Best Practices in Evaluating Charter Applications
Transparent and Evidence-Based Decision Making
As the approval or denial of a charter school is a weighty decision that impacts the lives of students and families, the stakes of this decision-making process are inherently high. In order to fulfill this function successfully, charter school authorizers must consider several factors, including what to request in the charter application, how to facilitate a charter application review process, and how to make sound recommendations rooted in evidence.
The Charter Application Process
In general, charter applications are comprised of a series of prompts designed to yield information the authorizer will need to effectively evaluate the capacity of the proposed school’s founding team. Questions are typically organized into five main areas – mission, academics, operations, finance, and evidence of demand.
At the outset of the application process, many authorizers require applicant groups to participate in information sessions, submit a letter of intent, and/or submit a prospectus prior to submitting the full application. The purpose of these initial steps is to allow authorizers to transparently share expectations for the application process, and help authorizers get an initial sense of how many applicant groups intend to apply.
The application itself (typically 70-100 pages in length) is compiled, written, and submitted by the founding group in response to the defined prompts. In most cases, authorizers stipulate document formatting requirements and/or submission instructions for the application. These parameters ensure that each applicant has an equal opportunity to present information pertaining to their application, and put reasonable limitations on the volume of materials authorizers will need to review.
After applications are submitted, some authorizers mandate that qualifying applicants take part in a capacity interview, which may include a performance task. In general, all of the pre-application requirements, submission requirements, and post-submission requirements with associated timelines should be posted on the authorizer’s website to ensure access.
Facilitating the Application Review Process
To ensure a seamless process, SchoolWorks recommends that authorizers develop evaluation criteria for the review of new school applications that are aligned to the criteria for school renewal. Once evaluation criteria have been defined, it is advisable to incorporate them into a rubric that application reviewers can use to interpret and rate each applicant’s proposal. Rubrics typically include the evaluation criteria along with spaces for evaluative comments and ratings. Authorizers employ different methods of ratings, such as “meets, partially meets, or does not meet” the indicator or numerical ratings such as a scale of one to four, with a “1” rating designating that the response “does not meet” the indicator and a “4” rating designating that the response “meets and exceeds” the indicator.
The Review Team
Application review teams typically include individuals who have experience working in or with charter schools. Technical expertise (in specific school models, budgeting, human resources, operations, and other areas) should also be considered. Some authorizers are able to utilize internal reviewers, while others use a mix of internal and external (or contracted) reviewers.
Best practice dictates that all reviewers are trained annually in the evaluation criteria and engage in calibration exercises to help ensure consistent evaluation of applications and adherence to established protocols. To further build consistency among reviews, it is advisable to provide application reviewers with detailed guidance. A typical guidance document articulates specific details describing and clarifying information is expected for and satisfies review criteria.
If the review process includes a capacity interview, the evaluation protocol should also describe this process for reviewers. Typically, review teams meet prior to each capacity interview in order to customize interview questions based on the initial review of submitted materials. If the process incorporates a performance task, it is advisable to set parameters to evaluate or rate the applicant team’s response.
Strong evaluation processes incorporate multiple reviewers to achieve consensus on each application. For example, an application may be reviewed by a team of three including 1) a primary reviewer, 2) a secondary reviewer, and 3) a financial reviewer. This process could be executed as follows:
- Training: In advance of the initial review, all four team members participate in a training to gain guidance in the evaluation framework and norm on rubric ratings.
- Simultaneous and Independent Application Review:
- The primary reviewer reads the application, provides rubric scores, and documents evidence.
- The secondary reviewer reads the application, provides rubric scores, and documents evidence.
- The financial reviewer reviews the financial component of the application, provides rubric scores, and documents evidence.
- Consensus Call: All reviewers participate in a consensus call to discuss ratings and evidence.
- Capacity Interview: The primary and secondary reviewers conduct a 2-hour virtual interview of the founding team, and record ratings and evidence aligned to the rubric.
- Evaluation Report Development: The primary reviewer drafts the resulting 3-5-page report with a summary, rubric ratings, and supporting evidence to inform decision-making.
All authorizers must determine a threshold for recommending approval or denial and define how these decisions will be communicated. Ideally, authorizers will generate a recommendation report for each applicant that summarizes the proposed charter school’s model, outlines all strengths and concerns, includes ratings based on the evaluation criteria, and then offers an evidence-based recommendation for denial, approval, or approval with conditions.
There are many reasons to outsource this process partially or fully. In some cases, authorizers simply do not have the capacity to evaluate the volume of applications received. A company such as SchoolWorks can provide capacity-building support by supplying reviewers that will fully adopt and execute the defined evaluation process. These outsourced review team members may subsidize the existing team, or may act as an independent extension of the authorizer’s staff. In other cases, a politically contentious environment or other factors of local context may necessitate a higher level of objectivity for the evaluation of charter school applications. In these cases, authorizers may opt to fully outsource the evaluation process, and use the evidence surfaced by the reviews to inform transparent development-making.
SchoolWorks has supported authorizing offices of varying sizes and structures in reviewing charter school applications for over a decade. If your team needs the support of qualified reviewers, or needs help designing and/or refining a high-quality application review process and tools, we’re here to help.