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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.

NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign emphasizes growth and accountability:  we need both if we are to provide one million children with a better education. In a huge victory, the Texas legislature passed landmark legislation over the weekend that makes progress on both fronts.

If Texas Governor Perry signs the legislation, it will gradually increase the cap on charter schools over the next six years to 305 from the current 215. For years, the only mechanism for growth in Texas was for existing charter schools to open new campuses. Now, brand new quality schools can open.

The legislation also contains a number of important elements that strengthen school quality and accountability. First, it improves the application process by requiring that the application evaluation consider the likelihood that the proposed school will succeed. While this seems common sense, it was missing from Texas law.

Second, the legislation requires charter schools to enter into performance-based contracts that define objective, measurable renewal criteria for academic, financial, and operational performance. NACSA worked closely with legislators, staff, and stakeholders to get this language right.

Third, and perhaps most significant, the legislation establishes a default closure mechanism in statute. Any school that fails minimum state academic or financial requirements for three consecutive years will automatically close.

On the flip side, schools that perform in the top two performance levels will benefit from an expedited renewal and replication process. If they are meeting the performance criteria defined in their contracts, high-performing schools should not endure lengthy, labor-intensive renewal processes.

Fourth, the Texas Education Agency—the state’s largest authorizer—will now produce an annual report on the academic performance of its schools. This is one of NACSA’s authorizer accountability policy recommendations.

Finally, in terms of accountability, the legislation requires disclosure of management services and also requires all schools to post their financial statements on their web site.

What’s the bottom line? The Texas legislature, led by Senator Dan Patrick, has passed ground-breaking legislation that will increase the number of quality charter schools while decreasing the number of failing charter schools.

Earlier this week my friend Checker Finn wrote a short, barbed blog saying in effect that charter folks shouldn’t brag too hard about outperforming dismal neighborhood schools when so many of our students remain far below acceptable levels of proficiency.

Good point, well aligned with our One Million Lives campaign, and a useful tonic for “irrational exuberance.”  In 2005, when NAPCS published the report of our Task Force on Quality and Accountability (which included NACSA CEO Greg Richmond), one of our key principles was this:  “Charter schools must achieve at high levels—not just offering something marginally better than failing neighboring schools, but providing the kind of education that equips graduates for success in postsecondary education, fulfilling work in the 21st century economy, and responsible citizenship.”

So, no question about it, we should be cracking down on any school that boasts about moving students from the first to the second percentile and calling it a “100% gain.”

But Dr. Finn makes the mistake of including this analogy in his brief treatise:  “Would you be satisfied with your golf score if it were a few points lower than someone who shoots 100?” Well……personally, I’d be THRILLED, having spent ten years flogging away and never doing better than 108 for 18 holes. I’m starting from such a pathetically lousy base that shooting a 98 would demand long, loud celebration.

So, back to the topic.  Today comes news from New Orleans that the charter-dominant Recovery School District ranked 57th out of Louisiana’s 70 public school districts on this spring’s tests. Which would be pretty awful had the RSD not inherited the lowest-performing schools in a system that was dead last 8 years ago, and had the overall proficiency rate in their schools not jumped from 28% in 2008 to 57% this year.  Combined with more modest gains by the generally selective (and historically higher-performing) Orleans Parish schools, that means New Orleans as a whole is within shooting distance of overtaking statewide performance, as shown in the chart below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source; Educate Now! 2000-2011 includes grades 3-11 LEAP, iLeap, and GEE. 2012-2013 includes only grades 3-8 LEAP and iLeap because the GEE has been phased out and replaced by End of Course Tests and the ACT.

Now in absolute terms, I’d have to concede that there’s a way to go.  Louisiana is not in the top rank of achievement among states. But gains like these are the foundation for making its graduates truly competitive on the national and world stage.  You don’t get there overnight.

That’s why we celebrate gains, as long as they’re real and on a high enough trajectory to take kids to parity and beyond in the desperately short time schools have them.

Session deadlines keep coming and bills keep moving.  Monday night in Nevada the Senate unanimously passed AB 205, a comprehensive authorizing bill that institutes performance-based contracts, performance frameworks for each charter school, annual reports by authorizers on school performance, and the default closure of failing schools.  The bill will now head back to the Assembly for concurrence and then on to the Governor.  Meanwhile on Sunday in Minnesota the legislature passed HF 630, their comprehensive education bill, which includes a requirement that authorizers prepare annual reports on school academic, financial, and operational performance—a NACSA best practice.

Last week Nelson Smith and I were in South Carolina, talking with a variety of state officials and stakeholders about H 3853, a forward-thinking bill that contains strong provisions on charter school accountability.  The bill sailed through the House with unanimous support and last week was voted out of the Senate K-12 Education Subcommittee.  Next it has to get out of the full Education Committee and to the Senate floor before session adjourns on June 6th.  The Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina is already planning for next year and we may see proposals on authorizer accountability, facilities, transportation, higher education authorizers, and virtual schools.  Keep your eyes on South Carolina as a developing leader on authorizer policy.

