Saturday, October 1, 2011

Whose Standards are they Anyway?

This week a group of charter school authorizers met for their regular quarterly meeting. These authorizers are the school district or Charter School Institute (CSI) staff who work with charter schools.

The authorizers group discussed the authorizer standards currently being considered by the State Board of Education as a result of a mandate in HB 10-1412, which created an advisory committee to make recommendation on these standards. In discussing the standards, the group identified what evidence would demonstrate that standard and then what was quality and what was not quality. Evidence oftentimes includes financial statements, charter contracts, accreditation documents, board policies and past actions. The philosophy for quality charter school authorizing will vary in each district. Further, there is quite a range among the 62 school districts with charter schools: Denver has 34, Jeffco 13, and CSI 19.

The discussion about charter school authorizer standards became very interesting when what was quality was compared to what was not quality. Many times there is a very fine line between being a good authorizer and allowing a charter school to operate autonomously versus micromanaging or simply being too "hands off." This dilemma is inherent in authorizers' daily discussions. It's easy to move the line when a charter school is experiencing difficulties and asks for additional assistance. However, the charter school philosophy is to let charter schools operate on their own and if they fall flat on their face, so be it. But the traditional public education mentality is that once a school is open, almost nothing should cause it to close.

Moreover, many authorizers are unsure their charter schools can actually operate successfully (in compliance and financially sound) without providing regular assurances to the authorizer. For example, some districts have a philosophy for regular monitoring that could be construed as being a mother hen and actually trying to control the charter school. Where is the healthy balance in that relationship? Especially when every authorizer-charter school relationship is unique?

That's why it's important to flesh out these authorizer standards to the point of what is quality and what is not quality. Regarding governance, should an authorizer require that they approve any changes made to the charter school board's bylaws? Would there ever be a situation where the school district board would prohibit a specific individual from serving on a charter school board? Should the authorizer approve charter school board policies before they are finally adopted? Each of these questions are in the "shades of gray" category between what is and isn't indicative of a quality charter school authorizer.

It's easy for authorizer to take the standards to a wholly different level -- too far! If a district takes a good thing too far, is it still a good thing? Or a bad thing? Is it even possible, in regard to the standards, to identify when a district crosses the line and has taken it too far?

Sometimes it is possible to distinguish that line. Authorizers should not be determining, or rejecting, who should be on a charter school governing board. But it's happened in Colorado several times. Charter school board bylaws should be in the charter school application and approved by the authorizer board and then it should be delineated in the charter school contract if making a change to those approved bylaws would be considered a material change and therefore requiring district approval. This can be handled either way, and is across the state's authorizers. Many districts require their charter school boards to submit new or revised board policies to the authorizer. Primarily this is done so that the district is cognizant of what the charter board is doing and can help ensure the charter board isn't doing something that's not aligned with federal or state laws or regulations.

Eventually, through enough discussion, a draft of these authorizer standards will be distributed. It's certain these standards will be modified over time and as more experience and lessons learned are gained to provide additional insight. In the meantime, the discussion among authorizers is, in itself, invaluable!

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