Charter school accountability treads a narrow path, seeking to protect students without stifling educators. On one hand, accountability for outcomes has always been central to the charter school model. On the other, it’s all too easy for “accountability” to turn into the box-checking, red tape, and one-size-fits-all directives that frustrate district schools and sparked the creation of charter schooling in the first place.

Authorizers are the folks charged with giving schools the “charter” that lets them open — and shutting them down when circumstances require. But the role of the nation’s thousand-plus authorizers has been contentious: They’ve been blasted as agents of smothering bureaucracy and criticized as absentee landlords who turn a blind eye to mediocre schools.

On the whole, though, the evidence suggests that most are doing an impressive job of meeting the needs of families hungry for better options. That lends a special poignancy to concerns that some charter authorizers have created mountains of paperwork and adopted intrusive oversight, which threatens to make charters look more and more like traditional district schools.

In 2013, new charter school openings peaked at 642, up more than 7 percent year over year. By 2016, just half that many new charters opened — despite hundreds of thousands of families stuck on charter school wait lists. Notably, the slowdown isn’t due to more applicants being rejected — as the approval rate for new schools has consistently hovered around 35 percent. Rather, it’s due to fewer new school applications being submitted at all.

Effective authorizers exhibit a purposeful commitment to creating and maintaining a robust portfolio of high-performing schools. Taking authorizing seriously means eschewing checklists and bureaucratic routines in favor of reflective, responsive, and purposeful oversight. The bottom line is that authorizers can better negotiate the tricky balance between accountability and autonomy.

Read the full article about the challenge of charter schools by Frederick Hess and Amy Cummings at AEI.