We also continue to keep an eye on Texas as a conference committee convenes to hash out differences between the House and Senate versions of SB 2.  We are hopeful that strong accountability provisions will remain a highlight of this sweeping legislation.

Charter schools may look different from state to state, but one common denominator is that each charter school has an entity that is charged with defining school autonomies and holding the school accountable.  But what do we call this entity: sponsor or authorizer?

When the idea of charter schools was first conceived, Minnesota legislators focused on innovation, experimentation, and flexibility and believed that new and better school models would organically emerge and help shape the traditional school sector.  They imagined autonomous schools and “sponsors” helping these autonomous schools succeed.  Many sponsors created schools that were an extension of their mission or social service programs.  Innovation and autonomy in the charter sector continue to shape public education today with new models like blended learning, programs with longer school days, and non-traditional teacher compensation policies.  And while we hear of many schools’ successes under these new and different models, we also hear of atrocious school failures.  There are many claims, some valid, that failing schools are not held accountable; some point to the system-wide failure of sponsors.

What legislators in those early years didn’t consider fully was the other half of the charter bargain: accountability.  Maybe it was the “Minnesota nice” in them (a term of endearment from a fellow Minnesotan). Maybe it was the opinion that all students were above average.  Or maybe it was just too early in the evolution of charter schools to understand how the charter model, that looked great on paper, would develop in the real world.  As the charter school law was adapted and adopted across the country over the last 20 years, these entities that support, cheerlead, and fist-pump charter schools morphed into “authorizers.”  With a new name came renewed focus on the charter bargain.  The term “authorizer” is more consistent with the legal obligations assigned to them.  Authorizers approve schools, evaluate them, and determine whether they should continue to serve students or close.

Many states still use the term “sponsor” to describe the entity that holds schools accountable, but more and more states are choosing to use “authorizer” to describe this accountability mechanism.  In the places where sponsors hold charter schools accountable, they often also must provide services inconsistent with these legally-assigned duties.  Some states still require sponsors to provide technical assistance to charter schools, creating a problematic conflict for the sponsor when it has to evaluate the school.  As charter schools evolve into the next twenty years, we expect to see clearer and more aligned understanding of the role of the authorizer in both defining autonomies and holding schools accountable.

This past week has been a whirlwind in statehouses across the country, as the pace of legislative proposals picked up in the face of end-of-session deadlines. Over a dozen states are considering policies that would improve authorizing policies and practices.

We are awaiting the final approval by the governors of Indiana and Florida to important changes to their charter laws.  In Texas—home to 10% of the nation’s charter schools—a bill making its way through the legislature has the opportunity for significant impact on the quality of the state’s portfolio of charters. Nevada and South Carolina are both considering bills that advance an approach to authorizing that reflects NACSA’s significant work in the area of performance management for charter schools. And in North Carolina, the Senate passed a bill (SB 337) that would create a new independent commission to oversee charter schools in the state.  Unfortunately it lacks some basic quality control provisions for the authorizer and the charter sector.

As we said at the top: a whirlwind. There is a growing appetite for good authorizing and NACSA is encouraged to see this level of thoughtful discourse in statehouses across the country. With proposals still expected to see action this year in New Jersey and Delaware, this is just the start.   Read more here.

Speaking of creating an ecosystem for charter school accountability, here is Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter School Network (NECSN) with a call for clear quality standards for charter school renewal and revocation that focus on academic results. Phillips also endorses the closure of a low performing charter, a school he says was “one of Buffalo’s worst-performing public schools – charter or district.” With this endorsement,

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NECSN joins other charter associations like the California Charter Schools Association that have made a commitment to quality and accountability even if it means calling for the closure of their own members. These leading associations recognize that failing charter schools are a threat to all those that are succeeding.

Phillips piece is also important because it demonstrates how components of the charter school accountability ecosystem other than authorizers–in this case, a regional charter school support organization–can help to hold authorizers accountable for how the quality of their own performance impacts the likelihood that a failing school faces consequences for its failure.

Phillips applauds the New York State Board of Regents for making “a painful but correct” decision to close a failing charter and for demonstrating that they “care more about

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academic results than regulatory compliance.” At the same time, though, he argues that the Regents could make accountability more likely by making it more fair and predictable. Phillips argues that clear renewal ground rules and consistent feedback could help keep closure fights out of the courts and minimize the ability of low-performing schools to defend themselves with attacks on the process. He encourages the regents to “consider copying the approach used with the State University and UFT Charter School in Brooklyn” where “as part of a multi-year renewal, SUNY told the school precisely how many academic measures it had to meet in order to apply for its next contract. If the school falls short, it automatically closes.” He says “this is fairer to both parties” and will result in a better process overall.

It is this kind of courageous call for quality and accountability that is at the heart of NACSA’s One Million Lives campaign.

