A Sea Change at the State Education Department

The State Education Department has always had the power to authorize charter schoolsÖ but for the past decade, the role of “quality authorizer” has been played mostly by SUNY and here in the City, by the Chancellor’s office. But in issuing its Request for Proposals (RFP) todayóa process mandated under the new Charter School lawóI’m happy to see the State Ed Department is finally acting like an authorizer and wants to be a part of building up NY’s reputation as a model charter sector.

While there are surely improvements still to make, e.g., applicants still must spend time on figuring out how to integrate family and consumer science into curriculumsóa distraction when there is so much work to be done with core subjects, anyone who cares about chartering as a way of creating great public schools should applaud changes like these:

For the first time, SED will interview all applicant teams in person. That interview is one of the most critical steps in the application process, allowing SED to meet the people behind the written application and evaluate their capacity for carrying it out.

The pointless, time-consuming “curriculum crosswalk” is gone. For years, SED has required charter school planning teams to spend 500 pages plotting the curriculum of each grade against state standardsóbefore most had even hired a curriculum coordinator. It was a tedious and expensive exercise in copying and pasting that had nothing to do with actual school quality, made worse by what came next: weeks of line-by-line quibbling from a rotating cast of bureaucrats. Actual alignment to standards is critical, but this tree-destruction ritual had nothing to do with it.

Planning teams have time toÖ plan. For example, in the past, SED required planning teams to submit a human resource handbook as part of the charter application. While this is a critical document for running a school, that was like asking cooks to serve dinner before they had even bought the ingredients. Now planning teams can thoughtfully build such policies once the key actors are in place, instead of blindly assembling something to check a box on the application.

There are realistic requirements for facilities. In the absence of state funding for charter school facilities, finding a space is a difficult task. In the past, SED demanded that planning teams identify a facility before being approved to operate; now they just have to show they have the capacity to locate a school site.

In sum, the RFP shows SED’s new seriousness about authorizing high-quality charter schools. Its focus has shifted from paper shuffling and check lists to looking carefully at whether a group has a high likelihood of success. SED’s standards for authorization are also going up so planning teams will have to meet a higher bar for approval.

None of this should come as a surprise. Sally Bachofer, the director of the Office of Innovation at SED (who undoubtedly has spent her July toiling on this) and Senior Deputy Commissioner King (who knows something about what it takes to run a great public school) are committed to having SED be a quality authorizer. Sally did this work in Massachusetts and across the country for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers; she has earned a reputation for toughness.

Even so, the quick results are still somewhat shocking to those of us who battled with the behemoth from the outsideófor eleven years in my case.

The timing of these reforms is good also. While not a game-changer, an RFP likes this tells the federal government that SED and New York State are serious about maintaining a high-quality charter sectoróand that can only help us at decision time in the Race to the Top.