Stop Dumping Paperwork on Charter Applicants, and Focus on Success

Now that Memorial Day is past, and the unofficial start of summer has arrived, it’s time to start thinking about taking that fun family vacation. For me, it has to include going to the beach, or at least staying cool at a splashing fun water park. While I would enjoy swimming at the lake or at the kiddie pool, I don’t think anyone enjoys swimming through a pile of paperwork.

Yet as a new American Enterprise Institute report explains, too many public charter school authorizers are overloading applicants with questions and tasks that just aren’t necessary at getting to the bottom line of creating innovative, effective educational opportunities.

Michael McShane, Jenn Hatfield, and Elizabeth English specifically surveyed the application processes of 40 non-school-district authorizers, and found some upsetting results. School districts — which make up all the Colorado authorizers, except for the Charter School Institute — tend to lard up the process with obstacles to make it more difficult for new charters to emerge. But as AEI’s new research shows, even many of the alternatives have trouble getting it correct.

When an authorizer starts to mistake length for rigor, then frustration tends to trump actual innovation. Prominent education reform thinkers like Rick Hess have noted that the charter sector has not lived up to expectations in the area of breaking new ground in policy and practice.At least in part, one has to wonder what the role of onerous application processes play in thwarting that instinct.

Nonetheless, as Michael Horn wrote last week, some leading charter management organizations have reimagined teacher preparation to fill real needs in their schools. Colorado charters, admittedly, are still on the road of innovation.

Speaking of Colorado, the Charter School Solutions blog noted in February that the burdensome authorizing trend was fulfilling a prophecy made that “not many parents will be applying for charter schools anymore.” The post was written specifically to highlight the TriCity Academy application in Englewood and Sheridan, which only recently overcame local opposition with clear State Board approval.

McShane and crew don’t simply criticize and complain about the current trend. They offer some recommendations for a path forward. Noting that it is possible to streamline most of these application processes without sacrificing any emphasis on quality, the AEI report asserts that authorizers should take a stand and “rebrand themselves as guardians of autonomy.” The report also made me smile with the observation that we need to cut the phrase “smart regulation” out of our charter school vocabulary.

Ultimately, while I think the state has little role in all this, AEI’s authors have a point that it would be good for legislators to order a review of the charter authorization regulatory process. As long as the purpose is to strip unnecessary rules off the books, that is. Otherwise, it would be nice to see more healthy competition among authorizers to help streamline the process.

As a group, charters continue to outperform traditional public schools a little bit more and more all the time. Let’s lift all schools and students, though, by focusing more on holding schools more accountable for results and less on putting extra flaming hoops in the way.