Guest Post from Rich Haglund, General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer for the Tennessee Achievement School District
Over 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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Oct 22nd, 2013 by Nelson Smith
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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Oct 8th, 2013 by Greg Richmond
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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Aug 23rd, 2013 by Alex Medler
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.
Aug 9th, 2013 by Alex Medler
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…
Aug 1st, 2013 by Alex Medler
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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Jul 23rd, 2013 by Nelson Smith
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.
In 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.
Jul 2nd, 2013 by Alex Medler
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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Jun 21st, 2013 by Alex Medler
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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