Expanding Equity and Access in State-Authorized Charter Schools

Expanding Equity and Access in State-Authorized Charter Schools

Ryan Marks, Clare Vickland
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4093-0.ch004
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Charter schools are founded on principles of autonomy, accountability, and parent and family choice. Charter school authorizers occupy a unique space at the nexus of these ideas, which allows them to take an active role to drive change to improve access and equity in schools. This chapter describes how one charter school authorizer planned for and implemented a successful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative. The case study specifically outlines the approach of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI) in implementing equity audits to leverage data to build relationships and supports. Though the concept of analyzing equity data is not novel, the partnership approach employed by CSI to support, rather than evaluate, schools is uncommon. This approach has led to improvements in student outcomes and an increase in equity across the portfolio and can be applied by practitioners across many contexts, including district schools, nonprofits, and corporations seeking to improve both access and equity for diverse populations.
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Charter Schools and Charter Authorizers

Charter schools have operated in the United States since the first state charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. As of 2020, 43 states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools (“About Charter Schools”, n.d.). Charter schools are independently-run public schools that are open to all students. These schools operate under a contract – often referred to as the charter – that outlines the fundamental promises the school makes to families and taxpayers. Executed between the charter school and the charter authorizer, the charter details the autonomy-accountability bargain – that is, charter schools are given increased operational control (e.g. autonomy over budgeting and staffing) and academic flexibility (e.g. school model and curriculum) in exchange for performance and compliance expectations set by the authorizer (which are the same, if not higher, than those of other public schools) (Hill, Lake, & Celio, 2002). While charter school law does vary by state, these broad premises are largely applicable to all charter schools in the United States. Charter authorizers, the oversight body responsible for the overall performance and compliance of the charter school, set academic, financial, and operational expectations for those schools and monitor school performance. Authorizers play a critical role in ensuring that charter schools provide high-quality education that meet student needs, effectively utilize the flexibilities provided under the charter contract, and comply with state and federal law.

Charter authorizers have long focused on navigating the nuances of the autonomy-accountability bargain. While research has explored the efficacy of charter schools (e.g. Raymond et al., 2013), charter school quality varies. While many factors contribute to a school’s success, one area that has not yet been fully explored is the role of the authorizer. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) recently completed a study examining authorizer practices associated with high-quality school portfolios. The study noted that authorizers with high-quality portfolios do more than enforce compliance - they build relationships with schools outside of the traditional accountability process and offer supports that respect and protect the autonomy of the school. Support is a part of the authorizer's role and quality authorizers provide “structured, cyclical opportunities for staff reflection and self-critique on practices and systems” (NACSA QPP, 2018, p. 12). Equity audits may be one way to fulfill this role and build relationships outside of traditional accountability structures.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Indicator: Measures used to evaluate performance and monitor change over time.

Screener: A brief assessment tool used to identify potential areas of concern. A screening tool is often used to provide an overview of many areas and can help determine where more specialized assessments should be employed.

Authorizer: The oversight body responsible for the overall performance and compliance of the charter school.

Growth: A measure of academic progress from year to year based on academic standards.

Discipline Rate: A measure of the number of unduplicated students receiving a disciplinary action (for example, in-school suspension) divided by the total unduplicated student count.

Equity Audit: A set of key indicators used to provide a systematic method for analyzing a system to determine levels of equity within an organization.

Case Manager: The organization staff member who leads the equity and inclusion work with schools as a result of the Screener. This person coordinates CSI personnel needed to support the work and schedules meetings with the school to document and monitor.

Completion Rate: A measure of the rate at which students complete the high school program. This includes students earning a regular diploma, non-diploma certificate, or High School Equivalency Diploma.

Enrollment Stability: A measure of continuous enrollment during the school year. Students are continuously enrolled if they remain enrolled throughout the school year.

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