Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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Authorizers Develop a Strong Talent Pool

These authorizers are not only focused on developing their internal capacity, many also devote time and resources to developing capacity in their applicant pools. No matter the strength of their own offices, they would be unable to charter successful new schools without a strong applicant pool. Not content to wait for talented and capable charter school operators to apply, many of these authorizers have added publicity and recruitment to their list of responsibilities.

Seek out strong applicants

Many authorizers have found that creating a high-quality pool of potential charter operators requires active recruitment of talented applicants. In states that have not reached their charter school cap, these offices are engaged in strategic recruitment locally and nationally for charter school operators that show strong potential for being successful.

The Renaissance 2010 initiative in Chicago has made recruiting new school applicants a top priority for everyone in the Office of New Schools within the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In 2004, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and CPS CEO Arne Duncan announced that they intended to open 100 new schools in Chicago by the year 2010, many of them to replace existing low-performing CPS schools. As the city approaches the cap set by state law on how many charter schools can open (they are at 27, and the cap is set at 30) many of these new schools will not open as charter schools. But all will be charter-like—operating free of many of the regulations that govern other public schools in such areas as human resources, curriculum, and length of school day—in return for increased accountability for performance.

As a result of this ambitious 100-school goal, the Office of New Schools has developed multiple strategies to attract high-quality applicants. The mayor and CEO have put their public support behind the effort to open new schools. Both are involved in recruiting potential school developers. Previously, many of the charter schools in Chicago were started by community-based organizations. Both the mayor and the CEO believe that such organizations will continue to be sources for strong new schools, so they encourage well-known and respected community-based organizations from across the city to consider designing school approaches that would best meet the unique needs of particular neighborhoods.

Recognizing that they will almost certainly need to supplement local capacity by attracting charter school operators from elsewhere, the Office of New Schools is also in the process of developing a national recruitment strategy. The high profile of the Renaissance 2010 initiative has attracted interest. The office has had inquiries from several national charter school management organizations and there are conversations with some of them to determine if their approaches and expectations regarding school operations are a good fit with the district's needs. In order to get a better grasp on what these organizations have to offer, teams of people from Chicago, including community members from neighborhoods that may host some of the new schools, have begun visiting schools across the country.

From the beginning of their charter school authorizing initiative, officials in the mayor's office in Indianapolis have known they would need to develop a long-term strategy for recruiting high-quality leaders to start schools. Following a pattern similar to Chicago's, many of the early charter schools in Indianapolis were started by community-based organizations. Recognizing the finite number of local organizations with the capacity and drive to open schools, city officials have addressed what they describe as a local "talent shortage" on three fronts. First, they have used Mayor Peterson's strong public profile to get the attention of several school operators that have had success with similar student populations elsewhere. Second, they have made the climate more appealing to potential charter operators by addressing one of the major barriers to successful charter school operation—the challenge of finding and affording appropriate facilities. By offering an innovative facilities financing plan that allows school leaders to access tax-exempt interest rates for the acquisition, construction, and renovation of a school facility, the mayor hopes to make Indianapolis an attractive option for both national and local applicants. The nation's first city-developed charter school facility financing program draws upon the city's backing and the support of public and private donors to enable charter schools to save millions of dollars on their facilities loans, savings that can be redirected to improving instruction. Finally, Mayor Peterson's office has secured grant money to launch a program designed to recruit and train new entrepreneurs to build a supply of strong charter school leaders in Indianapolis.

While it is too soon to determine how these efforts will ultimately affect the quality and number of applicants in Indianapolis, there are early signs of success. Since 2004, operators of several national school models* have submitted applications and been granted charters to open schools in Indianapolis. These models include the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound, and Lighthouse Academies.

