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Guest Post from Rich Haglund, General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer for the Tennessee Achievement School District

TNOver the last several years, stakeholders in Tennessee wondered whether changing the law to make Tennessee charter schools their own Local Education Authority (LEA) would solve some of their challenges.

For school operators from states where charter schools are or may be their own LEA, that criterion is thought to be a large factor in a charter school’s success. Operators wondered, for example, whether a change in LEA status would provide more flexibility in the provision of special education services, or provide easier access to bond funding for facilities. In Tennessee, charter schools receive 100 percent of state, local, and federal funding, and may seek waivers from many laws and rules. The operational autonomy of charter schools has at times appeared to hinge not on student performance, but on the politics of authorizing and personal relationships.

As advocates of the notion that there is no “silver bullet” to meet the educational needs of all students, we should be wary of suggesting there is one right way to do anything, especially one LEA status that works best for all public charter schools. We should approach changing the law cautiously, since the process of changing laws may result in unintended statutory changes or practices that are less than helpful. In Tennessee, for example, anytime a section of statutory code is opened to accomplish one purpose, it is opened for amendments that may do more perceived harm to the law than the hoped for positive change. Opening a section of the code to, for example, align public charter school bidding requirements with LEA bidding requirements, opens the section of the code defining teacher licensure, financial reporting, governing body training, and special education requirements applicable to charter schools.

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The end of the government shut down and the threat of a default are over for now.  Analysts and pundits are sharing their summaries of what happened, and offering competing bets for what the recent events will mean for the future of our parties and our politics.  In terms of the big cleavages in America, it is still too early to know what all this will lead to.

While there may be some who think the final votes in the House and Senate on the shutdown indicate the rough shape of a future governing coalition, I don’t see it that way.   I think the standoff means that Congress just pushed the long-awaited revision to NCLB even further into the future.  But we don’t need to wait for Congress to continue our work to advance the charter school sector.  The federal Charter School Program (CSP) has always had broad waiver authority to allow states to create innovative charter programs. States should get started now. Congress and their next ESEA can catch up later.

Language coming out of the Senate’s education committee should dispel any optimism for a near term ESEA reauthorization.  The Partisan divide on education is wide and thriving. Case in point — Report Language on the Harkin-sponsored legislation that the Senate HELP Committee recently passed includes the usual summary of what was in the bill.  It also includes a Republican alternative report that dismisses just about everything in the bill as passed, while making the case for a separate replacement version.

Despite this gulf, we at NACSA remain encouraged.  We are optimistic because all the competing proposals on the hill share language that supports strong authorizing. The bills floating now all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Each of the bills in this diverse crop of proposals would grow a high quality charter sector, protect school autonomy, apply high standards, and look after the interests of students and the public.  Eventually, when there is a new ESEA, we expect it to help us do our work.  But even if a deal on the ESEA remains far off, we can still make progress in how the federal investment supports the charter school sector before the law is rewritten.

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Out today, NACSA’s new roadmap for authorizers who oversee schools that serve kids in dire straits. The title says it all: Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools.

The report is a joint effort, reflecting the input and deliberations of a 16-member working group including authorizers, charter operators, and researchers. Our goal was to establish more clarity in measuring the performance of charter schools that serve dropouts, pregnant teens, adjudicated youth and those with life-disrupting conditions such as homelessness and substance abuse.

This is not really a “charter” issue at heart. Many states lack any respectable system of accountability for alternative schools. Too often, state policies leave an accountability void for such schools, either using metrics that are inappropriate for their populations or lumping them in an ill-defined “at-risk” category with no defined outcomes.  So it’s hard to tell which schools are doing a good job and which are not.

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Thousands of New York City charter school parents are marching today across the Brooklyn Bridge, worried about the fate of charter schools with the departure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After their march, they should send to the mayoral candidates copies of today’s international report showing American adults lagging behind their peers in developed countries in literacy, math, and technology skills.

While the average performance of the United States trailed most countries, two sets of numbers within the numbers are most troubling:

Younger Americans performed worse than older Americans. Americans age 55 to 65 did better than their international counterparts. Those age 45 to 54 were roughly equal to international averages. Those who were younger did worse.

Poorly educated Americans performed worse than poorly educated peers around the world. While Americans with advanced college degrees performed similarly to their peers abroad, Americans who did not finish high school had significantly worse skills than their international peers.

