At the heart of the charter school movement is the idea is that public education can and should continuously improve. This improvement can be seen through the new, innovative public schools that have emerged in the 45 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have embraced the charter school vision.

In Michigan, for example, students learn in schools where they also fly airplanes, steward the environment, take classes in museums, and enroll in college early. These schools improve results for the kids who are enrolled in them while, at the same time, catalyzing a positive paradigm shift in the public education system.

Simply put, the current education environment allows more people and organizations to contribute to public education than in the past. Today, a group of good citizens with a promising vision for a new public school can bring one to their community through these partnerships, whereas 30 years ago, it was unimaginable. Charter school authorizers regulate these partnerships.

Authorizers are now partnering with Cognia to work together to improve authorizing. Cognia is bringing core principles of inclusion, partnership, and its expertise in continuous improvement to improve student outcomes for authorizers.

Streamlining the Reauthorization Workload

Authorizers—the public agencies that review charter applications, oversee charter schools’ performance, and hold charter schools accountable for fulfilling their promises. In many ways, authorizers are the stewards of the charter school community. Most are small agencies that usually charter five or fewer schools, but there are also a few larger authorizers, like Grand Valley State University, that oversee dozens of public schools. In every instance, the enhanced oversight duties placed upon an authorizer leads to relationships with the schools in its portfolio that are closer than the relationships that traditional bureaucracies—like a state department of education—can ever offer.

Determining whether a charter school’s charter will be renewed is one of an authorizer’s most important responsibilities. The process is laborious and rigorous. It includes document reviews, onsite visits, and subsequent debriefings – all of which takes an enormous amount of time and effort. Delivering the type of oversight that the public expects necessitates authorizers continuously looking at new ways to approach their work. Many are turning to partner organizations to help magnify their impact.

Delivering the type of oversight that the public expects necessitates authorizers continuously looking at new ways to approach their work. Many are turning to partner organizations to help magnify their impact.

Choosing The Right Partner 

When considering potential partners, authorizers should look for one with experience and credibility in the field of regulatory oversight and continuous improvement. Credible partners garner respect from schools and make it easier to participate in the regulatory process.

Grand Valley State University chose Cognia because the non-profit, nongovernmental organization focuses on continuous improvement for schools across the globe. For more than 125 years, Cognia’s work has been to review schools’ systems and procedures and accredit them if they have the right things in place to position them for continuous improvement. This work is aligned with the reviews that authorizers conduct to evaluate a school at the end of its charter contract to determine if it has the capacity to improve its results for kids during the subsequent term of its charter.

These two processes are a natural fit between organizations with shared values and high standards. They also set the foundation for a thoughtful, ground-breaking alignment of authorizers’ and their partner’s standards.

Building A Culture of Improvement

Our new partnership will involve GVSU relying on Cognia’s accreditation reports to lessen the administrative burden on schools, beginning with schools in the GVSU portfolio whose charter contracts expire at the end of this school year.

School leaders, especially at smaller independent schools, have told GVSU that they love the feedback and recommendations they receive from the reauthorization process—it helps them improve their administration and instruction. With this partnership with Cognia, schools will go through the process once and obtain feedback from two organizations on what they’re doing well and how to improve. Cognia’s detailed feedback on systems and operations will help schools continuously improve and deliver actionable suggestions for improving the “nuts and bolts” of school operation.

This approach is a win-win-win-win.

It’s a win for the authorizers because they can devote more evaluation to the classroom and stakeholders’ contributions because of Cognia’s assurance that core systems and procedures are in place. It’s a win for school leaders who can spend less time on administrative tasks like gathering and submitting documents for review.  Because accreditation is one part, but not the only part, of a continuous improvement process, it is a win for taxpayers because it catalyzes the types of improvements they should expect in public schools. And, most importantly, it is a win for kids because of the increased time and attention that this allows the adults in the building to spend on academic performance.

Aligning processes with the right partner will allow small authorizers to access the same services as bigger ones, eliminating the need to develop systems and procedures in house. New authorizers can get up-and-running faster through such partnerships, allowing them to quickly implement the charter idea in their state in a way that gives the public confidence.

It’s the next improvement in oversight of public education, and one that we are proud to lead.

Don Cooper
Don Cooper is the assistant vice president for charter schools at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since 2015, Grand Valley State University has been a Cognia Accredited Charter School Authorizer.