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Authorizers play a key role in charter school quality

November 29, 2014

In a Nov. 17 article “Charters’ grades fall, spurring concerns,” reporter J.K. Wall explored Indianapolis charter schools’ uneven performance on the state’s A-F grading system.

The article fairly highlights the concerning drop in grades within Indianapolis’ charter sector, but it fails to fully explain the considerable variation of charter school performance across different authorizers.

While 53 percent of charter schools serving traditional student populations authorized by the Mayor’s Office received an A or B on Indiana’s grading system, 86 percent of Indianapolis charter schools overseen by other authorizers received a D or F.

This performance variation highlights the critical role of charter school authorizers in upholding school quality. It also raises questions about how Indiana’s growing number of authorizers, which have varying levels of rigor, will impact charter quality over the long term.

The Mayor’s Office has a tradition of successful authorizing dating to 2001, when Mayor Bart Peterson was granted the ability to authorize charters. Peterson’s administration built an office focused on high standards and strong accountability, winning the prestigious Harvard Innovations in American Government award in 2006.

Mayor Greg Ballard has built on that tradition by growing the number of high-quality schools through a rigorous application process, refining ongoing accountability systems, and closing persistently low-performing schools, leading to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers designating the Mayor’s Office as a model authorizer.

Mayoral authorizing works because it creates a direct line of accountability between the authorizer and families. If parents are dissatisfied with their school’s performance, they can voice their concerns not only to school leaders, but also to the mayor. As elected city leaders, mayors have an incentive to rigorously review charter applications and hold schools accountable. They also have motivation to leverage schools as assets in transforming neighborhoods, as both Peterson and Ballard have.

The academic results at the mayor’s 34 charter schools are a testament to the success of this approach:

• In 2013, Stanford University found that students attending mayor-sponsored charter schools gain an additional two months of learning in English and three additional months in math over a school year compared to peers in traditional public schools.

• In 2014, students attending mayor-sponsored charter schools outperformed the school district where the majority of students would have otherwise attended on the ISTEP by 11 percentage points in English and 10 percentage points in math.

• In 2014, the non-waiver graduation rate at mayor-sponsored charter schools was 77 percent compared to 59 percent in Indianapolis Public Schools and 49 percent in Indiana charter schools not authorized by the Mayor’s Office.

And demographics at mayor-sponsored charter schools are similar to those of students within IPS: 83 percent of students are low-income and 78 percent are people of color.

The rigorous accountability of the Mayor’s Office and strong performance of its schools should be the standard and not the exception in Indiana. As more authorizers come online throughout the state, we must remain vigilant to ensure they uphold the same quality. And we should advocate for a charter law that provides rigorous standards that any new authorizer must meet prior to chartering schools.
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Brandon Brown, Indianapolis charter schools director, 2012-present

David Harris; president, The Mind Trust; Indianapolis charter schools director, 2001-2006

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