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New charter rules focus on community, more changes on way

People who aim to open charter schools will now have to prove that they have support from their community. They’ll also need a plan to attract and retain needy students.

Those are the two biggest changes among a slew of new requirements for charter school applicants that officials at the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute say will focus their attention on schools’ plans to serve needier students. But the new chartering process also retains many elements of the old one, officials said today.

The new process is an addition born from the new state law that more than doubled the number of charter schools allowed in the state. Rather than simply applying for a charter, prospective school leaders must now respond to criteria issued by one of the state’s two main authorizers in the form of a Request for Proposals. SUNY’s draft documents are up for just over a week of public comment before being finalized early next month.

In addition to the new requirements, charter authorizers now have to rank applications based on a new criteria. But Charter School Institute director Jonas Chartock said that it is unlikely to fundamentally change the core commitments of its review process. The institute’s process has been nationally recognized for weeding out weak applications.

“We’re pretty tough already, and we don’t foresee the RFP process really forcing us to change the rigor or high expectations that we have for schools,” Chartock said. “It adds a degree of complexity, but that’s about it.”

The draft RFP does introduce a new rubric for ranking applications by how well they meet each of the state law’s criteria. But those rankings will be used only if the number of applications that SUNY wants to approve exceeds the number of charters available to grant, a scenario that Chartock says is unlikely to occur any time soon.

The rubric system also means that prospective charter school leaders won’t be disqualified if they don’t meet every one of the new criteria.

“In other words, we don’t restrict somebody from applying if they don’t do some of those things, but those that do are given preference,” Chartock said.

One major piece still missing from the draft is specific guidance on how many special education students and students learning English charter schools will need to enroll in order to meet the requirements of the new law. The institute is still in the process of figuring that out, but the targets will be in place when charters are issued, Chartock said.

The draft RFP that SUNY released today was created in a hurry. Between when the law was passed in May and when prospective charter school leaders must submit their applications, there is only two and a half months.

The madcap schedule means that Chartock anticipates that relatively few applicants will be able to meet all of the requirements this round. It also means that it is likely that the institute’s next RFP, which it will issue next year, will be significantly different than this version.

“This is a pretty expedited timeline,” said Chartock. “We will be improving on this process greatly using the time between now and January, when the next RFP comes out.”

The state education department, the other main charter school authorizer, is currently developing its own Request for Proposals and plans to issue it on Aug. 2, when SUNY also issues its final draft. Unlike SUNY, the state is taking public suggestions as it develops the RFP documents rather than asking the public to respond to a draft, an education department spokesman said. SUNY will hold a public hearing on its draft next week.

UPDATE: This post originally incorrectly implied that the new RFP included few substantive changes to the charter authorizing process, and has been updated for clarification.

Here is SUNY’s draft Request for Proposals in full:

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