For twelve years ending earlier this month, Susie Miller Carello led the Charter Schools Institute at the State University of New York—the largest university-based charter school authorizer in the nation, and arguably the most successful. SUNY authorizes some of the most recognized and formidable names in the charter school world. Its A-list includes Success Academy, KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and many others, as well as dozens of smaller and innovative community-based schools, such as Family Life Academy Charter Schools, Amber Charter School, City Arts, Capital Prep, and Brooklyn Emerging Leaders Academy, one of only two all-girls International Baccalaureate programs in the country.
By the end of Carello’s term, SUNY had authorized well over half of New York’s charter schools, serving a combined 120,000 students—80 percent low-income, and the vast majority of whom outperformed their peers in reading and math in the districts where they would have matriculated if there were no charter schools in the state. The head of the National Charter Schools Institute, James Goenner, has called her “America’s authorizer.” Carello announced earlier this summer that she was stepping down; she has been named a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
I’ve heard you say more than once that you’re a good “venture bureaucrat.” Can you explain what that means?
Knowing what makes a good school as well as what it takes to run a strong organization is the key to creating an authorizing environment where great schools can take root and thrive. Authorizers have to know both of those things, and be able to analyze new charter proposals to identify what works for an education program, as well as what it takes to run a great organization. That’s the venture part. We’ve made some pretty good bets. We’ve figured out over the years how to analyze a strong business proposal for a charter school, how to determine whether an organization has the capacity, and the commitment of its board and the founders to actually get it done.
How about the bureaucrat part?
The bureaucrat part is holding schools accountable for actually delivering on the promises they make when they get a charter. If you look across the country, the biggest reason that charter schools fail is financial. We haven’t had schools that have failed financially, not any. We have a really good set of protocols and processes to work with a school when it hits a financial glitch. We also make sure we’re working closely with their boards, help them in doing their budgeting, or when there might be a governance glitch in the school. And when it doesn’t work, if you don’t provide results for kids, evidence of success and achieving the mission you were chartered to achieve, then you don’t get your school renewed. We’ve closed twenty-six schools in twenty-one years.
Education politics has gone sideways in so many cities that were ed reform hot spots, especially in New York. The charter sector is among the highest-performing in the nation, particularly for low-income kids of color. It should be a point of civic pride, but there’s been a charter school cap for years with no end in sight. That has to be frustrating.
There are no incentives for traditional school districts absent the kind of visionary district leadership you had in New York City under [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and [schools chancellor Joel] Klein to support what’s actually working. But, yeah, one of the things I don’t understand is—especially now, post pandemic—when you have parents who are asking for schools, asking for high-quality choices, and we can point to those schools, why you don’t expand that? The politics of New York after twelve years in this gig still elude me.
Is that why you’re leaving?
Well, it has been twelve years. And I’m a sixty-year-old white woman who turned six fifteen days after Martin Luther King was murdered. Who remembers watching Bobby Kennedy climb on the back of a truck forty-five minutes from my home to tell the people of Indianapolis about King’s assassination. And two months later? Kennedy was also murdered. These two men and the loss of their love and leadership to all of us as a people? They formed my commitment to kiddos and parents, and I think the results for New York’s charter kids show some pretty darn good results. Others disagree. My biggest wish is that the next Institute leader can help New York understand that more great schools for parents and kids to choose is the love and leadership we owe every child.
What’s changed over the last twelve years?
There are many more complications, starting with, as you said, there are no more charters available in New York City. And there are shifting priorities from the [New York State Board of] Regents in terms of what we are going to use to determine the quality of a school. I feel like we’ve done an awful lot. We know how to scale good schools. But now is the right time for the sector to have some new leadership. The organization deserves a leader that can actually dive in to some of those challenges.
I worry about shifting priorities within charter schools themselves. We oversold “college for all” and test scores, but that’s taken a back seat to “equity” concerns.
Has that been your biggest frustration?
