CharterFolk Contributors Naomi Rubin DeVeaux and Dr. Jim Goenner – Bringing Our A-GAME to the “Next Practices” of Authorizing Excellence

Good day, CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to share a Contributor Column from Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, Partner at the National Charter Schools Institute, and Dr. Jim Goenner, President and CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute.

We provide bios for Naomi and Jim below.

Dedicated to serving families through quality public school choice, throughout her career, Naomi Rubin DeVeaux seeks to publish transparent and actionable school performance information. She has held leadership positions in authorizing agencies, charter support organizations, served on school boards, and taught in public schools. Naomi is a partner with the National Charter Schools Institute, where she works in authorizing, school governance and academic oversight. Naomi previously served as the Deputy Director of the DC Public Charter School Board, where she developed an innovative suite of school evaluation tools. She was previously the Deputy Director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. She began her career in education as a high school English and literacy teacher at district and charter schools. She is vice chair of the DC Bilingual Public Charter School board and a two-term board member of Education Board Partners (formerly Charter Board Partners). She is a member of the Coalition of Learner Equity, a NACSA coach, a Pahara – Aspen education leader, and began her teaching career as a Fulbright scholar in Germany.

Dr. Jim Goenner is a champion for excellence and a member of the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame. He is on a mission to change the arc of education. Jim sees chartering as a powerful strategy for challenging the givens and an opportunity to create the conditions where innovation and excellence can thrive.  Jim currently serves as the President & CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the charter schools movement and equipping schools, boards and authorizers with the ideas, tools and resources they need to win for kids.  Prior to joining the Institute, Jim led Central Michigan University’s chartering efforts, making CMU the nation’s first and largest university authorizer of charter public schools. Under his leadership, CMU became known as the “gold standard” for charter school authorizing, earning recognition from both the U.S. and Michigan Departments of Education.  As a movement builder, Jim helped found the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers. He also helped found and led the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which continues to serve as the unified voice of Michigan’s charter schools movement.  Jim has testified before numerous policymaking bodies, including the United States Congress, and was invited by the U.S. Department of Education to serve on the advisory board of the National Charter Schools Resource Center. He has received gubernatorial appointments from Michigan Governors John Engler and Jennifer Granholm. Jim presently serves on the board of the Charter Schools Development Corporation, which specializes in helping charter schools with facilities financing. And he serves as a Blue-Ribbon Panel Judge for the prestigious Yass Prize.  Jim earned his doctorate in educational administration from Michigan State University and is the proud father of seven children and two grandchildren.

Bringing Our A-GAME to the “Next Practices” of Authorizing Excellence

Since the dawn of chartering in the 1990s, policymakers, educators, and authorizers have been trying to find the right balance of innovation, flexibility, and accountability.

Ideal for soundbites and bumper stickers, these three buzzwords are constantly bandied about by CharterFolk – and for good reason.

But as with most soundbites, there is much more to the story. Determining exactly what innovation, flexibility, and accountability mean – especially when making high-stakes decisions – is a greater challenge in practice than it sounds in theoretical policy debates and conference presentations. And as early charter policy wonks will tell you, state laws give little direction to the hands-on work necessary to effectively implement them.

That’s why finding and upholding the right balance in practice has largely fallen on the shoulders of those who authorize and oversee charter public schools. Having played key leadership roles with two of the early leaders in authorizing – Central Michigan University and the DC Public Charter Schools Board – and the formation of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, we’ve witnessed firsthand the competing and conflicting pressures authorizers face. In short, it’s the fabulously paradoxical notion of “regulating freedom.”

Real schools – with real kids, families, teachers, and communities depending on them – require more definition and detail than a soundbite will ever provide. With real lives and real futures on the line, it’s only fair that all concerned know the process and substance of how and what they will be measured against. That’s why proactive and competent authorizing is essential.

The decisions authorizers make carry serious and lasting consequences. To wit:

  1. Deciding who gets to open a public school, enroll students, and, ergo, spend public money.
  2. Deciding who gets permission to grow and expand.
  3. Deciding who gets their charter renewed, and for how long.
  4. Deciding when to intervene, and when a school should be closed.

