Rausch: Leadership, Commitment, Judgment — 3 Keys for All Authorizers of Public Charters in Creating More Great Schools
As human beings, we have an inherent inclination towards rules and norms in order to bring structure to our increasingly intricate world. These rules and norms are employed on a daily basis to enhance efficiency, consistency, and safety.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that rules and norms played a crucial role during the early stages of charter school authorizing. During that time, the focus was rightly placed on abiding by the regulations outlined in state charter laws and ensuring that schools did the same.
However, charter school authorizing has evolved. We now possess significantly more information than we did 15 years ago, thanks to the substantial growth of both authorizers and schools in the sector. We now have a much deeper understanding of how authorizing affects schools. Most importantly, we recognize that one cannot be a proficient authorizer if the schools they authorize are not of good quality.
That’s why the National Association of Charter School Authorizers is exploring how the practice of authorizing must continue to advance. A crucial point that has become abundantly clear to the field is that effective charter school authorizing goes beyond simply adhering to the law; it involves making choices that generate more exceptional charter schools to meet the needs of the community. This necessitates the qualities elucidated in our recent report, "Leadership, Commitment, Judgment: Elements of Successful Charter School Authorizing."
These three elements may seem self-evident to many individuals working in public education. How could one possibly create more high-quality schools without, for instance, an institutional commitment to the task?
When there is institutional commitment, the work of authorizing becomes visible, integrated into the larger organization’s strategic plan and objectives, and adequately supported. The individuals responsible for day-to-day authorizing duties such as reviewing applications, analyzing budgets, and assessing performance data have a say in decision-making.
Yet, for something that appears so obvious, there are far too many instances where this commitment is lacking, and it is negatively affecting the work. For numerous authorizing institutions, authorizing is primarily an afterthought. Many professionals involved in authorizing are tucked away in a district office or university, where they are burdened by bureaucracy, or their institutional leaders are at best apathetic and at worst hostile.
Our research unequivocally demonstrates that this approach will not lead to excellent schools for children.
Merely ticking off checkboxes will not lead to exceptional schools either. Making decisions based on how students can be best served requires a high level of professional judgment, which entails a combination of big-picture thinking and data analysis. It is not a matter of following a pre-determined formula. Recognizing this, the best authorizers have assembled teams with a high level of expertise, earned the respect of schools, and fostered teamwork that complements the organization’s intelligent tools and assessment criteria. For instance, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has established a strong portfolio of authorized schools by prioritizing staff longevity, internal promotions, and direct experience in charter schools.
A third evident element of success is leadership in creating excellent options for children. Strong authorizers embody this element, resulting in innovative initiatives and groundbreaking decisions that address the needs of the community. We see this leadership in action with the South Carolina Public Charter School District’s bold move to launch an incubation program that stimulates the creation of new, high-quality charter schools to serve underprivileged neighborhoods. Additionally, the State University of New York’s approval of changes in teacher certification criteria to enhance the quality and diversity of educators is another example of leadership. Furthermore, the Washington, D.C., Public Charter School Board’s progressive use of data transparency to significantly reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions without mandating changes to schools’ climate or culture exemplifies leadership.
These authorizers have made intentional choices that reflect the local demographics, challenges, and resources, highlighting ways in which an authorizer can be responsive to its community.
This is how authorizers can contribute to fulfilling the promise of charter schools: by identifying community needs, going beyond mere compliance, and translating leadership, commitment, and judgment into outstanding educational opportunities for our children.
Karega Rausch, Ph.D., is serving as the interim CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.