The authorizing staff at Ferris State University (FSU) in Big Rapids, Mich., is no longer engaged in active recruitment, as the university authorizers in the state have reached their collective cap of 150 charter schools. Before meeting its cap, FSU announced available charters largely by word of mouth, relying largely upon its reputation in the charter school community as a "tough but fair" authorizer to bring quality charter operators to its door. However, FSU faced a localized talent shortage when it sought applications for two types of charter schools—Strict Discipline Academies and Urban High School Academies—that are not subject to the statewide cap. Both of these exceptions to the charter cap were established through state legislation to serve students' unmet needs. Operators of these charters would be required by the legislation to implement additional security measures, such as metal detectors, uniform codes, and strict adherence to behavior policies. The authorizing staff announced a request for proposals to run these schools but found that only one of the applicants met their standards for quality. This outcome forced the question for the first time of how to attract high-quality charter operators to apply for these much-needed urban schools. For the next cycle, the authorizing staff plans to publicize its available charters widely, using its monthly newsletter and the charter office's Web site, a statewide charter newsletter, and several detroit newspapers.

Seek education models that are aligned with the authorizer's mission

While all of these offices have focused their efforts on designing a selection process that accurately identifies strong leaders, some have additional criteria that they use during the selection process. For some authorizers, these additional criteria have given them an opportunity to further the purposes of their states' charter laws; for others, additional criteria have enabled them to align their selection processes with their own organizational missions.

For example, New York state has defined the purposes of charter schools to include increasing learning opportunities for students who are at risk of academic failure. The SUNY Institute has incorporated this objective into its mission by encouraging and favoring education models that have a proven record of success with students at risk of academic failure. In its recruitment and selection decisions, the institute makes clear that before applicants can be considered seriously, they must propose an education model that the applicant team has personally used before with students at risk of academic failure, or they must document research showing that the model has been effective with the type of students that the school expects to serve.

In California, the state legislature recognized the potential for barriers to effective charter authorizing, including the fact that some communities may not attract a range of charter school developers with a demonstrated track record of meeting or exceeding state performance expectations. In 2004, the state legislature extended a new authorizing power to the California State Board of Education in a strategic effort to replicate highquality charter schools in high-need areas. The state board was given authority to grant charters for the statewide replication of charter schools with a proven record. Applicants for these charters, called "statewide benefit charters," must demonstrate their ability to provide high-quality instructional services that have been shown to improve student achievement and that could not be provided by a charter school operating in only one school district or one county. Applicants also must be willing to target those areas where local public schools are in Program Improvement— California's designation for schools that have failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in the same subject for two consecutive years. Through this initiative, the Charter Schools division also is providing ongoing support to charter schools that have a proven track record of success with students who are at risk for academic failure, and the division is helping these schools to locate in areas where district schools are not showing adequate academic progress as defined by state law.

The VOA of MN Charter School Sponsorship Program is part of the Minneapolis office of VOA of MN, which is an affiliate of one of the oldest nonprofit social service agencies in the country. With a long-standing record of serving the most vulnerable populations in the city, the VOA of MN is much larger than just its charter office and has an overall budget of $40 million and a staff of 700. In addition to charter authorizing, VOA of MN offers a range of services that include mental health clinics, home health care for seniors, and residential treatment centers for children at risk for health and behavioral problems.

When VOA of MN's CEO Mike Weber was first approached about his organization becoming a charter school authorizer in 1999, he was willing to consider the idea but only if he could create a set of guiding principles for accepting applicants that was aligned with VOA of MN's existing mission and purpose. Having been assured by officials in the Minnesota State Department of Education that the state's charter law granted him this authority, he and the newly hired director of the charter office began developing a set of criteria to use during the selection process. (See fig. 3.) These included: small size; a focus on marginalized student populations; a focus on engaging students in service learning (an educational strategy whereby students gain and apply academic knowledge and critical thinking skills to address community needs); filling a void in the community by assisting in the development of education opportunities that do not currently exist in the community; and a focus on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. Each of the 12 schools that VOA of MN's charter office has since agreed to authorize has had to meet these five criteria in order to be considered for VOA of MN sponsorship. According to Justin Testerman, the director of the Charter School Sponsorship Program, these principles have become an effective initial screening tool and also have promoted VOA of MN's intent to target its resources to communities that have the most need.

* A national school model is a defined set of management and educational approaches that is implemented in many different schools across the country.

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009