These two sets of data, together, paint a worrisome picture for our nation’s future. They also underscore the urgency of NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign to expand outstanding educational options for our nation’s children.

Yes, let’s march today and then work even harder tomorrow to create more excellent education opportunities for America’s youth.

You can find the report, produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, here.


Guest Post from Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington

One of the most pervasive criticisms of charter schools is that they either find ways around accepting or strategically counsel out students with special needs. These criticisms have been fueled both by anecdote and by reports such as the GAO’s 2012 analysis of the percentage of students with disabilities in both sectors, which showed a persistent three to four point gap between charter schools and traditional public schools

This gap—present at both the district and state level—should be concerning to anyone who believes that public schools should be open to all students. The gap sends a message that charter schools do not welcome students with special needs and that authorizers are not meeting their obligation to ensure that charters are admitting and serving all students without regard to their special education status.  Undoubtedly, some charters behave inappropriately. When that happens, authorizers and states should take steps to stop it.  But there is no data to demonstrate the relative contribution of this kind of behavior on the enrollment rates; and, as a study released by CRPE this week demonstrates, there are many other factors that could also be contributing to the gap.  This study, and others following similar lines of inquiry in the future, will help us understand those factors better so that we can do what is best for students with disabilities.

While many districts are working with charter leaders to figure out smart solutions to ensure that students with special needs have equal access to any public school, the knee jerk reaction by some policymakers has been to pass resolutions or quotas to force charter schools to enroll more students with disabilities.

CRPE has been studying this issue for many years to try to bring evidence to bear on these policy debates. We published a book on the topic in 2010, have written several papers, and recently published a thorough analysis of special education enrollment in New York State that was commissioned by NACSA. Earlier his week we released a report by Marcus Winters, of the Manhattan Institute, that casts new light on the dynamics behind special education enrollment in charter schools and what the implications are for policy.

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SELPASpecial education service coordination and accountability are often areas where charter schools and their authorizers experience conflict and tension. And too often school districts and charters end up fighting over resources and control rather than focusing on how they can work together to promote the best interests of kids. A partnership between Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) is proving that collaboration is possible and can lead to both greater innovation and equity in providing services to students with special needs. Gina Plate, Senior Special Education Advisor at CCSA, writes about the partnership in the Chronicle of Social Change and explains that it allows charters to maintain the autonomy that all schools need to be successful while keeping them connected to their partner public schools in LAUSD so that they can share best practices and demonstrate what is possible when schools are trusted with flexibility and held accountable for performance. Anyone wanting to learn more about this exciting partnership should join hundreds of the country’s authorizers and charter sector leaders at NACSA’s 2013 Leadership Conference, October 21-24 in San Diego. Gina will join her colleagues Sydney Quon at LAUSD, David Toston from EdCoe, and Lauren Rhim from the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools to explore the challenges and opportunities presented by new approaches to special education coordination and collaboration and how these approaches might have promise for improving special education services for charter schools nationwide.

Diane Ravitch’s book is out. As expected, it repeats criticisms of charter schools and demonizes education reformers. She tends to use a broad brush, making conclusions about the motivations of charter supporters, as if they were all the same and each were absurdly motivated by a desire to harm public education. She also takes examples of individual bad things in the charter school sector and describes them as if they were the norm, while ignoring the great things that are happening, as well as the great mass of things in the middle.

Lost, is any sense that there is a lot of good, great, and mediocre in the charter movement, as well as some problems to fix. By demonizing all the people pursuing a different track to improve the lives of children – at least at track that is different than the one she is supporting this year – she obstructs the dialogues about how we can celebrate, learn from, and leverage what is working in any school to help more children. She also makes it harder for us to work together with the people we respect, but with whom we disagree, to solve the problems that are very real.

The book and the “debates” it generates prompt me to propose a quasi-scientific principle. In graduate school, in any field with “science” in the name, you cannot avoid Occam’s razor. If you can remember that, “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected,” you will probably pass your comprehensive exam.

We don’t have it yet in education reform debates, but I would propose the following advice for those with the desire to demonize their opponents or reach sweeping and simplistic conclusions about complicated realities:

“If something is complicated and its outcomes are diverse and unpredictable, any conclusion about that topic that is simple, or that involves the assumption that the people who reach a different conclusion are evil-doers motivated by a desire to destroy something you support, is probably wrong.”

It won’t come as a surprise that we at NACSA believe strong authorizing is part of this thoughtful approach to something as complex as education reform and charter schools. Good authorizers are often the people who address the problematic anecdotes that Ravitch uses to maximum demagogic effect. They also support and protect what works.

