Of the 1,050 charter school authorizers across the nation, 90 percent are local school districts. Ninety-three percent of the net gain in new authorizers over last five years has been local school districts. In 2014-15, there were 45 higher-education institution authorizers, just 4 percent of total authorizers. This may not be troubling for the effort to improve public education through chartering, except that authorizing by higher education institutions provides an unequaled opportunity to tackle one of our most complex and pressing problems, improving public education.
The National Association of Charter School Authorizer’s 2015 State of Charter Authorizing report highlights that many local school districts have not developed the oversight capacity known to provide the desired accountability and performance. It is also reasonable to expect that local school district authorizers are less incentivized to move beyond the regulatory-driven, compliance-based accountability systems that are the hallmarks of public education or the troubling hit-and-miss formation of new charter schools that is raising questions about the ability of charter schools to deliver improvement of public education at scale.
The idea of higher-education authorizers to advance chartering was based on the idea that innovative reform and accountability for the reform weren’t likely to originate from the local districts themselves. In 1998, the New York Legislature created the Charter Schools Institute within the State University of New York system to serve as an authorizer. Legislatures throughout the country soon followed.
Today, 17 states empower higher education institutions to serve as authorizers, and six of the empowered states (Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Louisiana and South Carolina) do not have active higher-education authorizers. These states also generally provide for the funding for authorizers to execute their responsibilities without burdening the institution’s general fund. These funds come through either collecting an “oversight fee” for each school chartered by the institution, through a state appropriation, or a combination of sources.
Many higher-education authorizers, like Grand Valley State University in Allendale, have their origins in training public school teachers. GVSU saw its decision to authorize as a natural outgrowth of its mission to contribute to the enrichment of society through excellent teaching, active scholarship and public service.
Other institutions have also seen it as an outgrowth of their mission of improving education within their region. For example, Washington University, in St. Louis, cited its decision to begin chartering schools as a natural extension of the university’s long-term strategy to focus on key issues affecting the St. Louis region. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a similar regional function. Per its website, its mission is to work with “community organizations, parent groups, educators and other individuals who are committed to improving the quality of education for children in the City of Milwaukee to charter successful, innovative schools.”
Authorizing charter schools also provides colleges of education with a unique opportunity to build upon a tradition of engaging in K-12 education to study teaching and learning. Study can occur through researching the substantial amount of school and student-level data that an authorizer collects each year.
Higher education authorizers have historically allowed for this research to occur in an ad-hoc fashion. However, GVSU facilitates research within its portfolio of 71 charter schools and their 32,000 students through an initiative called EdLabs@GVSUCSO. The initiative, launched in 2015, facilitates and conducts research within the portfolio for internal and external use. Research projects have studied student commute patterns, teacher attrition and student achievement by teacher preparation type in addition to assisting with routine performance measurement of the portfolio.
As university lab schools have done in various forms throughout the years, higher-education authorizers use charter schools as training sites for their teacher preparation students. Over 30 percent of the 1,200 certified teachers within GVSU charter schools are GVSU alumni. Beginning in 2017, GVSU student teachers in GVSU authorized Detroit charters will receive free tuition, and current, full-time teachers in GVSU charters receive reduced tuition for GVSU graduate degree programming from seven degree programs within the GVSU College of Education.
The close relationship between the authorizer and its authorized schools also presents a rich student recruitment and development opportunity. As both a way to expose students to a university environment and to create a more seamless pathway for students to attend the university, GVSU connects with its charter school students through regular campus visits and summer camps that simulate the college experience. Faculty and staff from across departments come together each summer to give GVSU charter school students firsthand experience of college-level programming. For many of the charter students, the campus visit and summer camp is their first experience on a college campus, and, for a few, it’s their first trip away from their hometown.
Many GVSU charter school students are first-time college-going students. GVSU is recognized for its successful efforts to keep and graduate these students. North Lawndale College Preparatory High School, a Chicago charter school authorized by Chicago Public Schools, partners with GVSU because of its track record for successfully graduating minority students. Many GVSU charter school students attend GVSU on scholarships specifically provided for students from GVSU authorized charter schools.
Authorizing charter schools is a difficult task for trustees and university presidents. Charter performance naturally varies and closing low-performing schools, essential to authorizing, can be damaging to heavily guarded university brands. GVSU has shuttered 15 schools and is not without scars for its commitment to chartering only high performing schools that serve the students in greatest need of a choice in schools.
However, the resources and commitment the university brings to the task of authorizing mitigates many of the real political, financial and legal liabilities. Those robust resources, protection from local district politics, and commitment to maintaining a strong university brand provides a platform for dynamic university leaders committed to reshaping communities and answering many of our most complex problems in public education through the opportunity of charter school authorizing.