There are two. The first one is the fabrication that we didn’t authorize community-based charter schools. The numbers show again and again that we replicated strong charters that partnered with community organizations every time they applied. The narrative that we only authorized huge networks is false. But it seems truth is elusive these days. The second frustration is that we worked very hard to diversify the teacher pipeline, making a pathway to certification to teach in charters we authorized by partnering with our community organizations. Because the state demands that teachers be certified and because we know how important it is to have teachers and leaders of color for our students. And very, very wise minds disagree about the effectiveness of certification…
Let the record show you’re smirking.
No, seriously, people that I really admire argue for the value of a master’s degree on the way to teacher certification. So we worked really hard with the deans of the colleges of education at the State University of New York to put together an acceptable process whereby some of our schools could certify their own teachers. SUNY has, like, eighteen of the top twenty performing elementary schools in the state of New York. They know something about supporting their teachers, and how to organize for instruction, how to put coaches in the classroom that build those teacher muscles in a way that I wish to God I would’ve had when I was a teacher.
The best professional development I’ve ever seen was at Success Academy.
It’s not just the big networks. It’s our community-based organizations, some of which have schools that beat the big networks from time to time. They would tell me, “Oh my gosh, we have so many people in our community that have a bachelor’s degree, and they’re ten years into a career. They would be great teachers but they are not going to go back to college and spend all that money.” SUNY worked with us get a really streamlined process for getting your master’s degree so you could be certified and teach. But we got sued [by the New York State Department of Education] and we lost.
Was that the biggest “L” of your twelve years?
Yes, I think so. Interestingly, before I left, the folks at the State Education Department called and asked for all the things that we use to create our process. So, fingers crossed, maybe in the future, we can figure out a way and talk to the leaders of communities of color in New York that contain people who would be great teachers but aren’t going to stop mid-career and go back and get a master’s while raising a family. I’d still love to create that pipeline.
What was your biggest win?
I don’t know of anyone in the last twelve years that quadrupled the number of students or tripled the number of charter schools, over 80 percent of those students economically disadvantaged and exceeding their districts of location in English language arts. SUNY charters are frequently outperforming the highest-income districts in the state, Westchester, Shenendehowa, etc.
Given the state cap, slower growth, and changing priorities, I’m worried that New York charter schools’ best days are behind us. Should I be?
It depends on how you define “best days.” If it means there are plenty of charters and every parent gets a choice and that choice is high quality, that’s on pause, to put it nicely. It’s being thwarted by adults who are making decisions that seem adult-oriented and not focused on giving every kid and every parent a choice of a high-quality seat. But there are still between 18,000 and 22,000 seats yet to be filled in New York City charters because not every school that we have authorized has grown to serve all the grades it is already approved to serve. That’s not new charters, not new grade levels, just what they’re currently authorized to do.
What’s been the hardest part of this job?
You’re always “the state” in any interaction with any school or any school leader. If you asked my staff over the years, we’ve had lots of conversations about power. You are the entity that controls whether someone continues to operate a school. When you walk in the room, when your name appears on their phone, there is a power dynamic. I am aware of that in every interaction, or I try to be, when I walk into a school. I know that every interaction is one that includes a power dynamic so I try to make it a positive one.
I’ve been to enough New York charter schools to see that they view you not just as the authorizer, but as support. Even an advocate.
The politicians won’t like to hear that. We give charters to schools because we want them to be super successful for kids. And so we do everything we can to focus the schools on doing that and not focusing on us. Listen, over the years, do we ask for more information as compliance and regulations have grown? Yes, that has happened. But—and I hope this continues—at every renewal we ask for a lot of information, and we’ve always said to ourselves, “Can we get this somewhere else? Have they already reported it to state ed? Have they already reported it to the New York City DOE? Can we get it from them so that we don’t have schools having to feed three different state agencies the same information that takes time away from focus on kids?” A good authorizer becomes the least bureaucratic it can possibly be, so that as much attention as possible goes to kids, families, and staff.