Many charter schools are successfully addressing some of our most intractable challenges in public education. And some charter schools and their supporters are doing a bad job of it. Part of a good strategy to manage this complexity is to improve charter authorizing. Some of the charter sector’s worst failures can be addressed by stronger authorizing. And you can pursue that strategy as part of a larger effort to advance what is working for kids – and there is a lot that is working.

That is a nuanced argument that is going to get lost if we degenerate into ugly exchanges like those flying over the web this week. To get the best out of education reform, while addressing what is not working well, requires the ability to see both good and bad in something, all within a single world view – not so easy it seems.

A recent story in the Columbus Dispatch detailed the creative ways that low-performing charter schools in Ohio are avoiding closure. According to the report, “some schools have avoided the state’s charter-closing laws after enrolling more students with disabilities, which exempted them. Others were closed by their sponsors for poor performance only to find a new sponsor. And recently, one charter operator whose school was shut down for bleak academic performance updated the building, staff and school board, and opened another school in the same spot under a new name.”

he_role_of_charter_restarts_in_school_reformClosing a school is never easy. And, unfortunately, even when closure for failure to perform is part of the bargain from the start, and even where there are strong laws on the books designed to make the process at least more predictable and less political, if no less heart-wrenching and disruptive, failing schools will often find ways to avoid accountability. Even when the adults in charge have the courage to do the right thing, other adults, with other interests, will get in the way.

A new report by Public Impact’s Daniela Doyle and Tim Field explores a different approach to closure, one where accountability for failure isn’t avoided through authorizer shopping or shell games and one which tries to minimize the disruption and harm that closure can cause for students, especially when a school is closed in a community where no better options exist.

In The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform: Honoring our Commitments to Students and Public Accountability, Doyle and Field explore the concept of  charter school restarts, a form of school closure where all the kids can stay while the school’s operator and usually its governing board have to go. The authors define “a charter school restart” as “a change in school operator and a change in school governance, while continuing to serve the same students.” They take pains to note that the restarts they write about “differ from internal turnaround attempts by changing both the school operator and school governance” and “from instances in which a charter school is closed and a new-start charter opens in its place.”  By restart, they mean circumstances where a new, high-quality organization with a proven track record operates the school and where the new school automatically reenrolls and continues to serve the same students that attended the former school that is closed.

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The Fordham Institute released a trio of essays this week discussing how to evaluate schools.  Michael Petrilli started it out by criticizing the use of “proficiency” and making a case for why “growth” is superior.  Checker Finn countered with a defense of proficiency.  He argued that, in the end, what you know or can do matters a lot.  And Richard Wenning urged an inclusive analysis.  He recommends we examine the students’ starting point in learning, the velocity of their growth, and their growth to standards.  Wenning also makes a good case for understanding these differences, so that each approach can be evaluated for the purpose for which it is being used – as some approaches make more sense for different applications. And understanding how poverty affects one’s starting point, and how that starting point affects the velocity and likelihood of proficiency, is a strong argument for greater investment in quality preschool and other measures that give all kids the best possible starting point in the K-12 system.

Collectively, these three essays provide a lot for charter school authorizers to think about.  The tit-for-tat of the set implies a degree of winner-take-all-ism that isn’t real.  Thoughtful authorizers with high standards for their schools will want to consider all these ideas, and many others, before passing judgment on schools that they believe are failing their students, or deciding which schools are the great successes that ought to be replicated.

The application of concepts, like proficiency and growth — or starting points, velocity, and growth to standard – can all differ in important ways, even among people and institutions that claim they are applying the same approach.  It helps to read up on what others think about what we are trying to do and understand how these things can work.

Interesting, fascinating, and different – those are all words we say in polite conversation when we hear about something that happened, but we have yet to decide if we think it was good or bad.  This week the U.S. Department of Education issued a waiver to a group of California districts that I think is totally (insert normatively ambiguous adjective here).  The waiver allows the districts to create an accountability system tied to school improvement and teacher evaluation efforts.

The feds did this instead of granting a state-wide waiver to the California Department of Education.  Thus far, waivers have only been given to states.  But California could not present a unified front on various conditions the feds have imposed on these applications, so the state-level waiver was not likely to happen.  California districts still wanted the flexibility in spending and implementation of NCLB that accompanies such waivers, so eight of them (Fresno Unified, Long Beach Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, Sacramento City Unified, San Francisco Unified, Sanger Unified, and Santa Ana Unified) worked out this deal on their own.

