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The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released a set of draft priorities that would be used in future competitions under the Charter Schools Programs’ (CSP) to award grants under the National Leadership Activities Grant Program.  NACSA and a group of leaders from authorizers, state agencies, and other stakeholders submitted group letters that supported the new priorities and suggested a few technical fixes.  Click here for the NACSA group letter.  The draft was particularly welcome because of its attention to strengthening accountability by improving authorizing, and for its attention to the needs of students with disabilities and English Learners.

We expect the Department to release a similar set of draft guidance in the next few weeks that will address the start-up grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) through the CSP. Based on discussions with the Department officials, we expect the priorities for the SEA grant competition to also advance our goals. These are good victories for trying to promote high quality authorizing in the charter school sector

ED’s guidance included priorities in five areas, including: improving access and services for Special Education and English Language Learners; strengthening accountability through improved charter school authorizing; using economies of scale to provide services and help to charter schools; and supporting the effective use of technology.

In general, we strongly support the Department’s approach in the notice, and applaud the attention to accountability, as well as the prioritization of efforts to enhance access and the quality of services provided to SWD and EL.

There are a few areas of concern in the guidance that we commented on in our letters, and which we are working closely with our partners at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to jointly influence the Department. One issue the guidance bungles is a definition of “high-quality” charter schools. They tend to treat high quality charters as those worthy of national replication, and all other charter schools as worthy of closure. We, of course, see a much more nuanced distribution of quality — with many levels of school performance. The real world includes many schools that may not be as good as they could be, but which deserve to stay open. There are other schools that are doing fine, but which are not interested in, nor should they be expected to, start replicating at a large scale. We also called for more support for collaboration between the charter school sector, and those in the communities with expertise and experience special education and English Language Learners to work together on common challenges.

No Time to Waste

CommonCore_HomePageImplementation of the Common Core State Standards will present an array of new challenges everywhere they are adopted. The biggest challenge for charter school authorizers will be maintaining strong accountability for school performance during the transition to the new standards and accompanying assessments.

Holding schools accountable for their performance is already one of the most difficult of an authorizer’s core responsibilities. The uncertainty, anxiety, and difficulties that come with the introduction of new standards and assessments, will only make that work harder. There will be great temptation to decide that it is easier and more politically expedient to abandon accountability during the transition rather than maintain it.

In the latest installment of NACSA’s Common Core Series, Staying the Course: Maintaining Strong Accountability in the Transition to the Common Core, Rich Wenning and I argue that it would be a serious mistake to pause on school accountability during the transition rather than working to strengthen it.

Except for a lack of political will or a failure to plan ahead and act thoughtfully, there is no legitimate reason not to hold schools accountable for their performance during and following the transition to the Common Core.

We argue that “except for a lack of political will or a failure to plan ahead and act thoughtfully, there is no legitimate reason not to hold schools accountable for their performance during and following the transition to the Common Core.” This is especially true for schools that were consistently underperforming on the standards and assessments before the Common Core and that continue to fail their students after the Common Core. The Common Core must be an opportunity to raise our expectations and strengthen accountability, not suspend it.

In a statement released today, NACSA’s president and CEO, Greg Richmond is also calling on authorizers and state officials to “act immediately to put systems in place to manage the transition” or risk creating “a de facto moratorium on school accountability.” Richmond notes that “the potential lapse in accountability is of particular concern in the charter school sector, where school accountability for results is central to the charter philosophy.” He urges authorizers to act now to ensure they can continue to uphold their responsibilities and maintain high standards.

Just as kids have no time to waste when it comes to their education, authorizers have no time to waste when it comes to maintaining strong accountability during Common Core implementation. Authorizers need to act now to begin preparing for the turbulence ahead. Failure to act will endanger authorizers’ ability to hold schools accountable for their performance in the short term and beyond and will only allow low-performing schools to continue failing their students.

The need to act, however, does not mean that the work ahead will be easy. Rich and I offer a set of practical strategies authorizers can use to assist them in maintaining strong accountability and provide a timetable for authorizer action. The brief also includes a quick reference for authorizers on the new assessments.

NACSA is committed to supporting authorizers as they embark on this difficult journey. In addition to the resources in the Staying the Course series, we are also engaging directly with authorizers to facilitate learning across the profession and to share challenges and successes. This Thursday, January 16 from 2-3 p.m. EST, I will host a webinar with authorizers from Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio to discuss their work to prepare for Common Core implementation and to begin a conversation with authorizers and other stakeholders across the country. Join us.