You’ll often hear authorizers discuss the profound responsibility inherent in their work. It’s true. Authorizing is a catalyst for improving education for kids and families and for creating the dynamics that make the educational ecosystem work better for all. State laws bestow authorizers with substantial power, including the power to oversee the board members and school leaders authorized to govern and run charter schools. The success of this relationship directly impacts the lives and futures of kids and the hopes and dreams of their families.

Three decades in, there still is no simple formula for making these decisions. Nor should there be. These are weighty matters that require considerable thought, deliberation, and professional judgement.

The good news is that there is a robust community of changemakers, called the A-GAME, that is thinking deeply about these matters and developing better solutions. Let us explain.

In 2017, our team at the National Charter Schools Institute teamed up with Jim Griffin and Dr. Jody Ernst of Momentum Strategy and Research to submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Education for a Quality Charter School Programs (CSP) National Dissemination Grant. To our delight, our proposal was funded, and we launched the A-GAME Community of Changemakers with 15 authorizers who were willing to challenge conventional thinking and focus on measuring the things that truly matter.

Our first goal was to create a valid and reliable accountability model for alternative education campuses. We knew the conventional one-size-fits-all model relied too heavily on standardized test scores and graduation rates. We were concerned that when the rubber-meets-the-road, those metrics were going to have a disparate impact on the non-traditional (and often older) students being reengaged by these schools.

After the global pandemic, others became more interested in holistic and responsive approaches to measuring school quality that considered the whole child. In 2022, we applied and received another CSP grant, this time joining forces with Dr. Aimee Evan at WestEd, bringing her research on the importance of early intervention to prevent school closure. Today, A-GAME is a diverse and growing Community of Changemakers involving schools, boards, authorizers, associations, facility financiers and more.

Typical of CharterFolk, there are lots of different opinions and perspectives, but we are united on purpose. And that purpose is pushing beyond the one-size-fits-all mindsets and finding ways to measure what  truly matters – including  student engagement, learning and well-being. We believe all kids deserve access to the kinds of schools that best meets their needs. We do not believe we can regulate our way to excellence. Or that closure should be the only strategy for dealing with underperforming schools.

Working together, we believe the next generation of practices will better balance and respect the dual nature of charter accountability: (1) to a marketplace, where parents have diverse educational options for their kids, and (2) to the requirements of being a public entity worthy of taxpayer funding.

If this is the type of real and meaningful conversation you’ve been longing for, consider yourself invited to our 3rd Annual A-GAME Convening taking place in Chicago, May 2-3, 2024. (Info and registration here 2024 Winter & Spring A-GAME Convenings – National Charter Schools Institute).

This will not be your usual conference with pithy panels and slick presentations about the latest headlines. It will be dynamic, thought provoking and yes, purposefully disruptive.

This is good. These are hard ideas that need to be rassled with. Both intended and unintended consequences need to be thought through.

The outcome should be “next practices” – future looking to what we need to start doing. They’re not “best practices,” a term that suggests we figured it out and will keep doing tomorrow what worked nicely yesterday.

There is so much more to imagine, learn, and invent in our mutual quest to support student learning and measure mission and impact, without giving ground on the need for rigorous accountability. And yes, closing schools when necessary.

That’s why we are encouraging everyone to get on their A-GAME. Be proactive, take responsibility, and help schools succeed for kids, rather than being reactive, wringing our hands, and watching schools suffer through the death spiral.

We understand it’s safer and easier to simply compare standardized test scores and apply one-size-fits-all frameworks. That’s what the status quo does. But that’s the wrong thing to do for students, families, and educators looking for schools that are different by design. And it doesn’t align with the vision and spirit of CharterFolk. It’s the cheap way out.

We can revert to…bureaucracy. We’ve got a built-in excuse with the seemingly never ending “regulatory creep” coming from the federal and state levels, which is burdening and distracting schools, boards, and authorizers from the real work of educating kids. But we’re CharterFolk and we don’t make excuses. We make change.

Determining and implementing the right blend of market forces and public stewardship will not be easy. But like JFK said when challenging the U.S. to get to the moon, we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Let’s go CharterFolk. It’s time to get back to our roots, challenge conventional thinking and create new solutions that will allow us to fulfill our promises to students, families, educators, and taxpayers. And avoid becoming like the very system we were created to be an alternative to.

Naomi Rubin DeVeaux is a Partner and Jim Goenner is the President & CEO of the National Charter Schools Institute.