Here are a few observations on why this is so “interesting”:

  • The feds usually deal with states, and let states figure out how to influence districts and schools.  Does this diminish state authority? Does it expand federal power?
  • What happens if districts can make other deals with the feds, for flexibility or money, and we no longer focus on the effort to influence or interact with state policy as a tool to influence districts and schools? Will we get more change, or less?
  • Are we releasing pressure on states to do whatever it is somebody else (presumably Congress or the Administration) hopes they do?
  • What else could a consortium of districts collaborate on and formalize with federal approval?
  • What will happen in these districts if the state eventually gets its own waiver and the districts and schools find themselves with several different applicable accountability systems?  Even without a state waiver in the future, how will the state react?
  • What impact it will have on school accountability in California? In exchange for the waiver, the California districts agreed to develop a “School Quality Improvement System,” which, according to the USDOE waiver docs, “emphasizes academic achievement, growth, and graduation rate, while also including social-emotional factors and school culture and climate.” This system isn’t fully developed yet and will need to be created and finalized by the districts over the next year. Will this new system hold schools to high standards of performance and create real accountability for schools that consistently fail to meet those standards?

Since accountability and flexibility are so central to charter schools and authorizing, I suggest we watch this development closely. Fascinating…

A story this weekend in the New York Times describes the lives of two young women attending Carroll Academy, an Alternative Education Campus (AEC) in Tennessee that serves kids who are kicked out of their traditional school.  Carroll Academy is not a charter school.  Nevertheless, the story is important reading for charter school authorizers.

Even if you do not care about charter schools, read the article. It is a compelling story about young people whose lives are extremely challenging.  These are young women growing up in rural poverty, whose parents are unemployed, in jail, or addicted to drugs.  The girls experience homelessness and neglect. They get kicked out of school for using drugs or for stealing them for others – namely for their addicted parents – and for fighting and other disruptions.   No one who works trying to help schools succeed should be naïve about the obstacles that many young people face, particularly poor kids.

Across the country, hundreds of charter schools are designed to focus on students in similar circumstances.  Like the readers of this article, authorizers generally have no data on how well these schools serve their students.  Some AECs likely save the lives of many students.  Others are terrible warehouses that temporarily hold kids before putting them on the street. Both the lifesavers and the warehouses get public money as charter schools in the meantime.  Trouble is, we have a hard time telling the difference, because – like the readers– authorizers generally have no data on how well these schools serve their students.

The inability of authorizers to evaluate AECs or to hold them accountable when they fail is a major problem for the sector. When alternative schools fail and when there is not good documentation against understood standards, authorizers can be overwhelmed by the voices of supporters telling a few individual stories. Anecdotes have a purpose because students’ experiences matter.  But we need to examine the entire record and ask whether the school is working for all the students.

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Last week, The Oregonian published an op-ed by NACSA president and CEO, Greg Richmond, arguing that the best way to improve the state’s charter schools is to strengthen accountability for their performance. Greg offered three strategies to do that:

  • First, state law should clearly specify the performance levels charter schools must achieve in order to stay open. Those that consistently fail to achieve that level should automatically close.
  • Second, charter school authorizers should publish an annual report detailing the overall performance of their schools, and authorizers who allow failing schools to stay open should lose their ability to authorize charter schools.
  • Third, Oregon should create a statewide charter commission with the power to approve and monitor charter schools throughout the state. This commission would develop the capacity and expertise to authorize only good schools and to truly hold charter schools accountable.

Read the whole piece here.

Learn more about NACSA’s Policy Agenda for Charter School Quality here.

When people talk about “market accountability” for charter schools, they’re usually referring to parents; you have to keep attracting “customers” in the form of parents and students, or you close.

But because they are so often denied public facilities funding, many charters must look to a different kind of market – and to the bankers and underwriters and who finance their buildings.  This marketplace enforces a kind of accountability that district schools don’t face.  You have to convince lenders that your school is a good long-term risk – -and then you have to sustain the kind of performance that keeps your authorizer inclined to renew your charter.

School BuildingIn fact, authorizers are a pretty central player here, since they can yank a charter in the middle of a 30-year mortgage. So you’d think lenders would be paying close attention to what authorizers say about school performance. Well…not so much.  The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) recently looked at 393 bond underwritings and found that in just 6 instances did lenders actually consult  authorizer reports before making lending recommendations.

