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Charter schools: State Board of Ed approves non-mandatory standards for authorizers

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Update: The State Board of Education has approved new standards for charter school authorizers -- the school districts and one quasi-state agency that approve new charter schools. But the standards aren't mandatory. As the Colorado Department of Education's Amy Anderson tell us, state board members classified them as "guiding principles" instead.

What's the difference? To prevent the strangulation of innovation, the standards will be used to "inform decisions" about which schools to authorize and which to reject. But there will be no sanctions if districts, the state agency or the state board deviate from the rules, Anderson says.

Click to see the new standards, and read our earlier coverage below.

Original item, January 10, 3:23 p.m.: It's a case of, who's watching the watchdog? Tomorrow, the State Board of Education will consider the first-ever standards for charter school authorizers, the school districts -- and one quasi-state agency -- that approve and keep tabs on Colorado's charter schools. Why are the standards needed? Jim Griffin, the president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, uses a baby-making analogy to explain.

"Just because you can procreate, that doesn't make you a good parent," he says. "Just because you're an authorizer doesn't mean you're going to do it well."

Or willingly. Colorado, and other states, have a history of local school districts rejecting charter schools because, among other worries, they're afraid the autonomous public schools will siphon money and students from the traditional schools.

The need for good authorizers has become plain in the decades since charter schools made their debut in Colorado, Griffin says. Situations like that involving the Cesar Chavez School Network make it even plainer, some say. In 2010, a state audit showed that leaders of the charter school network squandered taxpayer money, overcompensated senior staff and engaged in nepotism. In 2010, state lawmakers passed a bill that created a committee to come up with a set of standards for the agencies that green-light charter schools. The bill was partly in response to the scandal, says Amy Anderson, the assistant commissioner of innovation and choice for the Colorado Department of Education.

The Cesar Chavez School Network scandal isn't the only one. Last month, Westword detailed the struggles of the Charter School Institute, the quasi-state agency created in 2004 to authorize charter schools when ornery districts refused, and of one of its schools. Former parents and teachers say the leader of the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy in Westminster rules with an iron fist, and one ex-teacher has filed a lawsuit against him.

The Charter School and Charter School Authorizer Standards Committee (what a mouthful!) met for nearly a year. In August, it produced a final report with recommendations for new standards, as well as ethics and non-discrimination policies. Tomorrow, the State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed standards.

But if they're approved, they won't be mandatory. Instead, the standards will occupy a gray area between good advice and state law. One of the hallmarks of a good authorizer is "intelligent flexibility," Griffin maintains. "There are commonalities across good authorizers, coast to coast. But just as soon as you identify one of those commonalities and say, 'That's the way it has to be,' someone will walk up and show there's an exception to that rule." Especially in Colorado, where, Griffin adds, nearly every school district -- no matter how tiny or far-flung -- can authorize charter schools.

But Griffin and Anderson would like school districts take the standards to heart. "I hope they will want to take a look at them and think about what practices and policies they already have in place...and in what areas they might need support," Anderson says.

More from our Education archives: "Charter School Institute adds ninth board member: Liz Aybar, former principal at P.S.1."

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