Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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Authorizers Build a Strong Organization

Each of these authorizing offices is guided by a leader or a team of leaders who have a clear philosophy about the role of a charter school authorizer. Some have large operating budgets, others have budgets that are more lean; but across the board, these authorizers work with the resources they have to hire staff members with the necessary expertise and experience who also are dedicated to the overall mission of providing strong education options for students. For many of them, building a strong organization requires extensive searches for talented leaders and staff, ongoing professional development, and strategic use of external resources.

Recruit and retain qualified staff members

Each of these authorizing offices is filled with dedicated individuals who have the skills and experience to execute their duties effectively, and also have an allegiance to the office philosophy that informs their daily decisions. Whether office responsibilities are divided by core function or by geographic assignments of schools, each authorizer has its own set of criteria when it comes to hiring. Some require applicants to have previous education or charter school experience. Others look for people who bring an external perspective as well as a particular expertise to the job, such as board governance or finance. Regardless of the particular skill set they seek, all of them agree that recruiting staff members who are interested in and capable of taking on the challenges associated with charter school authorizing is difficult.

Hosanna Mahaley Johnson, the former director of the Office of New Schools within the Chicago Public Schools, says that there is a growing demand for people who have experience in the relatively new field of authorizing."Because this body of work is so hot," she says,"I really fight hard to keep talented people. We get tons of resumes coming in all the time from people who want to work here for different reasons. But I work really hard to try to keep those who are here because I know that other employers continually attempt to recruit them, and other people in charter authorizing are constantly looking at them because this body of work is growing so fast."

According to Mahaley Johnson, what makes this work so unique is the fact that it is a relatively new field. Charter schools have been around for a mere 15 years, while the traditional public school system has been in existence for more than a century. Because of this, staff members in the Chicago office"need to adapt all the time. They have to be able to put their assumptions on the table and allow them to be questioned, challenged and even overturned if new data become available." Finding people who thrive in such a dynamic environment can be difficult. one way she addresses this challenge is to hire people who have been successful in similar environments elsewhere and who demonstrate real commitment to the work during the interview process.

At the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute (SUNY Institute), former director James Merriman organized his staff by core function (see fig. 2) rather than assigning individual staff members to a group of schools or a geographic area, as some of the other authorizers profiled in this guide have done. This way, when school leaders have questions, they call the person who is knowledgeable about a particular area, such as facilities, federal programs, or accountability. Rather than hire people who have subject expertise but little education experience, the SUNY Institute looks for people who have both."Because SUNY is operating an educational program," Merriman says, he"expects all staff members to understand schools' core business." Filling staff positions with former educators has been an ongoing challenge, however. According to Merriman,"Charter schools have a hard time staffing, and the authorizing ranks are thin too." In his experience, many people with education experience come from a bureaucratic background where they focused only on compliance. often, "They don't get it. Their instinct is to do what a superintendent would do, to the detriment of the charter school's autonomy." To find talented staff members who "get it," SUNY Institute has conducted national and regional searches for individuals who can work effectively in a performance-based accountability system.

Figure 2. SUNY Institute Staff Structure

Like Mahaley Johnson, Merriman has worked hard to retain experienced staff members who can successfully work with schools. one of his key retention tools is the promotion of staff members to senior positions as the office has grown. Another is the provision of consistent professional development through ongoing examination of the staff's practices, feedback from schools, and the schools' learning results. Staff members rely on the resources of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and meet periodically with an Authorizing Coordinating Team made up of offices from around the state to share best practices, to align their standards for annual school openings in the fall and for renewal, and to discuss common issues, such as board membership and school closure.

At the California Department of Education Charter Schools division, Marta Reyes has worked to ensure that her staff members share a common mission and vision, despite their different backgrounds and previous experience. When Reyes first came to the division in 2003, she found that some staff members did not fully understand or embrace the charter model."They'd grown up in a government agency," says Reyes."In many government agencies the focus is generally on one thing: regulatory compliance." Many of these staff members did not initially take well to the idea of a cooperative relationship with charter schools, focusing instead on monitoring and compliance. Others, who had more experience working with charter schools, had to shift their focus under Reyes' leadership from charter advocacy to charter authorizing, learning to provide technical assistance while also monitoring compliance and student performance. Reyes accomplished this culture change by emphasizing professional development to build the skills and develop the division's capacity as an authorizer. The entire staff participated in 18 months of training, which included workshops and off-site retreats to develop a common vision of charter authorizing and a mission for supporting and expanding highquality charter schools.