In fact there are communications gaps all over the charter-financing landscape, leading to myths and erroneous assumptions about charters’ credit-worthiness (which is actually quite strong). The result is a serious underinvestment in charters by the municipal bond markets, meaning that too many charters have to spend operating funds on bricks and mortar instead of classroom instruction.

LISC’s CEO Michael Rubinger gives bond markets a fat “F” for this behavior – but his outfit recently got together with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to generate some change.  They hosted an all-day conference of charter lenders, operators, and authorizers to talk through the perceptions and realities of charter financial performance, and to look at ways “disclosure” can be strengthened. One big conclusion is that, while they’re great at doing financial projections and judging the capacity of trustee boards, lenders need to do better in looking at charter schools’ academic performance – on which everything ultimately depends.

That’s where NACSA comes in. We’re pulling together a working group of lenders and authorizers who will try to develop a common language for evaluating the viability of charter schools. This won’t be a one-way conversation; lenders and authorizers can learn from one another.  We’re hoping to marry the keen financial/operational analyses of underwriters with the performance frameworks NACSA develops for authorizers – and we just might come up with some tools both camps can use.

 

 

The new CREDO study on charter school performance was released two weeks ago, and it continues to make a big splash. It included great news about the strength of charter performance in producing better results overall in reading and closing the achievement gap for African-American and Hispanic students. While it was the primary focus of a single session at last week’s Alliance conference, the study had countless mentions in dozens of other sessions.  It also found its way into the remarks of plenary session speakers including Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Does the CREDO study show the progress and potential of the charter school sector? Yes. Does it show that we have it all figured out? No. It does show what works about the charter model of accountability and what still needs work. And as we dug into the details, we saw that it is clear that strong authorizing is the key lever for improvement.

As Duncan noted, “We know that state policy and authorizing policies matter—and they matter a great deal to charter quality for children. States that were not careful about authorizing charters and let weak operators remain open year after year have a lot of low-quality charters. There are too many charters where students actually learn less than their counterparts in traditional public schools…If there is a silver lining in the poor record of these states and authorizers, it is that lawmakers are now reforming state regulation and laws to improve charter quality and make charters more accountable.”

States that have good authorizing generally have good charter schools. Those that need to improve their charter schools generally need to improve their authorizing.

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A Capital Week

Call me an optimist, but I believe federal policy has played an appropriate and helpful role in the charter movement nationally.  While thousands of people are gathering in Washington for the National Alliance’s charter conference, it is helpful to remember that the federal role in education reform has been to support developments that were already occurring in state policy and on the ground.  Rather than making something start, the federal role has been super-imposed over a very diverse and active field.

I have had the opportunity to observe the occasional federal lurches several times in the past as Congress and the Department have responded to the action in the field.  That includes the launch of the program, the first federal guidance, the program’s reauthorization of the Charter School Program (CSP) in 1998, and the implementation of the program under NCLB.

The feds, as is always their role, have appropriately emphasized issues of equity to ensure all kids can access and benefit from charters. This includes addressing access, programs, and federal support for children with disabilities, English Language Learners, and children in poverty.  They have also supported those practices and developments that seem promising, while helping people overcome financial obstacles on the ground.  Not all has worked entirely as planned, but people are not arguing to end federal involvement in the charter sector. They are asking how to best to involve the federal government (and its resources) in the next round.

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Progress

The latest study by CREDO on charter school performance has generated a predictable wave of commentary and coverage.  Like previous work from Macke Raymond and her colleagues at CREDO, there is a lot of interesting information in the full study.  The next few weeks will bring a series of commentaries that examine different slices of the study.  I also expect methodological critiques and debates of various elements of the study.   A study this large and comprehensive, on such an important topic, should generate that kind of exchange.  I look forward to it.

I will add to that discussion myself by exploring recent progress in state policy that is supported by the study’s findings.   State legislators have predicted some of these findings and have acted on them already.  At NACSA, we hope to help more states do so in the next few years.

Among the ideas reinforced in the CREDO study:

1. Authorizing is important and should be done well with entities held to and applying high standards;

2. Failing charter schools should be closed;

3. Authorizers should take care when awarding charters. That means they should continue to develop and implement practices that help them ensure applicants that are likely to fail are identified and not given charters, and just as important, new schools that are likely to succeed should be approved to create more high-performing schools.

