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New York state plans overhaul to its charter authorizing process

State education officials want to raise the bar for charter schools and they’re looking to outsource some of the work to create and carry out the new standards.

In particular, the State Education Department, one of two charter school authorizers in New York, is hoping that consultants will help create a process for reviewing schools up for renewal. Insiders say that the lack of a formal review process is one reason the office has never closed a charter school due purely to low performance in its 12-year history, even when some schools have struggled mightily.

The cost of the contract is small, but its scope covers an unusually broad range of responsibilities compared nationally to other authorizers that have used consultants. It comes amid a change in leadership in the office that oversees the department’s charter school portfolio, which has expanded rapidly in recent years.

The Board of Regents is one of two bodies that legally authorizes and renews charter schools in New York State. The board has closed six schools in its 12-year history, mostly due to financial and organizational mismanagement. The lone school it is trying to close for low academic performance, Pinnacle Charter School in Buffalo, is in a legal battle to stay open.

The other New York authorizer, the SUNY Charter School Institute, is nationally acclaimed and is seen as possessing greater autonomy and exercising stronger oversight carrying out its authorizing responsibilities, which include reviewing applications, visiting schools, and deciding whether charters should be renewed. SUNY CSI has not renewed nine charter schools and restructured one other school since it began authorizing in 1999.

Starting in 2010, the Board of Regents has been working to mimic more of SUNY CSI’s practices. The board hired a former charter school director, John King, to run the state’s schools, and King in turn hired two experienced authorizers from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Massachusetts Department of Education to ramp up New York’s charter schools office.

Since then, the office has authorized more than 20 charter schools, nearly doubling its portfolio.

Now, after two years of tightening its internal operations, the office is moving to expand its practices with the help of external consultants. This summer, the department took bids for a four-year consulting contract to review 80 charter applications, help interview 20 applicants, and participate in 34 school visits.

Whoever wins the contract will also have a hand in helping craft the Charter School Office’s new vision for school evaluation. The request for proposals has set aside 100 hours in work for the consultant to develop protocols for school evaluation.

It’s not unusual for educational institutions to delegate evaluation work to private consultants. Cambridge Education visited more than 1,000 New York City Department of Education schools when the city first began publishing “quality reviews” of schools’ internal organization. Schoolworks, an organization that has submitted a bid to the state, used to do reviews for Chicago Public Schools. And the National Association of Charter School Authorizers reviews and recommends applications in New Orleans.

“It’s an efficient and flexible way to add chartering expertise and capacity,” said Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association, an advocacy group that works closely with the authorizers.

But usually the consulting happens in piecemeal fashion, and national authorizers who saw the request for proposals said the broad scope of services that New York was farming out was uncommon.

“To outsource the full monty in one contract is pretty unusual,” said an experienced authorizer in another state. “It seems like they’re outsourcing the entire charter office and that is not normal.”

SED officials said the annual cost of the contract is small and is designed to provide supplemental support to work that the current staff is already doing.

“The RFP is for a modestly priced contract to provide external quality review of charters,” said spokesman Dennis Tompkins. “It is not supplanting our charter office.”

SUNY CSI used to contract with Schoolworks but has used other consultants on a smaller scale in recent years, according to Executive Director Susie Miller Barker.

The department’s charter schools will be judged primarily on student performance outcomes, as opposed to compliance guidelines, according to a memo that will be presented to the Board of Regents at their monthly meeting next week. It’s a shift that brings the office more into line with the ideological underpinnings of the charter school movement.

William Haft, vice president for authorizer development at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said his organization did not submit a bid because it does not perform school visits. Focusing on academic outcomes is more important, he said.

“It’s absolutely necessary for authorizers to know what is happening in schools, but school performance is not ultimately about what a school looks or feels like on a given day,” Haft said.

The changes come at a time of transition for the charter school office. Cliff Chuang, the charter office’s director for nearly two years, announced this week that he was leaving New York to become assistant commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Assistant Commissioner Sally Bachofer told colleagues in an email that she’s searching for Chuang’s replacement and would not limit the job to candidates living in Albany.

“The Department prefers that the position be based in Albany, but this is not a deal-breaker for an awesome candidate,” Bachofer wrote.

NACSA’s Haft said that ultimately, he didn’t believe that authorizers should enter into long-term business with consultants and should eventually bring their services in-house.

“Our goal as the consultant is to help our clients build their own capacity to do the work,” he said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the education department’s charter school authorization and closure history. The authorizer has not closed any schools due to low academic performance, but has closed six schools for other reasons. The authorizer has also authorized 20 charter schools since 2010, not 50.

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