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Most policymakers, charter school operators, and others immersed in the charter school movement since it began in the early 1990s have focused their attention primarily on charter schools, not on the public bodies that license these schools to operate. As the charter school movement has grown, however, there has been increasing recognition that effective charter school authorizing is critical to the success of the charter school sector. Charter school authorizers are entities charged by law to approve new schools, monitor their compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and evaluate their performance to make decisions about charter renewal and closure. The role of charter authorizers* has become particularly important in the context of increasing accountability under the no Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
Intended primarily for policymakers and charter school authorizers and potential authorizers, this guide describes various ways that authorizers and policymakers can achieve quality authorizing. It provides detailed information designed to help policymakers at the state and national levels and to help current and potential authorizers replicate these successful models and practices.
In order to provide specific illustrations of abstract concepts involved in successful charter authorizing, this guide highlights the practices of eight charter authorizers that have fostered the development of high-quality charter schools. By profiling the work of these authorizers, this guide intends to enhance the knowledge base, capacities, and practices of all types of authorizers, aiming to strengthen the quality and success of charter schools nationwide. The field of charter authorizing is relatively new, though, and there is a great deal of necessary experimentation—and resulting variation—among the offices profiled here.
It is outside the scope of this guide to explore all of the processes and responsibilities in which authorizers engage. Instead, the guide highlights the experiences of authorizing agencies that are successful at the most challenging aspects of quality authorizing (e.g., providing transparent oversight of the schools they authorize). By focusing on these challenging and potentially make-or-break issues, the examples in this guide are intended to help move the field of high-quality authorizing forward.
The type of entity that may authorize charter schools varies by state. During the 2004–05 school year, according to estimates by the researchers who developed this guide, there were more than 800 charter school authorizers across the country. Nearly 90 percent of active authorizers are local education agencies (LEAs). The rest are county, regional, or intermediate agencies; colleges and universities; state boards, commissions, and departments of education; nonprofit organizations; independent, special-purpose charter boards; and mayors’ offices and city councils.
Most states allow more than one type of entity to authorize charter schools. Most also offer charter school developers some degree of choice in selecting an authorizer. But some states restrict choice to designated geographic areas. In other states, local school boards are the only option for authorizing.
The volume of authorizing varies significantly by authorizer type. Although most authorizers are LEAs, the most typical LEA authorizes only a very small number of charter schools: Almost 80 percent of the LEAs that are active authorizers have authorized only one or two charter schools each.1
* For purposes of the Federal Charter Schools Program, "authorized public chartering agency" is definited as "a State educational agency, local educational agency, or other public entity that has the authority pursuant to State law and approved by the Secretary to authorize or approve a charter school" (The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, §5210). Each of the eight profiled authorizing offices has an oversight body that ultimately approves, denies, renews or revokes each charter and meets this federal definition (for more information, see Part II - Policy Considerations).