How Florida can improve charter school authorizing

Florida scores fairly well in a new-first-of-its kind report on charter school authorizing that’s worth a look for anyone concerned about the quality of the state’s charter schools.

The takeaway: Florida’s constitution may be preventing the state from passing the best-possible charter policy, but the state could still be doing more to help improve the quality of charter school supervision.

The report, released last week by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers looks at states’ policies for charter school authorizing – that is, the process for approving new schools, and then monitoring their performance and holding them accountable.

The group ranks Florida third of 17 states where school districts are the main authorizers of charter schools. The state gets good marks for its law such as a requirement that charters receiving two consecutive F’s from the state must close. And the report praises the Florida Department of Education for this year developing a set of authorizing standards.

Still, it’s worth unpacking why Florida doesn’t score as well as South Carolina, the highest-scoring state in Florida’s category. One key advantage: South Carolina has a state-run board that can authorize charter schools, meaning hopeful charters have a route to opening that doesn’t run through the local school board.

When there’s an alternative authorizer in place, good schools can open even if a local district wants to keep them out. It then becomes more feasible for the state to crack down on authorizers that allow too many poor schools to open.

If there’s only one authorizer, threatening to strip its authorizing authority would mean shutting the door to new charters. As the report notes, “the absence of a quality authorizer in any jurisdiction can make the rest of the policies less important.”

Florida lawmakers have tried to create a statewide charter school authorizer before, but they’ve been stymied in court because the state constitution gives districts the power to supervise all free public schools within their jurisdiction. As a result, “NACSA encourages Florida to revise its charter application appeals process to allow the appellate body to serve as the authorizer on appeal or to explore possible constitutional changes to allow a non-district alternative authorizer to do so.”

But at a time when charters and districts alike are anxious about improving quality and stopping bad charters from opening, the report says the state can make some improvements without a constitutional change.

Florida policymakers, the report says, should look for ways to improve scrutiny of charter schools during the application process (what the report called “front-end charter school screening”) and before their contracts come up for renewal (what the report calls “term-length oversight).”

The state could also start evaluating the quality of charter school authorizing in individual districts, and publishing information on the performance of the charters each district approves.