Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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Vulnerability to Political Change

Some authorizers report that they operate in a climate of political vulnerability. In Chicago, New York, and Indianapolis, for example, the effort to open quality new schools is driven by high-level political leaders. Chicago's mayor, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and the chancellor of the NYC Public Schools all have tied their political fortunes to their respective new schools initiatives through frequent media appearances and public efforts to personally recruit high-quality organizations to open schools. In Indianapolis, the mayor has launched the charter schools effort from his own office, thereby taking full responsibility for the schools and their results. If any of these elected officials loses a future election or—in the case of the CEO and chancellor—is replaced, there is a danger that the charter school reform effort could collapse under new leadership.

In a very direct way, the political vulnerability that these offices operate under acts as a powerful incentive. Staff members cannot afford complacency— they need to recruit and approve strong schools that get measurable results—and they need to promote their successes widely to gain public support for their work. To varying degrees, this pressure also encourages staff members to institutionalize their processes as much as possible so they are less vulnerable to future leadership change. The authorizing staff in Indianapolis, for example, has worked hard to publicize its schools' successes so that the charter school initiative has strong public support no matter who the next mayor is, and regardless of how committed to charter schools he or she might be. They also have developed a series of handbooks outlining how to implement various processes to ensure continuity for the schools.

According to these authorizers, political pressure is desirable to the extent that it motivates them to improve their practices. It is also desirable to the extent that it reflects the wishes of the broader public. But research and experience suggest that the most common barriers to meritbased authorizing decisions are political—such as those arising from influential community groups that have a weak charter application but think they have a good idea, or from administrators who do not want to upset parents by closing a school, or from parents who want to keep "their" school open, regardless of its performance. Even if these particular authorizers have not fallen prey to such problems, policymakers should consider ways to minimize the power that their specialized influences can exert if they destabilize authorizers' policies and threaten their ability to make merit-based decisions. Policymakers also should consider the amount of time and money these offices spend building public and political support for their initiatives. According to these authorizers, when staff members have to spend an inordinate amount of time responding to the concerns of special interest groups, it compromises their own internal practices.

Authorizers that operate transparently—sharing both their decisions and their processes with the public—may be more insulated from these types of pressures. It is difficult for opponents to argue against hard evidence of a school's success or failure, for example. Specialized committees, such as California's Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, that make recommendations to the final decision-maker also give the public a voice while helping to ensure that an authorizing office and its successful charter schools are less vulnerable to political change.

In addition to protecting individual authorizers from disruptive politics, policymakers also can insulate the state's overall system of authorizing. By empowering a diverse set of authorizers with different kinds of political and institutional bases, several of the states where the authorizers profiled in this guide are located have established systems in which high-quality authorizing is likely to endure even if political change affects the work of one particular authorizer.

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009