New charter school commission can learn from other states

March 15, 2013 

Based on 20 years of experience in other states, the nine members of the recently appointed State Charter School Commission are in for hard work, long hours and difficult delibera-tions.

Whether or not charter schools in Washington produce quality outcomes for students will depend on these commission members and the school districts that will approve and oversee the schools. The commission will have to develop rigorous and thoughtful policies for how charter school applications will be screened and how schools will be monitored once they are up and running.

This is pioneering work. Historically, when it comes to schools, government has overseen adherence to rules and regulations, not monitored performance – which is an entirely different challenge.

Chartering requires agencies to make judgments about what school designs have the most potential to dramatically improve student learning, especially for low-income students. Chartering requires careful oversight of schools that, unlike traditional public schools, have full control over their budgets, staffing and curriculum. And it requires the political will to make hard decisions about whether to renew a charter school’s five-year contract.

Fortunately, unlike the fight over the initiative itself, this is apolitical work, and there are several examples of government agencies that have done a stellar job of it. There is even a national association, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, that has developed a set of best practices for authorizers and a network for them to learn from other systems. There is also a growing research base on this topic.

In the end, however, strong authorizing in Washington won’t depend on copying what other states have done. Rather, the agencies that authorize charter schools should take a thoughtful approach to reviewing the evidence from elsewhere and craft thoughtful oversight policies of their own. They must then regularly revisit those policies in order to reflect, learn and adapt based on the actual outcomes for charter school students.

The task of charter authorizing is not easy. It requires subtle work to:

 • Judge whether school management teams have the capacity to run high-performing organizations and recruit and retain excellent teachers.

 • Turn down ideas that sound innovative but are not rooted in a deep understanding of effective instruction and high-quality teaching.

 • Provide sufficient guidance without micromanaging.

 • Ensure that charter schools comply with required rules and regulations but don’t let that oversight obscure the focus on outcomes for students.

 • Balance the need for new approaches with the need to copy what works.

 • Make hard decisions about school closure in the face of parent opposition.

We should not expect to get this right all of the time. Our charter authorizers, after all, are embarking on an effort to craft an approach to public oversight of public schools that is fundamentally different from the way things work now – a new approach that is unapologetic about focusing on results and closing schools that don’t work, and that ensures school improvement without dictating how it is done.

In other states, we have seen that effective charter oversight often influences accountability systems for all schools. Denver; New York City; and Nashville, Tenn., for example, now have one accountability framework that applies to all district schools. These districts and more than 30 others are taking a “portfolio management” approach to all of their schools: They don’t see charters and traditional schools as separate, but rather equally valued pieces of a single system.

These districts regularly assess the performance of all schools, closing those that don’t work and starting more that do. They are giving all schools the appropriate level of flexibility to meet students’ needs and are focused on providing a broad array of choices so that all students in the community have access to an excellent education that meets their unique needs.

The first charter authorizers in this state will be leaders in a critical new endeavor: overseeing a performance-based agreement that balances school-level flexibility with accountability for results. In order to be successful, authorizers must build on other states’ effective practices and avoid their missteps.

Done well, the authorizers’ work will pay off in breakthrough results for Washington’s students and a new path forward for holding all schools to high standards of achievement.

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell and serves on the advisory board for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. She is the author of numerous studies on charter schools and the editor of “Unique Schools Serving Unique Students: Charter Schools and Children with Special Needs.”

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