 

UCurve

The California U-Curve, California Charter Schools Association

Last month, the US Department of Education and the National Charter School Resource Center hosted an Accountability Summit to explore emerging accountability challenges across the charter school sector and to discuss a variety of strategy and policy options to support quality as the sector expands. NACSA helped organize the event and almost 100 SEA charter school program leaders, representatives from charter support organizations, authorizers, research, advocacy, and policy organizations participated in the event. NACSA president and CEO, Greg Richmond, gave the keynote. Richmond introduced the audience to NACSA’s One Million Lives Campaign and urged the audience to confront the reality that while there are many charter schools that are succeeding by creating new high-quality education opportunities for tens of thousands of students across the country, many of whom our traditional systems have failed to serve, there are also far too many charter schools that are failing to serve their students and need to be closed. Richmond encouraged participants, many if not most of whom were not authorizers but SEA administrators and charter support organization executives, to follow the lead of organizations like the California Charter Schools Association by finding ways to work together with and alongside authorizers to improve accountability for low-performing charters. As the summit proceeded, the need for the wide variety of charter quality stakeholders to create a broad ecosystem of accountability emerged as the clear theme.

 

Today the Center for Education Reform published a report labeling the move toward independent, statewide authorizing commissions as a “dangerous trend.”  Our conclusion based on research and experience couldn’t be more different.  NACSA supports the establishment of statewide charter school commissions because they offer the best opportunity to achieve not just more charter schools but more great charter schools.

We’re encouraged that lawmakers are agreeing, and creating chartering commissions in such relatively conservative states as Georgia and Mississippi and such relatively liberal states as Washington and Hawaii.

Despite years of evidence to the contrary, a small number of charter school advocates still support having dozens of different charter school authorizing organizations in a state.  They argue for quantity in hopes that it will lead to quality.

But the evidence is exactly the opposite. In Ohio and Minnesota, we have seen that the existence of dozens of authorizers creates a race to the bottom.  Weak charter school applicants shop around for the authorizer with the lowest standards and easiest review processes.  Failing schools that are closed by an authorizer with high standards can simply go to another, less-discriminating authorizer that allows them to re-open.

After years of frustration with too many authorizers and too many failing charter schools, charter school advocates in both Minnesota and Ohio passed strong new laws to reduce the number of authorizers in each state.

NACSA supports the creation of statewide charter school commissions because they can develop expertise and capacity to establish appropriate standards for approval and renewal, while maintaining their independence from traditional school district and state education department politics and regulations.

 

Stronger Still

Last week in New Orleans, NACSA wrestled with issues of standardization and differentiation in the charter school sector.

"New Orleans Carriage" Harry A. Nolan, 1923

“New Orleans Carriage” Harry A. Nolan, 1923

We held our annual joint meeting of our Board of Directors and National Advisory Board in the French Quarter and, despite the festive surroundings, had a number of serious and enlightening discussions.  In a dinner discussion that included a number of New Orleans education leaders, people were passionate both about the tremendous education successes in New Orleans, spurred in part by strong accountability, and the fact that the new and improved system is still not succeeding with all students.  The charter school idea is powerful because it supports both accountability and differentiation.  But some felt that standardization was causing us to lose some kids.  Others pointed out that New Orleans is succeeding with more kids than ever before.  Can we develop greater differentiation in this new system while maintaining high standards?  Or is our drive toward higher standards producing homogeneity that leaves some kids behind? Do we reach those kids by holding firm or by differentiating?  Is there a third way?

This tension between homogeneity and differentiation also appeared in discussions about admissions, discipline and expulsion.  Participants in the suspension/expulsion discussion group feared that some charter schools are violating students’ rights.  But other participants in the same group warned that the potential solutions to this problem would lead to “miasmic sameness” among schools.  They argued that we need to protect charter schools’ ability to be maintain their own culture, including discipline.  In fact, some observed that the common enrollment systems being discussed by another group, while potentially solving problems in admissions, might lead to even more students being enrolled in schools in which the student or his family is not familiar with or supportive of the culture of the school.

Differentiation was again a theme in conversations about authorizers.  Many people identified a variety of types of strong authorizing practices, including authorizers that have:

  • the ability to evaluate, not just proposals for individual schools, but to evaluate network growth plans;
  • access to data about student admissions, suspensions and expulsions; and
  • the expertise to evaluate innovative models (e.g. blended learning, alternative schools) and the capacity to develop performance measures that can assess how well those schools are working.

While we would all prefer to have all authorizers be good at everything, this is not likely in a world of 1000 authorizers, most of whom have one charter school.  One way NACSA is dealing with this challenge is the promotion of statewide independent charter boards that develop scale and expertise.  Another idea that was discussed at our meeting is the potential for authorizers to voluntarily develop networks and expertise around certain topics (such as replication, blended learning, and alternative education).

The charter idea is powerful because it incorporates both high standards and differentiation.  We have been working to find the right balance between these forces for twenty years.  If we continue to recognize, respect and build upon the virtues of each, the charter school community will continue to get stronger.

 

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