What Happens When You Take the “Independent” Out of Independent Chartering Board

What Happens When You Take the “Independent” Out of Independent Chartering Board

Maine and Hawaii are two of 17 states with an independent chartering board (ICBs). ICBs are a type of charter school authorizer often called a state charter commission. Where they exist, ICBs are a vital part of a quality charter school authorizing system. As state-created, independent entities created to exclusively focus on charter school authorizing, ICBs are better able to develop the leadership, commitment and judgment research has shown necessary to high quality authorizing practice.

But legislation in both states threatens to remove the “independent” from independent chartering board. Doing so would fundamentally undermine the ability of the Maine Charter School Commission and the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission to engage in high-quality authorizing.

In Maine, LD 604 would bar a charter school from expanding “its facilities or locations without the approval of the [Commissioner of Education].” With Maine already at the statutory cap of 10 charter schools, the sector can only grow through expansion of existing schools. Under this bill, one of the Commission’s most important decisions as an authorizer – whether an operator has performed well enough to grow – would effectively be taken out of their hands.

In Hawaii, SB 814 would give applicants an automatic right of appeal to the State Board of Education if the Commission “takes any action that prohibits any applicant from proceeding with an application for any reason.” Under existing law, the State Board is the final arbitrator for appeals and has full authority to decide the procedures for an appeal. Under this bill, every decision of the Commission throughout the application process would be subject to review by the State Board.

Charter school authorizing is complex, highly specialized work. Independent chartering boards are uniquely positioned to excel in this work, in large part because of their independence: they are established specifically and exclusively to do charter school authorizing. For other types of authorizers, like school districts and state education departments, charter school authorizing may only be a small part of the work they do. Through their exclusive focus, ICBs can achieve the scale, expertise, and capacity needed to practice high-quality authorizing.

But this can only happen if ICBs are truly independent. NACSA’s Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing direct authorizers to make decisions through “a transparent and rigorous process that uses comprehensive academic, financial, and operational performance data.” Subjecting high-stakes decisions to the review of another entity, like a Commissioner of Education or the State Board, that is not experienced in high-quality authorizing practices, defeats the entire purpose of establishing an ICB in the first place.

Maine and Hawaii were intentional when their respective ICBs were established: both states align with NACSA’s policy recommendations and set up their commissions for success by establishing clear appointments processes, holding them to high standards, and giving them capacity to establish experience and professional judgment. The bills pending in each state would undercut their independence, and with it, their ability to engage in high-quality practice.

Authorizing is hard work. Maine and Hawaii have done well to set up their independent chartering boards for success. Neither state should undo that good work, especially when high-quality charter schools, and quality authorizing, is more important than ever.

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