Retaining highly qualified staff members is a particular challenge for the Massachusetts Department of Education Charter School Office. Several staff members have left this office over the years to take on leadership positions in other areas of education and at national charter school organizations. Despite the challenges that turnover poses, the current director, Mary Street, is willing to accept this level of change. By setting the bar high, she is able to attract the best people, even if those same people are more likely to move on to other jobs either because of salary considerations or because they want to take on different responsibilities. She finds that the challenges associated with the job—developing more efficient systems and processes, interacting successfully with charter school leaders, advocating for charter schools in a contentious political environment— are attractive to highly motivated people. She believes that her best hope of retaining these people lies in her ability to foster a supportive, collegial working environment where people who have a strong personal interest in the mission of the office are able to do their work effectively.

Barry Barnett, the coordinator of federal programs in the Massachusetts office, was attracted to the charter school idea early on. One of the few staff members who came to the Charter School Office from another branch of the state department, Barnett holds a position that is not typical in charter school authorizing offices. His previous experience in the Office of Program Quality Assurance, conducting special education audits of both charter and non-charter schools, convinced him that charter schools need ongoing technical assistance (e.g., informational workshops) regarding special education and limited English proficiency programs. Over time, he was able to convince others within the department that the state's charter schools would benefit from having a federal programs contact person. In this position, he is able to work actively to improve education outcomes for a segment of the student population that consistently underperforms academically.

Use external resources strategically

All of the authorizers highlighted herein use external resources strategically to supplement their internal staff capacity. Some, such as the SUNY Charter Schools Institute and the Indianapolis mayor's office, have chosen to hire external contractors to assist them with particular aspects of their work. Others have partnered with external support organizations, and some have chosen to utilize the expertise of people in their parent organizations.

The leadership at the SUNY Institute has chosen to use external contractors not only to allow institute staff to focus on their core responsibilities, but also because they believe that these contractors bring an important perspective to the authorizing work. Athough SUNY Institute's own staff members review charter applications, the institute also contracts with external reviewers. Its intent in doing so is to gain fresh perspective and to draw on the best expertise from across the country. Although institute staff conduct site visits during the first two years of a new charter school, external people are again brought in for third-year site visits. This is in part because the institute has found that school administrators and staff are often more candid with these individuals than with staff. Also, according to Merriman, when the institute's own staff conduct site visits, they focus exclusively on their role as evaluators. He believes that external contractors are able to step out of the evaluative role and also offer schools technical assistance with specific aspects of their programs.

Because Mayor Peterson's charter schools office in Indianapolis has only four full-time employees, many of its authorizing responsibilities are undertaken by external consultants. The office hires consultants for a variety of tasks, including survey administration and data collection, site visits, and data analyses. As the office's former director David Harris explains,"We want the best people in the country who are doing this type of work on our team. We would never have been able to hire the range of expertise that we needed [on our staff]. The most efficient way for us to get the expertise was to contract out for that work."

California's Charter Schools division also has drawn upon the expertise of other organizations to improve its policies and maximize its internal capacity. The division secured a grant to work for 18 months with NACSA, during which staff created a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) and developed a broader perspective of charter authorizing nationally and in California. The division also worked for a year with an education services company* to develop an inspection protocol for site visits to state-approved schools. The new MOU, developed with substantial support and assistance from both groups, is now a central feature of oversight for state-authorized charter schools and includes the inspection protocol as well as criteria to guide site visits and the evaluation of documents.