Collectively, these are exactly the types of actions called for in NACSA’s One Million Lives Campaign. These will allow us to close 1,000 charter schools that are failing and replace them with 2,000 high performing charters. The results, for future researchers to announce, should come in the form of a million kids with higher levels of academic performance.

The CREDO study identifies states that have a reputation of historically emphasizing quality and rigor in their charter sectors and that have also enjoyed high performing charter sectors. The same holds for smaller jurisdictions, like Denver, Colorado; and Washington, DC.  Places that have not taken care with these issues have experienced worse results.

Interestingly, a few of the states that the CREDO study holds out for low performance – Nevada and Texas – have recently addressed their challenges by enacting major charter legislation. Leaders in both states worked closely with NACSA and local stakeholders on bills that will help strengthen charter authorizing in their sector by focusing on quality and accountability.  Their new laws will help them move forward.

I would like to offer a prediction.  If we fast-forward four more years to some future study (by CREDO to be published in 2017, for example) we should see real results in the charter schools in these states.   These states, and others working on strong charter policy in the next few years, will see tangible benefits for their students if they:

  • Establish and endorse authorizer standards;
  • Apply rigorous charter application procedures that do not award charters to weak applicants while replicating high performing schools and approving strong start-up applications;
  • Develop performance management systems, with performance frameworks and performance contracts that collectively help authorizers identify and close failing schools while simultaneously finding the high performing schools worthy for replication; and
  • Give authorizers the resources and authority needed to close failing schools on a timely basis.

I look forward to reading about it!

The Norfolk Public Schools (NPS) recently announced a decision to use a new state law in Virginia to open ten “Conversion Charters”.  The ten schools are expected to adopt their new educational programs -- like Montessori and International Baccalaureate programs — for the upcoming school year, which starts in just a couple months. It is generally exciting to see districts explore innovative programs and work to establish options for their communities.  It is also a great sign when educators in any situation, consider how to implement promising programs like those proposed in Virginia.  But this effort seems problematic on a couple of fronts.  One is related to the speed, the other to the limits of Virginia’s charter-like approach.  A little patience might make this more successful.

First off, the NPS effort is extremely rushed.  In mid-June, the district is announcing changes that schools will implement in the coming school year.  According to news reports, the district only recently shared the proposal publicly.  The history of education reform is littered with crash-course reforms that failed because of the rush.  Having worked myself in Colorado to study similarly ambitious efforts that tried to change school programs quickly, I can describe a series of painful lessons that are already out there to learn.  It is gratifying to see district leaders recognize the urgency of making change.  But after the dust settles, inevitably the critique of such efforts points out that the champions of change failed because they attempted to do too much too quickly. They suffer from a variety of challenges linked to the rush.

The programs the district selected include strong, proven, and cool models.  Nevertheless, these models are tricky to do well.  They all take specialized leadership and training.  Having seen my own kids’ progress through eight years of a district-run Montessori school, I can attest to just how different the program is from a traditional program.  Just for starters, teacher training (and sometimes certification), instructional materials, and pedagogy, all change dramatically.

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Yesterday, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute hosted a seminar for authorizers and charter school leaders on the laws governing school discipline. In New York, as in most states, charter schools have broad discretion to implement the discipline policy that was approved as part of their charter application. In some states, charter schools are subject to the same state laws governing discipline in district-operated public schools, while in others they are exempt from the law but must still implement their approved policy. And every charter school, in every state and just like every other public school, must provide due process as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and granted to public school students by the Supreme Court in 1975 in Goss v. Lopez.

EdweekParticipants debated how to balance the autonomy that allows so many charter schools to defy all odds with the need for fairness to all students and a level-playing field for all schools. We also discussed burgeoning initiatives in a variety of cities around the country aimed at preserving school-level autonomy over in-school discipline practices while at the same time promoting fairness through transparency and in at least one case, the establishment of a common set of expel-able offenses that all schools agree to follow and a common process for hearing expulsion cases. We also discussed strategies for ensuring that schools can maintain a strong culture and demand high expectations for achievement and behavior while still protecting the rights of all students and living up to the responsibilities of all public schools. The afternoon focused on the unique issues that arise when addressing the behavior of students with special needs.

