Posts by Christy Wolfe


Christy Wolfe


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New National Alliance Report Examines the Role of a Charter School Model in Turning around Failing Schools

The latest efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), H.R. 5 and S. 1177, have passed the House and Senate, but the issue of accountability for intervening in low-performing schools is far-from settled.  While both bills require states to measure student academic achievement, states are not required to intervene in struggling schools based on those results.  And while the National Alliance supports requiring states to intervene in the lowest performing schools, as well as closing failing public charter schools, the effectiveness of current federally funded school improvement is still in question.  How have students benefitted from billions of dollars in funds to turn around schools, particularly since 2010?

The National Alliance has been a strong advocate leveraging federal school improvement dollars more effectively to provide students in those failing schools with access to seats in high quality schools.  We’ve called for changes to the current School Improvement Grant program in order to make it possible for states to implement city-based school improvement strategies and to encourage the use of the charter school restart of traditional public schools.  To date, less than 80 schools have undergone a charter school restart, a small fraction of the approximately 2,000 schools that have received funding.

Because of the small number of charter school restarts of traditional public schools, there hasn’t been statistically significant data showing how those schools are performing as a subset of all schools doing turnaround.  In order to highlight the work of charter organizations doing the difficult work of turning around persistently low-achieving schools, we’ve published a new report, Chartering Turnaround: Leveraging Public Charter School Autonomy to Address Failure, which profiles the work of three charter management organizations (CMOs) to restart traditional public schools.

This report finds that there isn’t anything “magic” about making schools charter schools that leads to achievement gains.  The work is difficult, but it is leading to promising results. The operators of these schools point to autonomy over staff, access to facilities, curriculum, use of time and finances as empowering them to overhaul the school, change the culture and move it forward.  Moreover, there are a number of obstacles that make a restart more challenging than opening a new charter school, such as transition costs and overlapping accountability requirements. And unlike new start charter schools, they must accept all students in their attendance zone that want to attend their school, regardless of capacity. In spite of these challenges, the CMOs in our report are achieving results high-need student populations.

The CMOs profiled in our report – Green Dot Public Schools, LEAD Public Schools and Mastery Charter Schools – believe strongly that more CMOs need to be doing this work; that even though it is more difficult than opening a brand new charter school, the opportunities outweigh the challenges.

Download our latest report

Christy Wolfe is a Senior Policy Advisor for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Christy Wolfe


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Title I Funding and Charter Schools: How the Dollars Follow (or Don’t Follow) Students

The Title I portability proposals in the House (H.R. 5) and Senate ESEA reauthorization bills have generated a fair amount of debate (and hand wringing) in the last few months. So much so that the President has threatened to veto H.R. 5, and the Senate responded by removing the portability language from its original proposal. For those who are not familiar with the portability concept, the portability proposals would allow states to make an average allocation per-child to public schools based on the number of eligible students choosing to attend that school, instead of using the current Title I formulas to determine allocations to school districts. In doing so, it would flatten out funding and eliminate high per-child allocations to districts and schools with higher concentrations of poverty.

In order to understand how charter schools could be impacted by portability, it is important to understand how charter schools are currently funded under Title I. In the case of a charter school that is a Local Education Agency (LEA), determining Title I allocations is complicated. In some cases funds follow the child from a district to some charter school LEAs, and in other cases charter LEAs receive statewide average per-child allocations. Given how little is generally understood of how Title I funding reaches charter schools, consider this blog your opportunity to get a crash-course in how it works.

Title I Funding Works Differently for Charter School LEAs

First, it is important to understand that all charter schools are public schools and are subject to the same Title I eligibility requirements as district-run public schools. While some charter schools receive their funding through a school district, other charter schools operate as their own school district (LEA), and the state determines their funding share. Many of these charter school LEAs have a type of Title I portability funding their school, because Title I dollars go directly to the school instead of the district. But this doesn’t necessarily lead to equitable funding, or a Title I allocation that corresponds to the actual number or percentage of students in poverty in each school.

Second, under current law, census data on children living in poverty determines the amount of Title I funds that go to the district (in accordance with four complex funding formulas). This is what is called a per “formula” child allotment. After the funds reach the district, there is an entirely different process for determining which schools get funded.

For charter schools that are their own LEAs, understanding how their allocation from their State Educational Agencies (SEA) corresponds to their number or percentage of children living in poverty is even more difficult. This is because, unlike most Title I schools receiving funds from their district, there isn’t a direct or consistent relationship between the number or percentage of eligible children attending a charter school LEA and their average Title I per-pupil allotment.

