Authorization vs. Accreditation: A Quick Guide for New Charter Schools
Authorization vs. accreditation for charter schools — what’s the difference? Do schools need accreditation as well as authorization? In the next four minutes, you will learn the basics of both and where you can access local resources to begin your application process.
Every three to five years, charter schools undergo a thorough review process in the hopes of receiving accreditation. But what exactly is accreditation and is it important for charter schools to obtain? Before we dive into the specifics, let’s review what a charter school is and how they’ve grown over the years (or skip to our list of accreditation resources or authorization resources).
The Growth of Charter Schools Over the Years
Charter schools are semi-autonomous, tuition-free public schools. They’re open to all students, regardless of zip code, and have the liberty to design classrooms that suit the needs of their students. Charter schools are flexible with their curriculum and have the freedom of innovation while being held accountable for progressing student achievement.
Over the years, the number of charter schools across the state has steadily grown. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “Between the fall of 2009 and 2019, overall public charter school enrollment increased from 1.6 million students to 3.4 million.” An increase in charter schools may directly result in higher competition for federal and state grants.
Charter schools depend on a mix of federal and state funding. For example, Washington Charters was awarded almost $20M by the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grant. WA Charters, a statewide non-profit organization, plans to distribute 90% of these federal funds to Washington state charter schools through subgrants. Charters can also receive federal grants directly from the U.S. Department of Education through the Charter School Program Non-State Education Agency (Non-SEA) Competition.
Charter School Accreditation and Authorization Basics
Every charter school must function under a contract with a district, state, or authorizer. The contract, also known as a charter, outlines measurements for success, organization and management details, and expected student achievements. Charter schools are held responsible to the standards outlined in their contract.
It’s also important to note that charter school laws differ between states and commonly vary on multiple important factors, including:
- Who is eligible to authorize charter schools
- Mandatory certification for charter school teachers
- Accountability for student outcomes
Since charters operate under the auspices of their authorizing agency, it’s not mandatory for schools to receive accreditation. So why should charter schools go through the rigorous process of becoming accredited? In short, they are eligible for more funding opportunities.
What Is Accreditation?
Accreditation is a voluntary, non-governmental process for awarding public recognition to institutions and/or higher education programs that meet and maintain high-quality educational standards.
Schools go through the accreditation process to establish a reputable standing among educational institutions, the general public, and students. Only accrediting agencies can determine if a school has met the set criteria or standards and recognize them as accredited. For instance, a U.S. regional association can grant institutional accreditation after an extensive self-study and on-site evaluation of the institution’s programs and services. The evaluation determines if an institution qualifies for regional recognition or not.
In the United States, there are two fundamental types of educational accreditations:
- Institutional: Typically applies to the whole institution and maintains that each body of a school plays a part in the achievement of the school’s goals.
- Specialized/Programmatic: Normally applies to the evaluation of certain programs, departments, or small bodies within the institution. Specialized accreditation can be granted to a unit as large as a college or as small as a curriculum within a program of study.
Accrediting agencies are private academic associations composed of educational professionals that:
- Set operating standards for professional or educational programs and institutions.
- Decide if the established standards are met by the school.
- Announce their findings publicly via the issuance of accreditations.
- Establish evaluation criteria and conduct peer assessments.
Charter schools that request and meet an agency’s evaluation are subsequently “accredited” by that agency. Accreditation standards, set by agencies, are often based on whether graduates can achieve admission to other esteemed institutions or gain credentials for professional practice.
Benefits of Accreditation
Besides giving the school a perceived higher status, accreditation provides eligibility for certain federal aid and foundation grants. Since accreditation acts as a publicly recognized quality standard, there are more funding opportunities for accredited charter schools. In California, for example, charter schools must be WASC-accredited to be able to apply for charter school building funds.
It’s also important to note that some colleges may not recognize a high school diploma unless it is from an accredited school. Accreditation guarantees that students have undergone diligent coursework and have met the standards determined by the school and accrediting agency.
Although accreditation has numerous benefits, it’s not essential for charter schools to obtain. It is a process that charters can consider at the right time or juncture.
To help charter schools begin the accreditation process, we’ve compiled a list of useful resources:
- The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
- NEASC Directory of Schools by State
- Become Accredited with NEASC
- Beginning the Accreditation Process with WASC
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of accreditation for schools, let’s dive into the authorization process.
What Is Authorization?
Authorization is a process of accountability that all charter schools must undertake with an authorizer. But what is an authorizer and what exactly do they do? An authorizer is usually a non-profit organization, government agency, or university that can:
- Determine who can start a new charter school
- Establish operational and academic expectations
- Monitor school performance
- Decide if a charter should remain open or closed
It’s important to note that authorizers vary depending on state law. According to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), “Nearly 90 percent of authorizers across the country are local school districts, but they can also be state education agencies, independent boards, universities, mayors and municipalities, and non-profit organizations.”
Authorizers ensure each charter school is accommodating their student’s needs and meeting their promises to families and taxpayers. Responsibilities for authorizers include:
- Approving new charter schools
- Setting operational and academic expectations
- Monitoring school performance
- Closing failing schools
Good authorizers strive to give more students access to excellent schools. They focus on the achievements of a charter school, set transparent expectations, and ensure accountability. And most importantly, if a charter school is not fulfilling its commitments to students and taxpayers, a good authorizer will close the school and help students transition to better options.
If you’re considering starting a new charter school (or are simply curious), here is a list of resources to help with the authorization process:
- Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing
- NACSA Leaders Program
- Become A Member
- 50-State Comparison: Charter School Policies
Why Accreditation for Schools Matters
Accreditation matters because students deserve the highest level of education possible, and it opens doors to some exceptional opportunities for charter schools. Most importantly, charters can take their time and undergo the accreditation process when their school is ready. Alternatively, they can skip the accreditation process entirely since it is not required federally or statewide.
Every child deserves access to an excellent education, regardless of their tax bracket or zip code. And with the right charter, schools can provide their students with greater educational opportunities.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides an opportunity for charter school growth, but not without some restrictions and responsibility. Download the ESSA & Charter Schools eBook to learn about the federal requirements that charter schools need to abide by.
Madison O’Connell leads TransACT’s content strategy efforts, and strives to ensure educational information, guidance, and thought leadership from across the country’s districts are being shared. Madison has over seven years of experience writing, editing, and optimizing content.