Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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State University of New York Charter Schools Institute

Authorizer Profile: Selected Characteristics (as of 2005–06 school year)

First year of operation Number of staff Total number of schools Number of students Total number of school closures
1999 16 36 10,326 5

New York State Charter Law:

In New York state, where there has been strong opposition to the charter school movement, it helps to be the only authorizer in the state having final say in selecting new charter schools. Once a decision has been made by the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York (SUNY), it cannot be overturned by the Board of Regents. Another enormous advantage is the highly vocal and concrete support that Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg, and Chancellor Klein give charters across the state and particularly in New York City, where 21 of the 50 SUNY Institute-authorized schools are located.

The SUNY trustees created the Charter Schools Institute in 1999 as a single-purpose entity devoting all of its time and resources to quality authorizing practices. The institute seeks to open charters that will successfully serve students at risk for academic failure and to promote change from compliance-based to performance-based accountability systems. While meeting rigorous criteria about academic quality and capable governance, every charter applicant must show sufficient community support for its proposed school to achieve its goals. The SUNY Institute takes pains to see that applicants envision the program from the student's point of view and that the school is really about the children, not the adults.

Starting nearly from scratch, SUNY Institute initially saw its role as more "judge and jury" than charter support. But as the office has grown along with its number of schools, its staff has become more sophisticated about what they expect from operating schools and about what they offer to the schools in terms of advocacy and accountability. Serving schools from a relatively insulated position politically, the institute developed policies and procedures based on its chartering goals, not on political and bureaucratic pressure. Its relationships with schools are built primarily upon results and compliance with rules and regulations only inasmuch as they support the school's capacity to achieve those results.

The SUNY Institute is known nationwide for holding its schools firmly to their accountability standards, and it has closed five schools since 1999. While every nonrenewal has been a difficult experience for the institute staff—not to mention the school community—the staff is confident that over time the renewal procedure will improve the quality of charter schools in New York and strengthen the charter movement nationwide. By establishing charter schools that become recognized as models for excellence, SUNY Institute seeks to help raise the standard to which public schools across the state are held.

Just as the SUNY Institute has a single focus, each staff member also has a singular focus. Staff members are divided by core functions rather than by schools or geographic area, allowing each staff member to offer his or her particular expertise to all schools. While this structure works well—even with 50 schools—the institute augments its own capacity by collaborating with others. For example, it uses external evaluators to help review applications, drawing on fresh perspectives and the best thinking about charter schools from across the country. It also contracts with outside organizations to conduct prescribed third-year site visits, to provide a check on procedures, also allowing schools to be more candid during the visit. SUNY Institute views its role as more evaluative than supportive and is careful to balance these roles when its own staff members conduct site visits. Because they are not in a position to make decisions about closure or renewal, external contractors are able to step out of this delicate balance somewhat and offer more technical assistance, when necessary, as compared to what institute staff members can offer.

Like other authorizers in New York, SUNY Institute is fortunate to have close working relationships with the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA), a statewide membership organization providing technical assistance and advocacy for all New York charter schools; and the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, an independent, not-for-profit organization that serves as "advocate, bridge, and catalyst"30 for the success of charter schools in the city. The center helps with services that a charter authorizer may not be able to provide; for example, the institute counts on the center's efforts to help increase awareness and support for charter schools. Most importantly, SUNY Institute staff members can feel confident that their schools in the city are receiving technical support, without the institute having to provide that support.

Ongoing evaluation of the institute's work "permeates the organization," according to former director James Merriman. While the institute does not formally collect data to direct its internal operations, most of its policies—such as the application process, renewal benchmarks, and ongoing monitoring—have been revised as a result of experiences with schools. For example, institute-required measures of student performance have replaced schools' choice of their own norm-referenced tests because schools were not providing meaningful and reliable information about students' improvement under the former measures. Also, staff members noticed over the years that they were consistently seeing weak school governing boards that often threatened the schools' success. In response, the staff built into each school's contract the power to disapprove board members.

Schools are required to develop an accountability plan during the first year of their charter that defines their specific performance goals. All SUNY Institute-authorized schools are required to administer all state examinations in all state test grades (3–12). Progress toward these goals must be measured in absolute terms, using value-added measures (an assessment model that measures students' academic growth), and in comparison to their local district overall. All schools must expect ultimately 75 percent of their students to score at proficiency levels on state reading and math exams.

All New York authorizers share oversight duties with the New York State Education Department (SED). SUNY Institute has refined this relationship to make it useful for schools rather than burdensome. The SED takes the lead on data collection, for example, because it has procedures in place. SUNY Institute, on the other hand, takes the lead on ongoing oversight of schools' academic, organizational and fiscal systems.

The institute's unusual strengths start with its position within the university. The institute is funded primarily through sources from within the university. While institute staff members are able to draw upon a range of university resources, answering directly to the Board of Trustees affords them a good deal of autonomy, allowing staff to undertake K–12 education reform with an open mind about what type of programs will work. Acting as a statewide authorizer provides greater insulation from state and local politics, allowing staff to make application and renewal decisions that inevitably would be more difficult for a district authorizer. The single-purpose focus of the SUNY Institute ensures that staff members are chosen for expertise that matches their job responsibilities and are less likely to be distracted by issues and tasks not related to the institute's core mission as an authorizer.

Signs of Success: State University of New York Charter Schools Institute
  • On the 2005–06 administration of the state's standardized exam in mathematics, 19 of 26 (72 percent) operating SUNY Institute-authorized charter schools—open for at least one year at the time of the test administration— outperformed their local districts.

  • On the 2005–06 administration of the state's standardized exam in English language arts, 18 of the 26 (69 percent) operating SUNY Institute-authorized charter schools open for one year or more outperformed their local districts.31

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009