Authorizing: A Stop Along “The Chartered Course”?

“Authorizer” is a fairly new term in the American lexicon. Charter school representatives know it well, as do most education reform advocates. But, for the general public, the concept could use some explaining—and, among private school leaders, some consideration.

What is an authorizer?

An authorizer is the overseer of public charter schools. It is the entity that gives those schools their famous descriptor, in that authorizers grant schools their “charter.”

Through that charter, an authorizer defines a school’s performance parameters, submits those parameters to the state in the form of a contract (the charter), and holds its school(s) accountable for meeting (or not meeting) that agreement.

As an active member of the charter school industry for the past 15 years, I have had the benefit of both serving an authorizer and serving as an authorizer. With the former, my efforts as a lender to charter schools and board member of several charter advocacy organizations have covered more than half the country. With the latter, my experience generally was in Washington, D.C., where, among other things, I oversaw the “conversion” of several private Catholic schools to charter status.

To that end, private schools principals should visit with charter school leaders to learn more about the authorizing process and how the charter-authorizer relationship works from their point of view.

As a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board from 2003-10, I also had the opportunity to oversee the tremendous growth in D.C. charter schools, which included a strong focus on sustainability and quality.

As private school leaders look to grow to meet choice-empowered families’ needs, those experiences made me intrigued by Andy Smarick’s recent research report for the Friedman Foundation, The Chartered Course: Can Private School Choice Proponents Learn from the Charter School Sector. It raises a number of issues that merit consideration and further discussion from the private school community, including authorizer-based accountability.

Should private school choice consider authorizers?

As Andy noted in his report, authorizers come in a variety of forms with varying levels of quality and effectiveness. Accordingly, there is a wide variance in results in terms of the quality of the charter schools the authorizers approve and oversee.

Based on my experience with public schools, charter schools, and private and parochial schools, I believe parents of students considering a voucher program would benefit from the rigorous requirements an independent authorizing agency could provide—for three reasons:

  1. Authorizers’ capacity to approve and provide ongoing oversight for schools’ continued participation in school choice programs would provide the taxpaying public some ability to measure quality and quash concerns over misuse of funds.
  2. Authorizer oversight would ensure that participating private and parochial schools that fail to deliver expected student outcomes in their authorizer agreements would be disqualified from further participation. This idea is akin to a school losing its accreditation.
  3. An independent agency—not under the influence of a state education agency or school district—and its relationship with a private school would ensure performance measures are not one-size-fits-all or legislatively driven and are appropriately tailored to each school’s mission and student body.

Moving Forward

Andy’s report provides great insight into ways to enhance educational options in American public education for the benefit of the parents and students served by school choice programs. He also makes the important point that the private school and charter school community must do a better job of communicating and sharing best practices.

To that end, private schools principals should visit with charter school leaders to learn more about the authorizing process and how the charter-authorizer relationship works from their point of view. Getting such first-hand experience might quell concerns private school leaders have about that reporting model.

Moreover, should private school leaders want to pursue authorizing, hearing about its positives—and frankly even some of its perceived drawbacks—might help them craft a framework appropriate for their sector.

Authorizer-based accountability is simply a point along The Chartered Course. Private school leaders should consider stopping by to see if it has anything to offer.