At the heart of the charter school concept is the idea that schools, like all organizations, are most effective when they have the flexibility necessary to be captains of their destiny and when there is real accountability for failure. When charter schools are given autonomy over their time, people, and money, with it comes great responsibility. Part of that responsibility is the possibility of closure. We know that there are many charter schools that welcome accountability and that use their flexibility to accomplish amazing things for their students. We also know that many of the most successful charters are succeeding with students who others say face obstacles that no school can overcome.

Too often, though, charter schools that fail to achieve are allowed to continue failing year after year. Meanwhile, too few promising new schools are allowed to open, and too few great schools are allowed to grow. Changing that reality is the goal of NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign. We want to close a thousand of the lowest performing charters while at the same time working to open thousands more promising new ones.

Our success depends not only on the tireless efforts of thousands of fearless and relentless parents, teachers, and school leaders, but also on bold advocacy and strong authorizing. This week we saw examples of both. Yesterday, the California Charter Schools Association called for the closure of six charter schools across the state that have failed to the association’s bar for quality. And today, the Texas Education Agency announced its intention to close six charters it says have failed to meet expectations. Both organizations support the growth more great charter schools, and both should be applauded for their willingness to take a stand for quality.

Closing schools is never easy. But if we’re serious about giving schools the autonomy they need to successful and about holding schools accountable for how well they serve their students, we have to be willing to take action when they fail.

Driver is quality.Last week, a judge in Washington State held that, with two exceptions, the state’s new charter school law did not violate the state constitution. The case will no doubt continue on appeal but for now the decision means that charters can move forward in the Evergreen State. Nineteen applications have been received by the Charter School Commission and the selection process has begun. NACSA has consulted with the Commission on its process. “We are looking at the merits of the applications,” said Commission Director Joshua Halsey. “The driver is quality. This commission is dedicated to authorizing charter schools that can impact student achievement for the most vulnerable, most at-risk students.” Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington weighed in on the court’s decision here.


SWD increase in charters

“[E]nrollment of [students with disabilities] attending independent charters continues to show an upward trend for the third consecutive year. Since the 2011-2012 school year, the overall population of students attending charter schools increased 6.9% (n=5,725), with SWD accounting for approximately 20% (n=1,101) of these new students. Overall, the percentage of SWD attending charters is 9.3% compared to 12.3% attending District-operated schools.” -Office of Independent Monitor of the LAUSD Modified Consent Decree

Ensuring students with disabilities (SWD) enjoy equal access to charter schools and are well served in them is tricky, but that doesn’t mean we should not try some easy fixes along the way.  Recent activity in Los Angeles illustrates both tricky and easy initiatives – and the promises of both.  The district has a long-standing difference in special education enrollments between the charters and the traditional public schools.  The district’s schools enroll about 12 percent SWD.  Two years ago the charters enrolled slightly more than 8 percent SWD. Since then, LA has had dramatic growth in charter enrollment and in the proportion of special education students in charter schools.

The California Charter School Association (CCSA) helped.  Working closely with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), as part of a much more complex initiative, the CCSA encouraged a relatively simple fix that I believe is worth considering in other contexts. Applications for admissions to LAUSD charter schools no longer ask if a child is in special education.

This is the “simple part” of LA’s story. I never suggest this is a silver bullet; rather; I think of it as low-hanging fruit. Two years ago, 88 schools (or 48 percent of the charters in the district) had application forms that asked parents if their kids had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  The next year, only five schools asked this question. Presumably it will be zero next year.  The first year after changing the application forms, 5,725 new kids enrolled in the district’s charters.  1,100 of those kids had IEPs, which is about 20 percent of all new enrollees.  That influx boosted the over-all proportion of SWD in LA charters from 8.21 percent in 2010, to 9.30 percent in 2012.

We don’t really know which of the different initiatives produced the SWD enrollment increase.  It could be that the change in enrollment forms is small and the other simultaneous changes made all the difference. That is something worth studying in more detail.  But I do know that if nothing in LA had changed, and the 5,725 new enrollees in LA charter schools had the same special education enrollment rate as in previous years, we would have expected only 470 of them to have had IEPs.  If the enrollment rates of SWD in charters equaled traditional public schools, only 692 new kids with IEPs would have entered the charters.  That makes me pretty excited to see 1,100 newly-enrolled kids with IEPs.

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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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