Andrew Broy is the president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Formerly, he was associate state superintendent for the Georgia Department of Education where he oversaw charter schools.
Broy supports the recreation of a state-appointed commission to approve charters and explains why in this essay:
By Andrew Broy
I have watched the debate over the constitutional amendment over the past year and am increasingly puzzled by the arguments. When House Bill 881 was signed by the governor in 2008, one of the key goals was to create an independent, single-purpose body that could focus on quality authorizing and professionalize the process of deciding which schools were strong enough to be granted a charter. This purpose has been forgotten in the current rush to politicize the amendment.
I have a special interest in the outcome of the referendum. As sssociate state superintendent for the Georgia Department of Education, I served as the lead state charter school authorizer for five years and was instrumental in the initial establishment of the Charter Schools Commission.
I also served as its staff lead for the first round of votes. During my tenure, we granted more than 60 charters of all types — start-up, conversion, system and commission. We denied even more. We also closed a number of charter schools that were not meeting their academic goals or were not successful in attracting sufficient students.
From these experiences, several things became clear. First, a charter is simply a performance contract that allows flexibility in exchange for a promise to increase student achievement. Saying a school is a charter does not mean very much without additional context. The same things that make a great traditional public school — focused leadership, great teaching, engaged students — make for a great charter school.
To the extent charter schools succeed in Georgia, and there is ample evidence that they do, it is because the model permits flexibility in these areas and, more important, demands accountability for student results. So while a charter is not a guarantee of quality, it is a guarantee of accountability. But it is only a guarantee of quality when chartering is done right, which was the whole purpose of the commission.
Local school districts have dozens of duties: setting curriculum, hiring principals, establishing budgets, and providing transportation, among many others. As a consequence, they rarely devote the time and resources necessary to develop quality authorizing practices. In a state with 180 school districts, I can count on one hand the number of districts that have a full-time charter school director devoted to authorizing.
The result? With a few notable exceptions, authorizing quality in Georgia is uneven, inconsistent, and often maddening. Georgia is not unique in this problem. Charter authorizing across the country suffers from a lack of professionalism and consistent standards.
That is why there is an emerging national consensus that establishing independent, single-purpose charter boards like the commission is the right way to create new authorizers. Abundant recent research suggests that there is a direct link between the quality of charter authorizing and the caliber of the state’s charter sector.
So if Georgia wants charter schools, I think we can all agree they should be quality schools. If that is what we want, a professional commission will help us get there. Since the enactment of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission in 2008, states as diverse as Illinois, Maine, Indiana, Nevada, and Tennessee have established single-purpose authorizing bodies without the sort of controversy Georgia is now experiencing.
Second, during my five years reviewing charter applications, there was substantial evidence that some school districts were not providing charter applicants a fair hearing on the merits of their proposals. This problem varied across the state and year-to-year, but demanded a remedy. I can recall one case in which a local school board denied a 200-page charter application the week after it was received. No superintendent or staff can properly review an application and make a decision that quickly.
Many have argued that we shouldn’t allow an unelected state panel to make decisions about opening schools and allocating school funding because those decisions should be in the hands of a locally elected school board. But who do you think sets state curriculum standards, provides federal funding to public schools, writes special education guidelines, implements school facilities regulations, approves transportation plans, and controls hundreds of decisions that directly impact local schools? The state Board of Education. An unelected body, appointed by the governor. No one seems to be especially worried about that unelected board, suggesting that the local control argument is a red herring cited by those who simply oppose providing autonomy to schools and holding them strictly accountable.
In the final analysis, the question on the ballot is whether Georgia wants to join the growing number of states that have created the right charter authorizing conditions by establishing independent chartering boards. If we support high-quality charter schools, I hope the answer is yes.
–From Maureen Downey for the AJC Get Schooled blog