The seminar was timely as discipline in public schools and in charter schools in particular is attracting increased public scrutiny. Initiatives like the one in New Orleans and the transparency work being done in Connecticut  and by the D.C. Public Charter School Board in Washington, DC, are likely to spread to other cities that are welcoming charter schools into their communities, not as exclusionary enclaves or pressure valves for a fortunate few, but as full partners with equal public resources and equal public responsibilities.

As Education Week’s excellent, recent series on charter school discipline showed, concerns about charter school discipline are often about ideology and politics than facts and reality. But the autonomy that charter schools have–and that all schools need to succeed–does raise real challenges when it comes to ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to thrive in a school of their choice. We would do well to face these challenges head on.

 

The majority of state legislative session are now adjourned or nearly adjourned and this week brings some victories and some surprises. In Nevada the full legislature sent AB 205 to Governor Sandoval, who is expected to sign the bill this week. Meanwhile SB 2 in Texas cleared the legislature, as detailed last week, and is still awaiting action by Governor Perry.

In Delaware an anticipated comprehensive charter bill was introduced on May 30th and quickly passed through the House Education Committee albeit by a narrow margin. The bill, HB 165, mandates a performance-based contract for all schools authorized by the Department of Education and sets strong application standards, renewal criteria and school reporting requirements—all NACSA best practices. NACSA will be watching this effort closely as the legislature tries to get the bill through in the three remaining weeks of session.

In South Carolina the ticking clock of session ultimately blocked the passage of H 3853 this year, as it was trapped behind other bills waiting for their second reading this week. The author and sponsors are already working on plans for the bill’s next opportunity for passage in January 2014.

The topic of cyber charter schools is sparking discussion and legislation in several statehouses—including Maine, Indiana, Illinois, and Pennsylvania to name a few—as states struggle to confront the policy complexities these school present. Many legislators are calling for cyber moratoriums or altered funding formulas to try and catch up research-based policy initiatives with this rapidly-growing sector.

As state sessions end and federal ESEA and budget proposals pick up steam stay tuned for “Action on the Hill.”

Staying Immersed

There is a really interesting thing going on in Washington, D.C.’s charter sector. The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) is moving toward approval of a new charter middle/high school (DC International or “DCI”) that will serve students from five different elementary charters that all have language immersion programs.

The PCSB will pull this off through some creative authorizing, as it has done in the past (for example, sponsoring some of the first “mergers and acquisitions” among charters). Instead of approving a new from-scratch high school, the board is letting this one emerge from the five existing schools. Last December, the PCSB approved the addition of upper grades for Washington Yu-Ying, a Chinese immersion K-5 charter. Last week, they held hearings on expanding the other four charters:  Elsie Whitlow Stokes, a K-6 charter with both French and Spanish immersion programs; two Spanish immersion K-5s, DC Bilingual and Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB); and Mundo Verde, an early childhood charter.

What’s driving this is that the kids in these schools are developing some serious second language proficiencies—but have no place to continue growing these skills among the existing middle and high school options. DCI will allow them to continue the full immersion approach, tackling history and physics and literature in a second language, and it will offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.

The partner schools are all impressive in their own way (and in fact, it was just announced that Stokes founder Linda Moore will join the Charter School Hall of Fame this June). They’re also pretty diverse, which is too rare in D.C. I remember some concern that Yu-Ying might just draw white and Asian kids; instead, its students are about 55 percent African-American or Hispanic and just 18 percent Asian/Pacific. LAMB is 58 percent Hispanic, but also 22 percent African-American and 20 percent white. Mundo Verde’s children are about one-quarter African-American, a third Caucasian, and just under 40 percent Hispanic.

By extending their charters into the upper grades, the PCSB is able to sidestep D.C.’s open admissions requirements. Students leaving the partner schools will be guaranteed a seat at DCI, just as they would move up through grade levels in a normal K-12 charter. Students from other schools can apply but they will go into a lottery.

In order to maintain fidelity to the IB sequence, DCI does not plan to enroll new students after ninth grade. (To state the obvious, new arrivals would have to be awfully handy with one of the three languages in order to keep up academically.) This may grate on folks who think that the only democratic way is to accept everyone right up to graduation day. But it’s firmly in line with practice in the four “specialized” high schools run by D.C. Public Schools, which require tests to get in (or in the case of Duke Ellington School for the Arts, an audition) and discourage new applicants in the upper grades.

Are there other examples of independent charters that came together around a particular curriculum or program and founded their own high school? I’d love to know. But I suspect DCI is breaking new ground, and in a very cool way. The Public Charter School Board is expected to give final approval to the plan next month.

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