In November 2012, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) launched the One Million Lives Campaign with the goal of creating better school options for at least a million children in the nation’s charter schools. The campaign focuses on closing the poorest-performing schools, those charters that are failing our children, while opening even more great schools — schools that will succeed in living up to the promise of the charter school sector.
At the heart of this campaign is a set of activities funded by an OII Charter Schools Program (CSP) National Leadership Activities grant to NACSA. In the fall of 2010, NACSA initiated the Creating Quality Charter Schools through Performance Management, Replication, and Closure (PMRC) project to better address the unacceptable number of poor-performing schools that are charter schools. While the charter school sector has often led the way on accountability for performance, the systems for defining, measuring, and acting upon school quality, as well as for replicating good schools and for closing failing schools, are often lacking. The PMRC project was designed to leverage the current effective practices of authorizers successful in these areas and develop core policies and practices that can be disseminated and implemented across the nation.
Impacting authorizer practice
During the first three years of the project, NACSA documented the effective policies and practices of seven strong authorizers in the three targeted areas and developed a comprehensive set of integrated policies and practices that support the project goals, piloting the policies and practices at four demonstration sites. NACSA’s work with even the strongest and most active authorizers in the country made clear the primary need for a core performance framework to guide the creation of comprehensive, coherent accountability systems for charter schools.
NACSA tested the validity of this approach by creating a model framework and customizing it for each of the four demonstration sites, and it soon became very clear that the project’s reach would expand far beyond these demonstration sites.
In the last year, NACSA has worked with more than a dozen of the nation’s largest authorizers to develop specific academic, financial, and organizational performance frameworks to set clear expectations for schools and clear criteria for charter renewal, replication, and closure decisions. Such large statewide authorizers as Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, Colorado School Institute, and New Jersey Department of Education now have these frameworks in place.
Impacting authorizer policy
A key aspect of the project design was the recognition that changes in state policy were as important to impact as changes in practice, and it has been encouraging that lawmakers have recognized the importance of requiring improved charter accountability systems in law. Over the last two years, more than a half-dozen states — including Texas with almost 10 percent of the nation’s charter schools — have changed their charter laws to mandate the development of these frameworks and their incorporation into charter contracts. NACSA has also simultaneously worked with legislators in several states to adopt proposals that would lead to the automatic shutdown of chronically poor performers. The most recent success came just last month in Tennessee where a strong statement for charter accountability was signed into law. These are major steps forward in strengthening charter school accountability and set the stage for strong action on the closure of low-performing charters.
And while no one disputes the fact that any school closure is a difficult one, strong performance management that takes into account a variety of measures helps ensure that both schools and authorizers know if expectations are being met. It was important that NACSA work with authorizers to ensure that any school closure that needed to occur would be done thoughtfully with a clear eye to the impact on the school’s students and families. With the resources available to support the PMRC project, NACSA has been able to document the complexities inherent in closing a public school and is providing authorizers both the resources and the support that they need to successfully navigate these very difficult waters.
The updating and revision of our popular Comprehensive Guide to Charter School Closure has been the most recent achievement of the project’s work. The resource was designed to assist the staff and board members of authorizing agencies as they address the wide array of challenges involved in any closure decision. It draws directly upon the successful experiences of other authorizers across the country. Authorizing agencies are entrusted by the public with unique and extraordinary powers to approve new, high-quality charter schools and close those that fail, and the guide provides them with information and tools to help fulfill those responsibilities.
Impacting the future of the sector
Finally, one of the biggest challenges tackled by NACSA under the PMRC project is devising strategies to identify and replicate successful school models at scale. There is a strong recognition that until state policy environments and authorizer practices differentiate between those schools that have a track record of success and those that do not, we are not going to be able to significantly grow the number of great charter schools. In a recent joint report with the Charter School Growth Fund, NACSA set forth a set of 10 policy recommendations that would help states create and multiply better schools for children by replicating excellence, not mediocrity.
As the PMRC project enters its final phase in 2014, these recommendations will serve as the centerpiece of our dissemination work. And while the project will come to a close, our work will not. We will continue to engage authorizers and a broad coalition of school operators, lawmakers, funders, and others to bring about a stronger charter school sector through stronger authorizing.
The CSP funds have gone a long way in helping NACSA build a set of resources that will outlive the project and serve to strengthen the charter school sector for years to come. As NACSA continues to expand the reach of its work through the One Million Lives Campaign, it is able to take the PMRC project above and beyond what could have been envisioned just a few short years ago.
Whitney Spalding Spencer is director of Authorizer Development at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and serves as project manager for NACSA’s federally funded PMRC Project.