Authorizer Evaluation Summary: An Analysis of Evaluations of Authorizer Quality

National Charter School Resource Center
06 May, 2016

With 42 states and Washington D.C. now authorizing nearly 6,700 public charter schools that enroll approximately 3 million children (NAPCS, 2016), ensuring charter school quality is a high priority for public education stakeholders. As designed, charter schools are semi-autonomous public schools, operated by a non-profit entity that has entered a contract or “charter” with an entity holding them accountable—the authorizer. Authorizers create and approve new school applications, provide oversight for the schools’ academic and operational performance, and make high-stakes decisions when a school is not meeting agreed-upon achievement standards (Wohlstetter, Smith & Farrell, 2001).       

The National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) has been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to develop this Authorizer Evaluation Summary. In partnership with the NCSRC, the National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has been conducting authorizer assessments over the past six years. However, the correlation between high-quality authorization practices and charter school impact has largely been unexplored.

In this report, we use a dataset of 43 NACSA-evaluated charter school authorizers to analyze the current state of authorizing policies and practices. While this sample of 43 authorizers represents only 4% of all charter school authorizers, these authorizers oversee 35% of all charter schools, and the schools they authorize serve 44% of all charter school students, based on 2013-2014 data. The charter school authorizers from the sample are in 28 states and represent two-thirds of states with charter school laws. They have been in operation for an average of 11 years.

In general, the evaluation sample is comprised of large authorizers (defined as authorizers that oversee 10 or more charter schools), as NACSA has prioritized larger authorizers.

This report uses quantitative analysis to examine six years of NACSA evaluations and authorizer characteristics to explore the following questions about authorizing policies and practices:

  • How did the authorizers rate on NACSA’s formative evaluation?
  • What areas were the authorizers highly rated on? Conversely, what areas did the authorizers receive lower ratings on?
  • Do any relationships exist between formalized policies and the applied practices of authorizers?
  • Is there a relationship between authorizer characteristics and their evaluation rating?

The formative evaluations conducted by NACSA included the following focus areas:

  • Application and Decision-Making,
  • Monitoring and Operations,
  • Performance-Based Accountability,
  • School Autonomy, and
  • Organizational Capacity.

For the overall focus area and subsections within each focus area, authorizers were evaluated on established policies and applied practices.

NACSA used a Likert rating scale to report the authorizer’s policies and practices, as compared to NACSA’s Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. The NACSA scale ranges from 1 to 5, with 1 being Undeveloped, and 5 being Well-Developed.

While there are limits to the analysis given the sample size and characteristics, this report identifies several key takeaways:

  • The mean rating for all authorizer evaluations, established and applied, was slightly above Partially Developed.
  • The areas of Organizational Capacity and School Autonomy were essentially tied for the highest scores, rating between Partially Developed and Approaching Well-Developed. Performance-Based Accountability was the lowest-ranked focus area, scored at Minimally Developed.  
  • Application and Decision-Making was the only focus area where there was a significant difference in established and applied ratings. Under this focus area, the low correlation between established policies and applied practices indicates that the authorizers are not implementing practices that fully align with their formal policies. The authorizers appear to be implementing procedures with a level of quality that is similar to their written policies in all other focus areas.
  • Higher ratings on the Performance-Based Accountability area correlate positively with the authorizers’ School Autonomy rating. The Performance-Based Accountability rating asks the question, “Does the authorizer have rigorous appropriate standards by which it holds schools accountable for results?” This finding is noteworthy because school autonomy is a fundamental tenet of charter schools and charter advocates fear that strengthening accountability may diminish school autonomy. This evidence, while preliminary, suggests that school autonomy does not necessarily decline as authorizers implement strong performance-based accountability systems.
  • The size of the authorizer, based on the number of charter schools they oversee, was negatively correlated with the authorizer’s School Autonomy average rating. According to the sample, as the authorizers grow, their School Autonomy rating decreases. The data indicate larger authorizers should be cognizant of their school autonomy policies and revisit their policies as they continue to grow their charter school portfolio.

Our analysis revealed clear model authorizer practices and areas for improvement and growth. This report can serve as a starting point to inform authorizers, policymakers, and key stakeholders in the charter school sector about effective authorizing practices.