This piece is part of our interactive Authorizer Showcases, which highlight how authorizers around the country are tackling obstacles related to access, accountability, and autonomy.
“Minutes matter,” says Beth Topoluk, executive director of Friends of Education, a nonprofit authorizer overseeing 12 schools that serve 9,600 students across Minnesota.
The Minnesota Department of Education awarded Friends of Education its highest Exemplary rating for charter school authorizer performance.
“It can be easy to dismiss a quick request here and there as ‘no big deal.’ But when you stop and think about it, even two minutes a day spent on reporting ends up eating an entire workday over the course of a year.”
And that, she notes, is an entire workday a school leader could spend coaching teachers.
“If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
Friends of Education’s performance-based accountability is grounded in this philosophy: if a school leader consistently demonstrates a school is well-managed and delivering great results for children, then the authorizer can and should free up time to allow that school leader to do even greater things.
“It follows the adage, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person,’” Topoluk explains. “If authorizers want even better things from their successful (and busy) school leaders, then give them more time to do it.”
One of the ways staff puts this wisdom into practice is by waiving selected reporting requirements for its high-performing schools. To be eligible for the waiver, a school must be achieving strong academic performance outcomes, be in a strong financial position, and attain a 90 percent or better compliance-reporting rate for three consecutive years.
Schools that earn the waiver are exempted from many charter contract reporting requirements. They are still required to submit reports necessary for basic oversight, such as board minutes, financial statements, external audits, as well as all state-mandated reports. (For more on reporting requirements, see page 11 of Friends of Education’s Charter School Program Guide). The waiver can be withdrawn at any time, at the discretion of Friends of Education, should the status of the school or its leadership change.
“Would a high-performing school really not be doing this?”
When considering what can be waived, Topoluk and staff analyze every reporting requirement through a lens of “If a school is well-managed and delivering great results for kids—if we have this assumption—do we really need to see this?”
For many items, the answer is “no.”
For example, waiver schools aren’t required to submit schedules of professional development. Friends of Education staff concluded that if a school is achieving great results, it is likely providing professional development to teachers. Eliminating this reporting component frees up time for actual coaching and development. That said, if a school’s academic performance begins to slip, the waiver can be withdrawn, and staff can focus on ensuring professional development is happening regularly, if needed.
Topoluk notes the natural tendency for authorizers to accumulate as much information as possible. But she encourages authorizers to step back and reflect on what they’re asking. “Really consider, based on the management and the well-run nature of the existing school, what do you really need to see? Do you really think a well-run school isn’t doing A, B, or C?”
“Can we get it elsewhere in the time we need it?”
Friends of Education also looked to reduce the reporting burden for high-performing schools by eliminating duplicative reporting requirements. Or, as Topoluk puts it, “We try hard not to ask schools for information we can get elsewhere, in the time we need it.”
For example, staff decided the two enrollment reports it obtains on each school from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) provide sufficient information to ensure waiver schools aren’t struggling. Again, back to the premise: A school with wild swings in enrollment would not have the financial stability required to earn the wavier. Schools that haven’t earned the waiver are the ones that need the closer enrollment tracking, and they’re required to submit 14 additional reports throughout the year.
Additionally, all schools are required to submit teacher licensure information to the MDE. Friends of Education obtains that information directly from the MDE when it becomes available in December. Since waiver schools have demonstrated a track record of complying with state licensure requirements, the MDE compliance report is unlikely to reveal any unlicensed teachers. In comparison, non-waiver schools must submit a report on their licensed staff to Friends of Education by September 15, so any issues can be addressed quickly.
“We want to know that new schools with untested leadership are on top of things like this,” Topoluk shares. “If we waited for this information until it becomes available from the state in December, it would be too late.”
Dealing with “But It’s Not Fair”
The most common pushback to this philosophy is in the name of fairness. The thinking goes, “If some schools aren’t required to submit every report, then the authorizer isn’t treating all schools the same. That’s unfair.”
Topoluk counters that all schools must indeed meet the same requirements in order to receive the wavier in the first place. “If to get the waiver all schools must do the same thing, you are treating all schools the same. Everyone has to earn it the same way.”
Additionally, all schools are held to the same high standards; receiving a waiver doesn’t change this. Non-waived reporting elements (e.g., board minutes, board packets, the external audit, financial statements, all required reports by state law) enable Friends of Education staff to ensure waiver schools are serving students and taxpayers well.
“We’re not watering down accountability for our waiver schools, by any means,” says Topoluk.
The Proof is in the Outcomes
Friends of Education has been implementing this waiver system for 10 years. Topoluk points to the continued strong performance of its waiver schools as evidence the schools continue to deserve the waiver and that—at a minimum—reducing reporting requirements does not have an adverse outcome for kids.
This August, Minnesota released its 2019 state assessment results. All four high schools authorized by Friends of Education placed in the top five high schools in the state for schoolwide math scores. Three schools placed in the top five for schoolwide reading scores. Three of their four schools have received a waiver for several years.
“Would I say our waiver directly causes this?” Topoluk asks, then pauses. “I am not suggesting that the waiver of reporting requirements directly results in these terrific student outcomes. But I do believe that reducing administrative burden frees up time for school leaders to spend on those things which directly impact student success.”