Multiple Charter School Authorizers: 10 Reasons Why It’s a Bad Idea

Whenever the topic of charter school policy and legislation comes up, someone always manages to bring up the idea of “Multiple Authorizers.”

 At first blush, “multiple authorizers” may seem like a good idea.  In addition to a state-wide group such as a state commission for charter schools, why not let local school districts authorize charters?  Some states let universities authorize charters.

But it gets tricky! In addition to a state authorizer, numerous university authorizers, and many local district authorizers, some states let the mayors of cities authorize charters.  Some states have a state-wide authorizer that certifies  non-profit corporations to, in turn, authorize charters.  And some states come very close to allowing schools to authorize their own conversion into charters.

The concept of multiple authorizers cannot be discussed apart from accountability oversight. Accountability oversight is a function that should be, but often is not, tied very tightly to the authorization function.  One may have strict authorization and lax oversight or lax authorization and strict oversight.  Some states may have these two functions totally de-coupled: some groups may authorize while some other groups perform oversight.

Funding the authorizers is another function that must be considered.  Some states fund authorizer(s) out of general education dollars, while others force charter schools to rebate their authorizer a percentage of their gross revenue for authorization and oversight duties.  Such funding issues create conflicts in the process.

Watching other states who have some degree of multiple authorization readily reveals many problems.

Upon reflection, “authorizers” are needed only because objective, measurable criteria do not exist against which proposed charter schools may be measured.  A learned team of experts with a crystal ball seems to fill this void of measurable objectivity.

Perhaps, rather than one state-wide authorizer or multiple authorizers, the optimal number of charter school authorizers is 0 (zero).  Face up to the task of agreeing upon a uniform set of objective, measurable criteria and grant whomever meets them a charter.  Building codes are objective, measurable criteria for construction; and they exist to protect the occupants, the public, and the community from a variety of situations that might arise if the codes did not exist: fire hazards, building collapse, wind and storm damage, etc.

Zero authorizers would be ideal, one is acceptable, but multiple authorizers lead to many problems.

Reason 1.  Increased Bureaucracy: “Multiple authorizers” usually means multiple overseers and multiple funding sources.  Therefore, there must be an added layer of bureaucracy with oversight responsibility for sanctioning wayward authorizers:  a super body that authorizes authorizers.

Reason 2. Increased Cost: The taxpayer must fund the super body that authorizes and oversees the authorizers.

Reason 3. Decreased Accountability: Some states with a rebate funding model end up with lax authorization and lax oversight because the authorizers just need the cash from the rebates.  Are you going to shut down a charter that is feeding you.  Suppose a group is certified to issue ten charters and gets a 3% rebate for authorization and oversight costs.  With an average charter revenue in the $4 million range annually, 3% is $120,000 each or $1,200,000 per year..  Nice to have that coming in!

Reason 4.  A Confused Market:  Multiple authorizers eventually lead to non-uniformity in purposes and quality standards.  The term “charter school” will mean something different in every locale. Parents will be confused.  True, quality will vary even with a single authorizer, but reining in the miscreants will be easier and minimum standards can prevail if the single authorizer is allowed to do its job.

Reason 5.  Reduces Independence:  In North Carolina, the charter law was passed “to authorize a system of charter schools to provide opportunities” for citizens to form groups “to establish and maintain schools that operate independently of existing schools”[i] for one or more of six purposes.  In addition to fulfilling one of the purposes, a charter school must “improve student learning” and “operate the school in an educationally and economically sound manner.”[ii]  A local school district authorizing charter schools violates the cardinal underlying principle of the statute: independence from existing schools.

Reason 6.  Reduces Competition:  How likely is a school district to approve a charter school that will improve education and show them to be less competent?  Well, you say, charters have fewer regulations and the district will be able to do things it cannot do in a regular district school.  Yeah?  Like what?  Same teacher pool, same year-end testing, same governmental audits, same compliance regulations for Exceptional Children, fire codes, building codes, health and safety laws, discipline laws, state-wide teacher evaluation rules, etc.  About the only real freedom that charters actually have is freedom from district regulations which these very districts whinning about regulation are free to change themselves.

Reason 7.  Reduces Parental Choice – Part 1:  District charters, university charters, mayors’ charters – isn’t this more, not less, choice.   Remember the “Purpose” is to allow citizens, beholden to no one, to “establish and maintain schools that operate independently”  of governmental bureaucracies, regardless of origin.  Get the boots of the bureaucrats off the necks of the charter school board, whether of universities, local boards, city councils, or over-arching large non-profit authorizers.  Unless the charter board of citizens is totally insulated from and independent of the vicissitudes and whims of the authorizing university, local district, or town council, parents are just back to the Hobson’s choice of a government-run school.  Without total independence, the term “charter” becomes just lip-stick on the same old government-run pig.

Reason 8: Reduces Parental Choice-Part 2: Currently charter schools are required by law to admit any North Carolina student, regardless of the student’s place of residence.  Many charter schools serve children from numerous counties.  If local districts authorize charters, either they will have to admit students from other districts creating a conflict for their taxpayers or the law will have to be changed to allow charters to set “attendance zones.”  Neither option enhances parental choice.

Reason 9: Reduces Teacher Options:  Charter schools may currently design their own compensation and benefit packages.  A university authorized or local board authorized charter school’s teachers would more than likely have to follow the college’s or board’s standard compensation plan.  Many charters, free of the state and county plans, have been able to devise superior compensation and benefit plans.  The university or local board schools will eventually crowd out the truly independent charters, thereby reducing options for the teachers.  Back to one-size-fits-all.

Reason 10. Loss of the State’s Educational Sovereignty:  Once “multiple authorizers” get embedded into a state’s charter laws, the bureaucracies involved will inevitably seek strength and justification from so-called national standards groups such NACSA – National Association of Charter School Authorizers with its current membership of over 800 charter school authorizers nationwide.  It promulgates policies and rules for its members and provides standards down to breath-taking level of detail.  Remember our Purpose – for citizens “to establish and maintain schools independently of existing schools.”  But beholden to existing national standards?

Reason 11,  Reduces Statistical Confidence:  With one authorizer having one set of standards, the charters can be analyzed as a group, provided adjustments are made for demographics. With multiple authorizers, the group size for an analysis is greatly reduced thereby increasing the margin for error. (Oops. I promised to stop at ten reasons.)

The ideal situation would be for there to be not even one authorizer.  Zero authorizers is the perfect number for North Carolina: codify a set of objective, measurable standards much like building codes.  Any North Carolina group of citizens that meets these standards can “establish and maintain” a charter school that is then allowed “to operate independently of existing schools.”  There would have to be school inspectors – as there are building inspectors – to ensure that the codes are being adhered, but independence and true parental choice would be assured.

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