‘Weeding Is Hard Work’ — Charter School Authorizers and the Promise of Educational Excellence for All Kids
Greg Richmond reached his breaking point after a 25-mile taxi journey from Denver to the airport. As the leading authorizer of charter schools in Chicago, Richmond was keenly aware of the lack of guidance available to charter authorizers in performing their roles. While there were laws and regulations outlining the tasks of authorizers such as reviewing applications, evaluating schools, and deciding whether to renew or close them, they offered no insight into how these tasks should be accomplished. Additionally, the newness of the laws meant there were few experts available to provide guidance to the hundreds of authorizers scattered across the country.
Some authorizers weren’t even interested in their roles. Bureaucrats who had no desire to oversee new schools would simply claim it was "not their thing." Others were solely concerned with receiving their designated percentage of funding for the services they were meant to provide. And there were those who were ineffective at managing their own districts, so it was unlikely they would be capable of effectively authorizing schools.
Indeed, authorizers faced numerous challenges. In a study conducted in 2012, David Osborne listed nearly a dozen obstacles that hindered the closure of underperforming charter schools:
1. Insufficient collection of comprehensive evidence regarding charter school performance by authorizers.
2. Inadequate staffing and funding for many authorizers.
3. Authorizers having incentives to keep schools open.
4. Many charter schools lacking meaningful and measurable performance goals.
5. Authorizers lacking clear criteria for renewal and revocation.
6. The potential for state boards and/or courts to reverse or hinder authorizer decisions.
7. Charter operators often making last-minute efforts to turn around schools when faced with closure.
8. Poorly designed charter laws obstructing closures.
The quality control of charter schools from the outset heavily relied on the attitudes and capabilities of the authorizers. Some states implemented charter laws with strict caps, while others had more lenient approaches. The states that adopted a laissez-faire approach to authorizing faced challenges due to the proliferation of schools. In Arizona, for example, one observer noted that early on, the focus was on quantity rather than quality. There was little emphasis on accountability, and autonomy was prioritized. The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools approved a staggering 76 percent of the applications it received between 1994 and 2002.
This approach allowed ineffective schools to open, and monitoring them all became a difficult task due to the high number of approvals. As Bob Bellafiore, former head of the SUNY Charter School Institute in New York, described it, "Allowing a thousand flowers to bloom is easy, but weeding them out is hard work."
Twenty years after the opening of the first charter schools in Arizona, Lisa Graham Keegan, the state’s superintendent of public instruction from 1995 to 2001, acknowledged that accountability was not prioritized initially. However, she believed that some positive outcomes had emerged. Keegan stated that if she could change history, she would have preferred accountability to be established before choice. Nonetheless, she believed that Arizona was well-positioned to become one of the fastest-improving states in the country.
From the beginning, Keegan strongly believed in expanding choice and involving community members in the process. In the first four years of the Arizona charter law, the state board was required to have at least three members from low-income communities. Looking back, Keegan recognized the trade-offs of this approach. There was initially a higher percentage of low-income students in public charter schools, which contributed to a significant number of failures. Many well-intentioned community members who were unfamiliar with running schools started new schools in low-income areas.
Arizona’s charter law also had a loophole that provided additional state funding to districts simply for converting to charter status. Keegan recalled a major school district that sent out a flyer to parents stating that nothing would change, but they would receive an additional $1,500 per pupil. They labeled their schools as "charter schools" to access the extra funding. The state eventually closed this loophole in 2014.
Arizona was not the only state to face high-profile problems. Texas, after passing its charter law in 1995, had a lenient application process established by the State Board of Education, resulting in the approval of many weak schools. In 1998, the board shockingly approved all 109 applications it received. Although revisions were made to the law to impose stricter application standards, the damage had already been done.
"For the sake of the entire charter movement," she stated, "we must close down charter schools that should not be operating." She held hope that raising standards would aid in improving the unfair reputation that charters had acquired. Out of the 33 charters that had been revoked, returned, rescinded, or expired, 25 of them were from the initial round approved in 1998. In contrast, only five out of the 55 charter applications in 2004 were approved. Her objective was for the new regulations to enhance the quality of the state’s charters, so that lawmakers would consider increasing the current cap of 215.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Board of Education made the decision to relinquish its own authority after years of ineffective and politically motivated authorizing practices. This decision was prompted by an investigation into the possible misuse of funds by Brenda L. Belton, the former administrator of the Charter Schools Oversight Office. Belton was subsequently convicted of embezzlement and directing over $800,000 of school system funds illegally, resulting in a 35-month jail sentence. The independent DC Public Charter Schools Board, known for its successful management of schools, stepped in as the sole authorizer for the district. This marked a positive step forward.
Searching for solutions, Richmond diligently attended major national charter meetings during the late 1990s in search of answers to the challenges plaguing charter school quality. Alongside his colleagues, John Ayers and Margaret Lin, from Chicago, Richmond noticed that majority of the attendees at these conferences were running charter schools. Lin remembered, "There was a lot of discussion on improving charter schools at these conferences, but an essential aspect was missing."
Apart from Scott Hamilton, who gained national recognition for his work on accountability in Massachusetts, Richmond frequently encountered Jim Goenner of Central Michigan University as the only other authorizer. At a Charter Friends National Network meeting in Tampa in 1998, Goenner confessed his desire to establish authorizing as a respected profession. Both agreed that esteemed professions such as medicine and law were held to standards, and they saw no reason why charter school authorizers shouldn’t have the same.
Richmond returned to Chicago and discussed the idea with his colleagues. They wrote to Alex Medler, who oversaw the Charter School Grant Program at the U.S. Department of Education, proposing that the Department sponsor a day for authorizers to enhance their practices before the next national conference.
