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Reflections from the 2016 NACSA Conference

November 3, 2016

I recently had the opportunity, along with fellow TCSA staffer Elliott Nguyen, to attend the 2016 National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The NACSA gathering allowed an opportunity to better understand the national charter landscape as a whole and the particular challenges that charter authorizers face in regards to ensuring that high quality charter schools start successfully and are empowered to meet the needs of students in the neighborhoods they serve.

It struck me that one of the most fascinating aspects of charter authorizing is the diversity of the types of authorizers; agencies and organizations that are as unique as the 42 states that by statute allow charter schools. While many states such as Texas have an authorization process that allows state education agency authorization and to a lesser extent local districts, other states such as Ohio allow a broad mix of authorizers to approve charters, including local districts, higher education institutions, and non-profit agencies.

Greg Richmond, CEO and President of NACSA, noted in an address to the conference that charter school authorizers have a three-fold responsibility. First, he mused that authorizers must provide unlimited access to those students whose educational options are limited to the nearest traditional public school, a school that may not be meeting the needs of students in that neighborhood, especially if they are low income, racially diverse learners.

Second, he described the obligation that authorizers have to understand the autonomous nature of charters as part of the charter approval process. He suggested that while authorizing standards are vital to charter success (NACSA rates each state and provides an index score to quantify the effectiveness of their authorization process), the strength of the charter movement is built upon the idea that creativity, flexibility, and originality to meet the educational needs of diverse learners should continue to define the charter movement.

Finally, he suggested that authorizers must accept responsibility for the overall quality of the schools they approve. This was a particularly noteworthy statement, considering that in almost every breakout slot there was at least one session related to closure or revocation, with topics such as “By the Numbers: What Do We Know About School Closure Around the Country”, “Building a Closure Plan Focused on Kids”, “When and How to Revoke a Charter”, and “Interventions for Struggling Schools”. My thought is that the need for these kinds of discussions is not an indictment of charters in general but rather a reflection of the maturing of the charter movement.

As at any conference, one of the most beneficial aspects is meeting and networking with people who possess the same passion and advocacy for the charter movement that is shared by all of us at TCSA. The attendees comprised a diverse set of individuals all vital to the authorization process, including national and state policy experts, local and state education agency leaders, and a myriad of service providers who assist charters and authorizing agencies in accomplishing their objectives. I was also struck by the fact that a majority of the attendees were in the 30 to 40 year-old age demographic. Of course as a post-age 50 attendee I was the outlier in this observation, but I was encouraged by the relative youthfulness of the attendees, reflective in a way of the youth of the charter movement and the energy and creativity that is inherent to school choice. Indeed, beginning in Minnesota in 1991 at the ripe old age of 25, the charter revolution in the United States has evolved into a viable (and I believe the best) educational option for students not only in Texas but across the nation.

One of my takeaways from the conference was a reminder that sound policy is the driver of legislative reform in every statehouse; legislation that is written to improve access to a charter education for all students while improving quality and maintaining the autonomy that makes charters uniquely suited to meet the needs of all learners. Educational policy is like your auto policy; you don’t think about it much until someone runs into you. There are lots of accidents waiting to happen in the skirmishes inherent to the school choice battle, and the only way to protect and improve charter schools is to have strong policies that drive effective charter legislation.

The other benefit that comes out of any serious gathering of educators is that of self-reflection; being challenged to think critically about different ways to approach educational challenges in our schools and organizations for the benefit of kids. TCSA is doing just that as we set our legislative priorities for the 85th Texas legislative session beginning this January. First, TCSA is promoting important improvements in facility funding equity that will allow the more than 130,000 Texas students on a waiting list the opportunity to attend a charter school. Your organization is also focusing on legislative change in regards to small school accountability; changes in rules that will help to minimize the risk of failing to meet state standards faced by smaller charters due to lower student accountability group ratios than what is typically found in larger school systems. Finally, TCSA is supporting changes in the appeals process for accountability ratings to allow a rating to be corrected when the school can show the preliminary rating was based on incorrect school data.

TCSA is your organization and we are here to serve Texas charter schools and their students. I was reminded this week that our goal at TCSA, to improve student achievement by advocating for and strengthening a diverse set of high quality charter schools, is shared nationwide by educators and policymakers who believe that charter schools are the best public school option for students. I hope you will join us at TCSA to help us accomplish this important mission!

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