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Build-a-Charter

District authorizing could mean better quality, efficiency, and more control.

Ever think you could do charter schools better than the next guy, if only you were given the chance? You're not alone. And you probably already can.When Chicago Public Schools administrators Greg Richmond and John Ayers walked into an NSBA meeting 15 years ago and started talking about the advantages of districts authorizing charter schools, they were almost run out of the conference. Their arguments-that being a charter authorizer gave them flexibility, control, and financial advantages-fell on deaf ears. Charters were the competition. Districts would fight them to the death.
But a lot has changed. After years of shunning involvement with charters, more and more districts are changing their strategies. "A lot of districts have always had [authorizing] power, and more are now turning to it strategically," says Richmond, now head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. "They want to make use of all the tools they can find. They're seeing charters through a more sophisticated lens than in the 1990s."

By authorizing charters, districts give parents options, help guide the growth of the charters, make better use of resources, such as unused school buildings, and maintain control over students and funding.

Legally speaking, your district is probably already allowed to authorize. At present, of the 41 states that allow charters, seven make districts the sole authorizers. (See "By the Numbers.")

Perhaps the most well-known district authorizers are New York City and Chicago. Other districts headed down this path include Denver, L.A., Baltimore, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

The trend could continue to grow in the next few years, as districts turn to charters in their efforts to fix or replace low-performing schools under SIG and/or NCLB waivers.

Some say districts aren't the best authorizers. "Non-district authorizers are vastly better at opening and maintaining quality schools," says the Center on Education Reform's Jeanne Allen.

Richmond disagrees. He says there's no conclusive evidence that charters authorized by school districts perform better or worse. The key factor is how well authorizers do their job. Also, he notes that performance improves for all authorizers as they work with larger numbers of charters.

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