Several of the organizations highlighted herein work in cooperation with other charter groups in their states. The New York City (NYC) Office of Charter Schools, for example, works closely with the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence (CCSE), an independent nonprofit organization based in New York that focuses solely on charter school support and advocacy. The NYC charter office relies heavily upon the CCSE to fill several roles that are outside of the office's defined mission and beyond its current capacity. For example, the NYC office does not focus on recruitment of potential charter applicants. Instead, it relies upon the CCSE to help supply charter applicants that align with NYC's mission and meet their standards. The NYC Office also looks to the CCSE to provide technical assistance, resource development assistance, assessment and data management modeling, and to facilitate networking between charter schools and allied organizations in the city. According to the former executive director of the NYC office of Charter Schools, Mashea Ashton, the CCSE is a unique and valuable resource that allows the NYC office to focus on quality oversight and accountability while feeling confident that the NYC office-authorized schools have support and advocacy available from another source.

Several authorizers in Michigan, including Ferris State University and Central Michigan University, are members of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers (MCCSA), a membership organization incorporated in 2002 to foster the exchange of information and resources among charter offices in Michigan. MCCSA has developed accountability standards for charter schools and has developed its own standards for authorizing. The council meets periodically to collaborate on best practices and bring uniformity to charter school oversight in the state.

California's Charter Schools division has developed a strong relationship with the California Charter Schools Association, as well as other statewide and other local organizations that provide technical support, leadership development, and the sharing of best practices. These relationships have enabled the California Department of Education to partner on many key issues related to charter advocacy and policy setting.

One advantage charter authorizers have in working within a state department of education is access to resources in close proximity (e.g., in the office next door or down the hall). Four staff members in California's charter office are responsible for overseeing all state board-approved charters, including reviewing applications, developing contracts, and making recommendations for renewal and revocation. nine other employees are responsible for overseeing all charter schools in the state, but not in the capacity of an authorizer. The relatively small workgroup dedicated to state board-approved charters is able to draw upon the expertise of these other colleagues in the charter division for assistance with tasks, such as analyzing achievement data, monitoring compliance with special education and NCLB requirements, and resolving issues related to the financing and maintenance of charter facilities. They also are able to rely on experts in other department offices for assistance with legal issues and particular education programs that schools have chosen to use. This external assistance makes it possible for a small staff to oversee eight charter schools and eight all-charter districts (which accounted for 15 schools in 2005–06) that are spread widely throughout this large state.

Both the Massachusetts Charter School Office and VOA of MN's Charter School Sponsorship Program are also able to leverage the resources of the larger organizations of which they are a part in several key ways. Staff members in the Massachusetts office, for example, regularly turn to other departments for information about particular regulations or requirements with which charter schools need to comply, as well as for resources, such as contact lists and program materials. When more specific expertise is needed in an area like finance or law, staff members have ready access to those resources as well. For example, when the Massachusetts Board of Education voted not to renew a school's charter and the school exercised its right to an administrative hearing, the Charter School Office was able to turn to the Massachusetts Department of Education's legal office for guidance. Not only did this save time for the office staff, but it also meant they did not have to use their limited funds on legal advice.

The VOA of MN Charter School Sponsorship Program is part of a much larger nonprofit with a history of serving the most vulnerable populations in the state—children, seniors, juvenile and adult ex-offenders—through a range of social service programs. In all, VOA of MN employs 700 people and has 4,000 volunteers. The Charter School Sponsorship Program is a small office within this much larger organization. With only two full-time staff members (a director and a school liaison), the charter office has had to creatively engage the services of numerous external resources to develop high-quality practices. For general nonprofit management issues, charter office staff members frequently turn to the large staff and board of its parent nonprofit for experienced advice. They are also able to draw on various other services within the larger organization when necessary, including legal, financial, and fundraising expertise.

To easily obtain information about authorizing best practices, Justin Testerman, the director of the VOA of MN Charter School Sponsorship Program, has joined several state and national organizations, including NACSA and the Minnesota Sponsors Assistance Network. Attendance at national charter school conferences also has given Testerman access to materials he would have had to create from scratch otherwise. Some examples of materials that they have adapted from elsewhere include accountability and monitoring tools from the mayor's office in Indianapolis,6 the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory checklist for opening new schools,7 and a five-step intervention process developed by the D.C. Public Charter School Board in Washington, D.C.8

* To develop an inspection protocol for site visits, the California Department of Education Charter Schools Division worked with Cambridge Education, based in England.

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009