If you ask a charter school supporter why charter schools tend to exhibit inconsistency in their measured test-based impact, there’s a good chance they’ll talk about authorizing. That is, they will tell you that the quality of authorization laws and practices — the guidelines by which charters are granted, renewed and revoked — drives much and perhaps even most of the variation in the performance of charters relative to comparable district schools, and that strengthening these laws is the key to improving performance.
Accordingly, a recently-announced campaign by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers aims to step up the rate at which charter authorizers close “low-performing schools” and are more selective in allowing new schools to open. In addition, a recent CREDO study found (among other things) that charter middle and high schools’ performance during their first few years is more predictive of future performance than many people may have thought, thus lending support to the idea of opening and closing schools as an improvement strategy.
Below are a few quick points about the authorization issue, which lead up to a question about the relationship between selectivity and charter sector growth.
The reasonable expectation is that authorization matters, but its impact is moderate. Although there has been some research on authorizer type and related factors, there is, as yet, scant evidence as to the influence of authorization laws/practices on charter performance. In part, this is because such effects are difficult to examine empirically. However, without some kind of evidence, the “authorization theory” may seem a bit tautological: There are bad charters because authorizers allow bad charters to open, and fail to close them.
That said, the criteria and processes by which charters are granted/renewed almost certainly have a meaningful effect on performance, and this is an important area for policy research. On the other hand, it’s a big stretch to believe that these policies can explain a large share of the variation in charter effects. There’s a reasonable middle ground for speculation here: Authorization has an important but moderate impact, and, thus, improving these laws and practices is definitely worthwhile, but seems unlikely to alter radically the comparative performance landscape in the short- and medium-term (more on this below).
Strong authorization policies are a good idea regardless of the evidence. Just to be clear, even if future studies find no connection between improved authorization practices and outcomes, test-based or otherwise, it’s impossible to think of any credible argument against them. If you’re looking to open a new school (or you’re deciding whether or not to renew an existing one), there should be strong, well-defined criteria for being allowed to do so. Anything less serves nobody, regardless of their views on charter schools.
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