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  • Writer's pictureRich Haglund

Authorizing a school is hiring people

Deciding to invest in a business is hiring people.

Approving a grant application is hiring people.

Authorizing a public school is hiring people.

Much of my current work revolves around the practice of chartering public schools: having a school district, a university, or another state-approved entity vet nonprofit applicants to run a free public school. Those entities are typically called authorizers. Unlike traditional local boards of education that spend a lot of energy on actual school operation (that's a topic for another day), authorizers focus on oversight of a group of public schools operated by nonprofit entities pursuant to a performance contract.

The charter school authorization process varies from authorizer to authorizer. But, the process typically involves a paper application hundreds of pages long. The application details the proposed educational philosophy and academic program, the organizational structure and processes, and a detailed financial plan for using the public funds generated for the education of students. In addition, some authorizers conduct a "capacity interview," a meeting with the founding group of the proposed school. These meetings with proposed board members and school leaders usually occur after the paper application has been reviewed. In some cases, they're only conducted if the paper application meets a quality threshold.

Last week, I talked with a friend who works for an investment firm. The firm invests in established businesses, entrepreneurs, and funds that do similar venture investing. I asked my friend to reflect on how much investment decisions--particularly those for new businesses or new entrepreneurs--depend on the people involved compared to the proposed plans.

My friend explained that early stage investments are much more about the people. Their plans may change significantly following investment decisions. So, they have a lot of meetings with the people involved. They conduct reference checks like a hiring manager would before hiring a new employee. In some cases, they even conduct 360 degree reviews, similar to those done in employee performance reviews. In order to get a full picture of the likelihood of success of the new venture, they talk to former supervisors, customers, investors, and suppliers.

Of course, my friend said, proven entrepreneurs are easier to bet on. Even experienced managers shifting to entrepreneurial roles aren't guaranteed to succeed. Just because someone was a vice president at a large consumer products company doesn't mean that person has the competencies and people skills required to navigate the turbulent waters of a small, startup company.

Meetings with the people involved offer many opportunities to assess risk. Do the people keep appointments? Do they show up on time, prepared for the conversation? How do they treat support staff? Just like assessing a job candidate, wise investors measure the professionalism, punctuality, and humanity of entrepreneurs.

My friend admitted that government regulations and bureaucracy still matter ("box checking"). When an investment is being considered for a venture that relies in significant part on government funding, the regulations are carefully reviewed. A rock star scientist or manager who doesn't meet legally established requirements for the government funding isn't going to win a private investment either.

And public school authorizers operate, like investors, in a world where incentives and authority make a difference. My friend recognized that if an authorizer will be deemed an idiot for taking a risk that turns out badly, the authorizer will understandably hedge its bets and stick to proven performers. Innovation may suffer, and, in this case, children may continue to languish because of limited quality choices.

Getting to "no"--in hiring or investment decisions--is always easier than getting to "yes." Getting to "yes" might feel easier on paper. But, getting to the right "yes" means taking the time to get to know people, earlier and often. In the book, The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future, venture capitalist Arthur Rock was quoted as saying, “I believe so strongly in people that I think talking to the individual is much more important than finding out too much about what they want to do.” Rock said he looked for “intelligent consistency, gritty realism, [and] fiery determination."

So, if you're a charter public school authorizer, here are some questions to consider--at least if you want to foster innovation and build with community instead of simply approving more of the same known players. These are drawn from my conversation and some recent conversations held by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).

  • What job are you hiring school applicants to do?

  • How well do you know the founders?

  • Would having a conversation before applicants spend months or years preparing an application be helpful to you and them?

  • Before deciding yes or no, have you spent sufficient time with the founding team to really see the vision they've laid out on paper?

  • Are you just "taking their word for it" or are you conducting reference checks to triangulate what you read and hear?

  • Is the rigor of your application process focused on people or paper?

All human endeavors involve relationships and risk. Generally, before we invest in relationships with others, we spend time with them to determine whether further investment will enrich our lives. I don't know about you, but I didn't request paper applications before asking someone on a date! And, the marriage license my wife and I completed was just one page long!

So, whatever you're investing in--a business or a school (which is a business) or something else--be sure you know what job you're hiring that investment to do. Take time to get to know the people you'll entrust to do that job. And don't let paper be more important than people.

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