Authorizing Schools in the Open System

This post is a guest column by Chris Dewitt.  If you are interested in writing a guest column on the blog, email us here

What would new school authorizing look like in the Open System?

“Authorizing” is the set of processes by which new schools are evaluated according to standardized criteria and eventually approved or denied by the Board of Education.  (The specifics vary a bit from state to state and authorizer to authorizer, but the process is essentially the same.)  In DPS, the same criteria and evaluation process is used for both charter and district-run schools.

Chris DeWitt

Chris DeWitt

I oversaw this process for three years until June 2017.  Our work was based mostly on a publicly available rubric to establish a standard “Quality Bar”— if an applicant can meet or exceed the quality bar, the theory goes, it will be most likely be a high quality school.

One benefit to having a centrally-determined rubric and rigorous review process for determining school quality, authorizers can be relatively confident that new schools will be high quality options for families once they open.

However, far from creating an Open System, our strategies to engage with community members to see first hand what individuals directly impacted by new schools wanted, often regrettably served a compliance function rather than lead to any shared power.

What would new school authorizing look like in the Open System?

In thinking through this question, we must consider the current state.  Authorizers pushing for an open system will need to consider the following dilemmas:

1.     Authorizer vs. Community Definitions of Quality: Authorizing can sometimes seem like an Ivory Tower. Indeed, I think authorizers sometimes see themselves as a Tolkien-esque Keeper of the Quality Bar. However, affected kids and families don’t always the same thing in a school. How do they quality? How is the “Quality Bar” responsive to those definitions? What would authorizers keep, change, and remove from their considerations?

2.     Operator Autonomy vs. Community-Designed Schools: On of the guiding principles of authorizing is school autonomy, so authorizers generally leave it up to applicants to decide what type of schools they would like to open. Applicants do have to show evidence of community support and demand, but often the question is “Do you want this school?” and not “What type of school do you want?” How can authorizers respect school autonomy while incentivizing community collaboration?

3.     Track Record of Success vs. New models: Schools tend to look suspiciously similar under the current model. Once a “quality bar” is established, and schools that have been authorized using these criteria have built a track record of success according to the accountability system in place, it’s very difficult for a school to be seen as “quality” if it doesn’t fit into the typical mold.  This may limit new schools to only safer bets, but it also puts constraints on the marketplace— new schools that could be a great fit for kids have trouble meeting the same quality bar established for existing, high performing schools not because they’re inferior, but possibly because they don’t look like the current high quality schools.

What dilemmas emerge for you when thinking through the complex work of new school authorizing? What would you like to see in a process designed to approve new schools?