This week, we continue our two-part series on 2019 legislative trends with a look at two diverging approaches to statewide authorizing that emerged in statehouses across the country
Expanding or Strengthening Statewide Authorizing
Tennessee enacted legislation creating the Tennessee Public Charter Commission, becoming the 16th state with an independent charter board (ICB). We have previously highlighted the potential benefits of this new Commission, which will replace the State Board of Education’s authorizing power and provide an appeals avenue statewide. Freed from its authorizing responsibilities, the State Board can now focus on providing needed oversight of authorizers and improving authorizing quality across the state.
Nevada passed a bill abolishing the Achievement School District (ASD), folding its charter portfolio into the State Public Charter School Authority, the state’s existing ICB. Rather than having two statewide authorizers (including one where charter oversight is just one of many functions), Nevada charter schools will now be overseen by a statewide entity designed with an exclusive focus on high-quality authorizing.
Two other states introduced and advanced bills that would have expanded statewide authorizing pathways. Florida introduced multiple bills to expand access to higher education institution (HEI) authorizers, by allowing more types of schools and petitioners from more regions of the state to apply to an HEI. Additionally, Florida introduced another bill that would have created an ICB. None of these bills ultimately made it to a final vote.
In Missouri, a bill that would have strengthened the state charter board, including allowing the board to approve petitions statewide (rather than in limited regions), also fell short.
Restricting or Eliminating Statewide Authorizing
On the other end, several states introduced legislation that would restrict, or altogether eliminate, statewide authorizing pathways.
Illinois took the furthest step in this direction, passing a bill that eliminates its ICB and leaves only local district authorizers in the state. The legislation leaves nine schools, currently serving 4,000 students, in limbo—they must seek and receive authorization from the district they operate within or else be shut down.
Maine’s initial charter law included a temporary 10-school cap on the number of charters the state’s ICB could authorize during its initial transition period, set to expire in 2022. Under newly enacted legislation, the 10-school cap is made permanent. With nine charter schools currently authorized by the ICB, local districts will soon be the only pathway for new charter schools in the state.
In California, pending legislation would eliminate the State Board as an authorizer and limit county boards of education to solely reviewing appeals, leaving local districts as the only direct path to authorization. While the Governor supports amendments to relax the restrictions, the prospects are uncertain.
West Virginia became the 45th state to pass legislation allowing charter schools, allowing three charter schools to open in the state over the next three years and allowing an additional three schools to open every three years. Although statewide authorizing structures were discussed as the bill worked its way through the legislature, the final bill gives only local districts the ability to authorize charter schools.
What It All Means
It is concerning to see a number of states backing away from policy structures that ensure multiple pathways for new charter schools, not only because of the potential drag this may place on charter school growth, but also due to the damage weakening statewide authorizers can have on the quality of authorizing practices.
While high-quality authorizing can happen in any type of office, our research and experience finds quality practices are more likely to be embraced systemwide when multiple authorizing pathways exist. Statewide authorizers—and ICBs in particular—ensure charter applicants have a path to authorizing if a local district is hostile to charter schools. Additionally, ICBs are more likely to have the scale necessary to build the capacity needed to serve as a support and resource to other authorizers. When an ICB is strong, all authorizers benefit.
As we look to next year’s legislative session, we hope to see more legislation that creates policies and structures that support quality authorizing. As we’ve explored, there are many ways for policymakers to do this, from creating multiple authorizing pathways to protecting authorizers’ ability to use professional judgment. Good authorizing leads to more great schools in communities, making policies that support this work a win-win for all.
Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at [email protected]