So, why is Title I charter school funding all over the map? Shouldn’t a charter school serving similar concentrations of students in poverty get the same funding as a traditional public school in the same neighborhood, serving the same students? While that seems logical, charter schools don’t fit neatly into Title I calculations. Since charter school LEAs do not have district boundaries, census data on children in poverty in a geographic area can’t be used (generally) to determine their federal formula allocations. Consequently, SEAs can’t use any of the four funding formulas as it does for traditional public school districts, and must use a different process to calculate what a charter school LEA gets.

Calculating How Much (or Whether) Money Follows the Child

There are two ways to determine how much a charter school LEA receives, and both depend on SEA estimates of census poverty children, using data such as free and reduced-price lunch (FRPL). Once the SEA has this data, the following are the methods prescribed by U.S. Department Education (ED) guidance and regulations for allocating Title I funds to charter schools:

  1. Title I traditional district “per-child” allocations follow the child to a charter school LEA: If an SEA can determine the traditional LEA where the students attending a charter school came from, the charter school LEA receives the per formula child allocation that a state allocates to the “sending” LEA (ie, the school district where the child would otherwise attend school). As a result, charter school LEAs can receive differing amounts per eligible child attending their school depending on where their students live. Due to a bias in the formula in favor of large districts, among other factors, allocations per formula child to districts can range widely—In Texas, for example, from less than $500 to more than $3,000 per student.

    As a result, a charter school LEA’s average Title I grants per child is a function of the percentage and number of formula children in the sending LEAs, not of the charter school LEA itself. In other words, a child can come to the school with their district’s Title I allocation strapped to their back, but not all funding backpacks will have the same amount of funds in them. In a large metropolitan area with multiple charter school LEAs and traditional LEAs, the average Title I grant per formula child may vary widely, depending on the proportions of students from low-income families from different sending LEAs.

  1. Statewide average “per-child” allocations follow the child to a charter school LEA: If an SEA is not able to determine the “sending” school district of charter school students, charter school LEAs are funded similar to the current Title I portability proposals: they receive the statewide formula per-child allocation. Unlike the first option, these allocations are taken from every school district in the state, not just the sending school districts. Under this policy, grants per child do not generally vary among charter school LEAs within the same state—so all those funding backpacks are pretty much the same. Notably these “average” allocations may not be the right size if the school is a high- or low-poverty school.

In either of the two methods described above, the Title I formulas are not directly used to calculate the allocation of a particular charter school LEA, which is why the poverty of the school doesn’t necessarily correspond to the funding it receives. An alternative approach to the two methods could instead allow charter schools to receive allocations based on the formulas, using an option available to states when they allocate funds to areas with fewer than 20,000 people. Under this method, a charter school LEA would receive an allocation from its SEA using the poverty data available for its school, and the per-child allocation would be determined by the four Title I formulas, not by the statewide allocation or the sending LEA. Under this option, increases in the number of students in poverty attending a charter school could increase the amount allocated per child and the amount of funds allocated to the school.

There are other issues in the formulas themselves that affect allocations to charters, including the bias in the formula towards large, urban LEAs, which can mean that some traditional school districts get a significantly higher per child allocation than smaller districts with higher poverty rates. The National Alliance explores these issues in its recently released publication by Wayne Riddle: Issues in the Allocation of ESEA Title I Funds to Charter Schools. In this paper we provide a detailed explanation of current law and how the formulas work in the allocation of funds to charter schools. Our goal is to explore what changes in the law and ED guidance might help improve the transparency of allocations to charter school LEAs, as well as ensure that higher-poverty charter schools receive funds consistent with the Title I formulas’ intent to allocate larger amounts per child to LEAs with higher levels of poverty.

Christy Wolfe


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Some Federal Implications of NACSA Quality Recommendations

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released Replicating Quality: Policy Recommendations to Support the Replication and Growth of High-Performing Charter Schools and Networks in collaboration with the Charter School Growth Fund last week. This report lays out key policies and practices for legislators, authorizers, and state education agencies that have the greatest potential to accelerate the growth of high-performing charter schools. Although the report is focused on state policies, there are implications for the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) and how it prioritizes funds to states.

As we outline in our guiding principles for ESEA reauthorization, Free to Succeed, the National Alliance supports prioritizing federal funds for charter schools for states with laws that are best positioned to encourage quality charter schools.

