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Charter School Authorizing

An interesting discussion of Michigan charter schools is taking place between David Hecker, AFT Vice President and President of AFT Michigan, guest blogging on the AFT’s Blog, and Sara Meade, Ed Sector policy analalyst, blogging on The Quick and Ed Blog. The impetus for the exchange was Sara’s report, which you can read here. As Sara points out, it is a serious and civil dialogue, and that is important.

The UFT’s Charter Schools entered the discussion in the context of discussing authorizing agencies, so it is worth adding our perspective on that question. It is true, as Sara suggests, that the UFT made a decision to seek our charter from the SUNY Trustees, as we were impressed with the quality of their authorizing, including their willingness to close schools which were performing poorly. We would agree that quality authorizing is absolutely key to quality charter schools, and that states should provide chartering entities with sufficient resources to do the work of chartering well. And Sara is right when she says that teacher unions should give credit to authorizers when they do their jobs well — especially when they bite the bullet, and close down failing schools.

Charter school advocates have some responsibilities on this subject as well. Poor charter authorizing almost always comes from poorly conceived charter laws and poorly thought out charter policy, and charter advocates need to join teacher unions in speaking out on that front. In linking funding for the chartering agency to the number of schools it charters, the Michigan law creates an economic incentive to seek quantity, as opposed to quality, in chartering, and creates a disincentive for doing the right thing and closing a failing school, since that would result in a decline in income to the chartering entity. Who should be surprised, then, when David Hecker reports that one Michigan university has turned chartering into a cash cow? It is not as if we did not already know that many universities had turned Schools of Education into cash cows — with predictibly negative results for education.

New York State has its own version of this issue. When Governor Pataki proposed legislation to raise the cap on charters this spring, he included in his omnibus package two other significant measures — a proposal that would allow virtually any non-profit corporation in the state to become a chartering entity, without the slightest quality control, and a proposal that would give the Chancellor of the New York City public schools chartering authority of his own, including unlimited power to convert existing district schools to charter schools without the parental approval vote required for all other conversions. Edwize criticized both parts of the proposed legislation here. It is particularly worth pointing out that the states which have the worst records in policing charter school quality are states that have charter school legislation similar to that proposed by Pataki. We have yet to find a single charter advocate in New York who has a good word to say about either measure in private, but there has also been no public criticism from that quarter.

If quality authorizing is key to quality charter schools, then it is irresponsible to NOT criticize bad authorizing policy and bad authorizing legislation. And that holds true just as much for charter school advocates as it does for teacher unions.