Who Authorizes: The Potential of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)

Who Authorizes: The Potential of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)


Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have been authorizing charter schools for decades. HEI authorizers currently oversee schools that serve more than 10 percent of all charter school students nationwide. As authorizers, HEIs bring unique opportunities and advantages to their work. In addition, since most HEI authorizers currently operate within more traditional college and university settings, this post begins to explore the opportunities additional HEI authorizers – such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), as well as technical colleges, present to meet some of the challenges the charter sector faces.

HEI Benefits

While there are many benefits to HEI authorizers, the biggest opportunities come from their expertise and their ability to leverage their resources. Historically, NACSA has found that HEIs often have:

  • A combination of organizational independence and research capabilities that can help lead to innovations;
  • Considerable education expertise (ex: special education, education finance, curriculum design, etc.) and can apply such expertise throughout the authorizing life cycle; and,
  • Access to university resources and partnerships, such as professional development, course offerings, and even scholarships.

HEI Challenges

Of course, HEIs as authorizers also face challenges. The biggest challenges NACSA typically sees with HEIs include:

  • Geographical distance from the schools they authorize. Most HEI authorizers have statewide jurisdiction, and this can lend to a lack of community buy-in or a perceived lack of public accountability due to the distance from the communities they serve;
  • A lack of commitment from the broader higher education community; and,
  • The ability of charter schools to authorizer “shop” if they do not like the oversight of their current authorizer. While this is not HEI-specific, we have seen it happen more often in settings with high numbers of authorizers which correlates with the policy environments that allow HEI authorizers.

Luckily, there are ways to mitigate these challenges via state and institutional policies and practices.

First, robust community engagement requirements must be in place throughout the authorizing process, from applications to renewals. Since HEI authorizers are often not located in the communities where they authorize, it is extremely important that they understand the context of the charter school within the communities they serve.

Additionally, all authorizers, including HEIs, should be required to complete an authorizer application or registration process before commencing their new role. For HEIs, this should require the university to lay out their reason or mission for authorizing and how authorizing will be incorporated into the broader college mission and context.

State policies should prevent authorizer shopping, such as any change in authorizer requiring third party approval. In the absence of, or in addition to a state level policy, HEI authorizers should discuss any transfer of schools.

Finally, due to the uniqueness of HEIs, an authorizer association may be especially important. An authorizer association can help facilitate the coordination of resources and communication, allowing HEIs to learn from one another and find thought partners to work through other HEI-specific challenges.

New Opportunities to Grow HEI Authorizing

Community-centeredness is at the heart of quality authorizing. Responding to communities’ needs is essential, and some HEIs may be positioned to do this in distinct ways.

For example, a technical college would likely have the expertise needed to review applications for and oversee Career and Technical Education (CTE)focused charter schools. And while such expertise might not be necessary to be a great authorizer of CTE schools, some charter schools with special missions and themes have expressed that it can be very helpful to have an authorizer who deeply understands their work.

Likewise, research shows that HBCUs consistently outperform their predominantly white institution counterparts when it comes to student experience and preparedness for Black students. With this context, HBCUs may be able to bring a level of expertise to authorizing K-12 charter schools to enhance the experience of all students, but especially that of Black children.

Naomi N. Shelton, CEO of the National Charter Collaborative, sees the promise of HBCUs as charter school authorizers: “According to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), ‘HBCUs are often overlooked as sources of effective methods for producing high-achieving Black students, although their existence is based on this very premise.’ Recognizing the unique understanding HBCUs have of the needs of the students they serve,” says Shelton, “and using that expertise to approve, monitor, and evaluate charter schools, HBCU authorizers could create opportunities for new school models, deepen the understanding of the needs of Black communities, and shift the conversation around non-traditional efforts in education.”

Yet, with all these potential benefits, only 12 states allow for HEI authorizers, and according to our records, there are no HBCUs and very few technical colleges operating as authorizers. NACSA encourages states to think about how HEIs might improve their authorizing and charter sectors and consider adjusting their policy language to foster high-quality HEI authorizing.


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