The State of Charter Authorizing

NACSA is out with the fifth edition of its annual report on the state of charter authorizing.

I love this thing—great data on a critically important part of our field. If you’re interested in chartering, school-level accountability, or The Urban School System of the Future, you definitely want to check it out.

Almost a decade ago, NACSA produced the equivalent of industry standards—the stuff a high-quality authorizer ought to do. These relate to assessing charter applications, monitoring school performance, helping grow high-performers, revoking the charters of low-performers, etc.

This report assesses authorizers against what NACSA deems the 12 “essential practices” of the industry.

Overall, authorizers’ scores improved over last year’s, and large authorizers (those with 10+ schools) scored better than small ones.

Continuing a long-term trend, authorizers are increasingly picky shoppers—they approve far fewer applications than they did back in the day. The average approval rate is now 33 percent.

But many authorizers are still falling short on the back end of accountability: 34 percent of authorizers lack a clear, established policy to close underperforming schools.

Some of the report’s most interesting findings relate to the different types of authorizers (there are six kinds nowadays). The vast majority (more than 90 percent) are local school districts, but they generally authorize few schools apiece; their portfolios combine for only 53 percent of all charters.

Districts score lower than non-district authorizers overall, and their policies are far less friendly to replication than non-district authorizers, meaning they are less likely to help great charters create more high-quality seats.

I strongly oppose permitting districts—especially failing urban districts—to authorize charters. In fact, I believe giving districts the power to authorize was the biggest charter-policy mistake made during this sector’s two decades of existence.


Charter laws broke the district’s monopoly over public school operation. But some state laws only allowed districts to authorize. This regrettably continued the district-centered era of public schooling; that is, in a geographic area, every public school must either be run or authorized by the district.

Fortunately, most states have since created non-district authorizers, but this legacy mistake continues to this day in a number of places, for example, Baltimore.

The major other problem is that giving districts authorizing power blurs the essential line between these two very different functions: running schools and overseeing others running schools.

We should see districts as school operators only. Authorizing—that is, umpiring, not playing, not coaching—is much, much different work. Districts are built to run schools; they are not designed to oversee from arms-length others doing so. In fact, many of their policies, habits, beliefs, and practices run counter to the essential charter bargain of freedom for tough accountability. And many district authorizers remain hostile to charters to this very day.

(Think I’m being too pessimistic about charter-district relations? How about Chicago’s district—the only charter authorizer for the nation’s third-largest city—which recently declared that buildings no longer needed by the district are off-limits to charters for 40 years.)

The report’s findings on other types of authorizers are really quite interesting. They have much to teach policymakers and practitioners. How are independent charter boards, like the one in Washington, D.C., doing? What about Indy’s mayor’s office or nonprofits?

Read the report and find out!

Two other thoughts: New research demonstrates that charters that struggle early on seldom improve significantly. It might be the case that NACSA’s (and the charter community’s) support for five-year contracts needs reassessing.

Second, as we move to a sector-agnostic approach in urban schooling and rely on a continuous improvement process based on new starts, expansions, and closures, we must develop rigorous, transparent systems for these activities. Successfully managing a portfolio of schools demands it.

It is troubling that many authorizers still don’t have high-quality practices in place for this work. We should prioritize improvement in these areas.

-Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Choice Words blog.

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