Charter schools, which are public schools authorized by state laws, differ from traditional public schools, primarily because they enjoy exemptions from most of the state’s educational bureaucracy and regulations in exchange for accountability to parents and authorizers.

The authorizers negotiate the charter contract, under which the school promises to operate in certain ways, and those authorizers can withdraw the contract under certain circumstances.

Authorizers also can help charter schools innovate and learn from one another.

But what if the national association of authorizers, as it develops “best practices,” encourages members to replace one bureaucracy with another? Or issues ideological pressure? Or uses its assessment of the regulatory regime as its test of quality, rather than innovation or the number of charter schools in a state or actual student outcomes?

That’s the situation we are in today under the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Authorizers need a new association, one focused on innovation and student outcomes.

As Heritage Foundation research fellow Jason Bedrick has demonstrated, NACSA has pushed “diversity, equity and inclusion,” substituting its own ideological judgment for that of state and local authorizers and parents themselves. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

Meanwhile, NACSA’s push for a laundry list of authorization requirements has, perversely, made it harder for minority identity groups to succeed.

Bedrick notes academic research supporting that conclusion:

NACSA’s policy recommendations disproportionately prevent black aspiring school leaders from receiving authorization to operate charter schools. The recommendations also disproportionately result in the closure of charter schools that serve a higher proportion of black students.

Furthermore, NACSA ranks states’ regulatory regimes more in terms of bureaucratic hurdles than in terms of quality or quantity of outcomes.

As another Heritage Foundation research fellow, Jay P. Greene,  noted in 2021:

NACSA rankings seem to prefer approaches that lead to few or no charter schools actually opening. And those NACSA rankings bear no relationship to test-score measures of school performance or later life outcomes. This approach to ranking simply does not make sense.

Rankings can inspire states to compete and do better, so some good news is that the Education Freedom Institute has offered an outcomes-oriented approach to replace NACSA’s.

But that still leaves NACSA as an authorizer association focused on the wrong things. Instead, this being National School Choice Week 2024, we propose a new association of charter school authorizers that focuses on best practices for innovation and student-centered outcomes.

Here are some principles and ideas that the new association would promote:

  • An authorizer should interpret ambiguities in state law liberally—on the side of permission and innovation.
  • The role of an authorizer is to be ideologically neutral. An authorizer should not pressure schools, their governing boards, or itself to create identity-group “diversity.” At the same time, an authorizer should not pressure schools or governing boards that choose liberal policies (or any other ideology) to change its values or policies.
  • An authorizer should strive to enforce no more and no less than the state law describes. An authorizer should stay in its lane and leave rulemaking up to the legislature.
  • An authorizer should work to protect charter schools from state agencies that seek to interfere with the schools’ autonomy. For example, in West Virginia, a charter school was told by one agency that its after-school programs had to be regulated like a day care site. In response, the state authorizer successfully advocated for a change in state law to make it clear that a charter school is not subject to the dozens (if not hundreds) of pages of rules that this agency was saying were required.
  • Parents tend to be the best source of accountability for charter schools (while, of course, an authorizer also considers financial audits and other technicalities that parents often cannot access). Parents often see a charter school as the best option compared with the alternatives, so they enroll their children there and decide whether to keep them there. Parents who like or dislike standardized tests can use test scores or ignore them as they make their choices. Parents who prefer workforce or college-going outcomes or a variety of other values also make their own choices. Ultimately, while a school should adhere to any outcome metrics it has promised in its contract, enrollment and retention are excellent proxies for the relative quality of a school.

The new association also should provide guidance on evaluating applications; on how to help struggling schools; on which policies and provisions of law can increase innovation and student service, and on which provisions unduly interfere; on where to find government funding; on how to help schools find and engage private donors; on how to promote funding equity between charter schools and non-charter public schools; and on how to assess whether it’s time to withdraw a charter.

NACSA’s analysis shows there are about 20 states with independent authorizing boards, whether governmental or nonprofit. These are the authorizers most likely to want to join the new association. (Where a state department of education is the authorizer, we are not optimistic that most departments can see the value of a minimalist regulatory approach.)

Stay tuned as this idea gets closer to reality.

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