Last week many of the CSI staff traveled to Orlando for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers Leadership Conference. This annual event is something we all look forward to as it gives us the opportunity to meet and network with charter school authorizers from all over the country. It’s always fascinating to hear from other authorizers whose legislative and political contexts, as well as philosophy on the quality and quantity of autonomy granted to schools, differ so much from our own.

 How authorizers do this work may vary dramatically, but why we do it is very much aligned. Most authorizers share a belief that increased autonomy paired with increased accountability can lead to improved school outcomes. This belief brings a community of authorizers together for three days at the annual NACSA conference to share resources and experiences to improve authorizing practices with the ultimate goal of improved outcomes for students.

Charter School Accountability

As in years past, sessions address all aspects of authorizing—from the new school application process, to annual charter school review and monitoring processes, to charter school renewal, to collaborative and data-informed charter school closure processes. I was particularly interested in how authorizers monitor and evaluate school performance in academics, finances, operations and governance.

Each state has its own accountability system to evaluate public school performance. In Colorado, all public schools’ academic performance are evaluated through the state’s School Performance Plan (SPF), and plan types are assigned based on the school’s level of performance—Performance for the highest performers, Improvement, Priority Improvement, and Turnaround for the lowest performers. Colorado authorizers either use this system as is or build upon it to include additional performance measures for charter schools. (CSI, for example, builds upon the state’s accountability system by incorporating additional measures for financial and operational performance within the CSI Annual Review of Schools.)

For schools that consistently earn the lowest plan types of Priority Improvement and Turnaround, state-required interventions range from new management to collaboration with school turnaround partners, to conversion of traditional public schools to innovation or charter schools, to closure. Some educators worry that that these sanctions are not severe enough (and sometimes, not timely enough) to address persistently low performance public schools. However, for charter schools, which are a subset of the public school landscape, authorizers engage in a regular review of charter school  performance to determine whether to renew the contract or to close the school. In many cases, authorizers have made the decision to close persistently low performing schools prior to the state accountability clock taking effect.   

Bringing Back Best Practices

So what do you think CSI staff brought back from the conference in our Mary Poppins bags? We left with ideas for fostering collaboration between schools and authorizers to expand and replicate high-performing charter schools, strategies for closing chronically low-performing schools in a healthy and productive manner, and general best practices and implementation strategies of high-performing authorizers. Most importantly, we learned that while Colorado may not be perfect, we are fortunate to have a dedicated group of authorizers who consistently strive to improve their practice to foster high-performing public schools.

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