regulations. In January of 2007, the Office of New Schools moved toward a single point-of-contact system whereby schools have an assigned staff member that they use as their initial contact. Because this system has yet to be implemented, it is too early to know if it resolves the difficulties that some schools currently experience, but the hope is that with well-trained, responsive staff members in those contact positions, schools will get the information they need more quickly.
Authorizers housed in larger organizations that focus on areas outside of elementary and secondary education do not tend to share oversight responsibilities with other departments and, therefore, operate with a larger amount of autonomy. The Ferris State University (FSU) charter office is an example, as is the nonprofit authorizer the VOA of MN Charter School Sponsorship Program. Staff from these authorizers mentioned that while they may occasionally turn to other offices within their parent organization for support, members of their larger organization rarely seek to influence or guide their work.
The experiences of these offices point to an important aspect regarding charter law—how to give the authorizing office enough autonomy to perform its job effectively while still monitoring students' safety, academic performance, and their rights under federal law. One option is to allow state and district entities that monitor compliance to continue to do so alongside charter authorizers. But authorizers that share joint day-to-day oversight with other entities report that this shared responsibility can impose a burden on their schools. A more promising option is to hold authorizers accountable and empower them with the capacity they need to monitor schools themselves. Authorizers that do not share joint oversight report that, with proper attention and diligence on their part, they are able to monitor schools' compliance with state and federal regulations successfully.