Medler was enthusiastic about the idea. Having been involved with charters since 1992, Medler had co-authored one of the earliest research reports on charter schools in 1995. He spent considerable time advocating for chartering in statehouses. Medler found it ironic how teacher union leaders would publicly denounce charter schools as "evil," but privately express their own interest in starting their own charters.
Recognizing the challenges authorizers faced, Medler agreed that they needed more support. He allocated funding and approached Jon Schroeder at the Network to organize a pre-conference specifically for authorizers at the March 1999 National Charter Schools Conference in Denver.
Over 200 authorizers from across the country attended, eager for information and knowledge-sharing opportunities.
Reflecting on his experience during that conference, Richmond shared a cab ride with another authorizer who complained incessantly about "these charter schools." By the end of the ride, Richmond realized the need for change. He believed that authorizers needed to connect with and learn from one another.
Upon his return to the office, Richmond contacted Medler and requested a list of conference attendees. He wanted to convene a meeting to gauge interest and foster idea sharing. The Department agreed to support such a meeting, providing Richmond with the contact list and allocating $20,000 for a meeting in Chicago, held in the fall of 1999. Approximately 30 individuals attended, including Goenner, Ed Kirby (who had replaced Hamilton in Massachusetts), Josephine Baker from D.C., and Bob Bellafiore from New York.
Firstly, securing funding was a necessary task.
They were faced with a difficult challenge. During that time, the prevailing belief in the charter community was that the most effective approach was to rapidly open as many schools as possible. This mindset was influenced by both the appeal of the model and the popular book "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference." There was a strong belief in the concept of a tipping point, where competition among schools would lead to overall improvement in the education system. Although the specific tipping point was unknown, it was understood that when a school district started losing a significant number of students, around 15 to 25 percent, they would be forced to make changes in order to survive.
Many people held the belief that the success of the charter movement was solely dependent on the quality of the model itself, and authorizers simply needed to approve schools without much involvement. The idea of organizing and actively engaging with authorizers, who were typically seen as bureaucratic figures, was met with skepticism from some members of the charter advocacy community. They viewed it as a potential threat to the model, thinking that organizing authorizers would hinder the movement.
With the goal of securing funding, Richmond and Goenner approached the Walton Family Foundation to support the creation of an Association. In July 2000, they convened in Detroit to establish a founding board, draft bylaws, and formally incorporate the Association.
In November, they attended the National Charter School Conference to introduce themselves to the wider charter school community, with Richmond serving as the founding chairman. The initial introduction faced some resistance and skepticism. A small group of approximately seven individuals stood before a large audience, proclaiming, "You may not know us, but we are now the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and we urge you to join us and acknowledge us as the national association." Naturally, the response was a skeptical questioning of their authority. In order to gain acceptance, they had to avoid asserting that they knew better than others who were also interested in joining the Association. Making such a claim would have hindered the formation of the organization.
Those passionate about reforming education and establishing new schools were hesitant to participate in anything that resembled a bureaucratic system. The closest entity to a national organization at the time, the Charter Friends National Network, was more of a project than a formal organization, with a single employee and without the need for membership dues.
Therefore, the establishment of a formal association was surprising, and some individuals viewed the newly formed National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) with suspicion. NACSA, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting authorizers, promoting accountability, and enhancing the quality of charter schools, was cautious in its approach during its initial years. According to Richmond, they had a "librarian attitude" towards their work. They collected resources and made them available without imposing any mandatory reading lists. They saw themselves as librarians who provided access to books but did not enforce reading.
Around one year into its establishment, NACSA received a federal grant to advance quality authorizing activities, which included the creation of a publication to share their learnings. This sparked a heated debate among the board members. Some were adamant that the publication should not assert superiority of certain practices over others, as it went against the philosophy of embracing diverse approaches within the charter community. The focus was on moving away from the belief in a singular best way of doing things. Hence, during its early years, NACSA struggled to assert its knowledge and expertise.
Overall, the journey to establish NACSA involved overcoming challenges and facing skepticism from various stakeholders in the charter school community.
By 2005, Richmond had accumulated over a decade of experience at Chicago Public Schools. While he and the other board members were satisfied with NACSA’s performance, they believed there was room for improvement. In March of that year, Richmond made the decision to leave CPS and devote himself fully to NACSA.
In July 2012, with a continued focus on enhancing charter authorizing nationwide, Richmond penned a letter to The New York Times. The letter effectively summarized NACSA’s perspective regarding the importance of quality and the role of authorizers in ensuring it. NACSA firmly believed that all parents should have the opportunity to enroll their children in high-quality public schools. While charter schools offer this choice, it’s essential to recognize that not all charters excel. This is where authorizing bodies play a vital role; they must approve and oversee charters to ensure they deliver a quality education, treat all students fairly, and responsibly manage funds. Through diligent oversight, charters are more likely to achieve excellence, allowing parents to select the best school for their children. These principles align with the mission of all individuals involved in public education.
A significant testament to the changes that occurred was the appointment of Lisa Graham Keegan as NACSA’s board chair in the fall of 2013. Keegan, who had previously supported a more diverse approach, now supported the focus on weeding out underperforming charters.
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Sarah Tantillo, an experienced consultant, author, and creator of The Literacy Cookbook, brings a wealth of knowledge to the table. During her 14-year tenure in New Jersey public schools, she taught high school English and humanities. Notably, she spent seven years at North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. Tantillo also founded and managed the New Jersey Charter School Resource Center and the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. This article is an excerpt from her upcoming book, titled Hit the Drum: An Insider’s Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement.
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