Unless ESEA is reauthorized and includes our recommendations before the next round of five year state CSP grants are awarded in FY 2015, the department should set priorities for the next competition that are effective in directing funds to states with strong charter school laws.  Several of NACSA’s policy recommendations are well-aligned with our recommendations for state law priorities for the Charter Schools Program including:

  • Independent Charter Boards:  To ensure authorizers are committed to quality (NACSA Policy Recommendation #2), NACSA advocates that states adopt  the National Alliance’s Model Law recommendation for creating at least one statewide authorizing entity.  Federal law already encourages states to create a statewide authorizer, so this would be a plus for applicants in the grant competition process.
  • Remove caps on growth: To allow quality charters to grow, states should remove caps from their laws (NACSA Policy Recommendation #3). Charter caps limit replication of proven, quality charter schools. In Free to Succeed we call for a funding priority to be given to states with charter laws that allow for high-quality school growth without artificial caps.
  • Differentiated renewal processes:  NACSA recommends differentiating and streamlining the renewal process for high-performing charters (NACSA Policy Recommendation #5). For example, Texas and Delaware offer ten-year reviews for their highest-performing charter schools. Federal law, however, prioritizes states that review all charters at least every five years. The next grant competition should not penalize states that have developed a more nuanced renewal process that supports high-quality charters.

NACSA’s report also underscores that creating high-quality charter schools is not as simple as coming up with a federal definition of quality. It takes a comprehensive effort to develop the essential policies and practices at the state, authorizer, and school level.  Federal priorities for state grants should recognize state, authorizer, and school-driven efforts to implement these important strategies.

Christy Wolfe is senior policy advisor for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Nora Kern, senior manager of research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, also contributed to this blog post.

Christy Wolfe


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Feds Miss the Mark Attempting to Define “Quality” in Proposed Federal Priorities for National Leadership Dollars

As part of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) the Secretary of Education is required to reserve 5 percent of the total appropriation for the National Leadership Activities Grant, which funds specific initiatives to improve charter school quality. For FY 2014, this is approximately $11 million.

In December, the U. S. Department of Education issued a notice of proposed priorities for National Leadership Activity funds that includes a definition a “high-quality charter school” that would apply to grant activities funded in the notice.

The National Alliance is pleased that the department sought input from the charter school community in the development of these priorities, as there are pressing needs and challenges facing the community. The proposed funding priorities are intended to address the following issues:


  1. Improving efficiency through economies of scale.
  2. Improving accountability through better authorizing practices.
  3. Improving students with disabilities’ access to charter schools and student achievement.
  4. Improving English learner students’ access to charter schools and student achievement.
  5. Personalized technology-enabled learning.

The National Alliance submitted comments that support these priorities, especially those that improve quality authorizing and help charter schools better serve students with disabilities and English language learners.

However, we are very concerned about the use of a definition of high-quality charter school. The definition the department intends to use was developed for the Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools program, which is focused on the replication of schools serving mostly disadvantaged students, and has only been used to score those grant applications. We have extensive concerns that the department may intend to use it more broadly, making it the de facto definition of quality for all federally-funded charter school activities.

There are some basic technical issues with how the department applies the definition to the approval of new charter schools. For example, the definition requires achievement data, but schools that are haven’t opened yet will not have that information. The definition also fails to take into account the critical role of authorizers and state accountability systems and numerous other factors that constitute a quality school.

After reviewing public comments, the department will issue a Notice of Final Priorities, which will include a response to all comments. We expect that to happen sometime this spring.

Click here to read the National Alliance’s submitted comments on the proposed priorities and use of the “high-quality charter school” definition.

Christy Wolfe is senior policy advisor for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Christy Wolfe


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Alternative Charter Schools: Should Traditional Accountability Measures Apply?

Should there be “alternate” accountability systems for charter schools that intentionally serve students at risk of academic failure?

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released a report last week that examines this question.Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence-Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools offers a set of recommendations for authorizers wrestling with this issue to ensure that quality is appropriately measured at schools with a stated mission of serving high-risk students. Typical accountability measures such as grade-level proficiency and graduation rates may not offer the same barometers of quality in alternative settings. And trying to make current accountability measures “fit” these schools has too often been a matter of simply setting lower expectations. Parents and students should be confident that accountability measures are appropriate for their school and not simply a means to avoid real accountability for educational improvement.

But what is an alternative charter school?

The report provides an interesting window into how states have approached defining alternative charter schools. Colorado has set the highest bar, requiring that 95 percent of a school’s students be classified as “high risk” in order for the school to be moved into its alternate accountability system. Washington, D.C. determined that 60 percent is an appropriate threshold. Texas defines schools where more than 50 percent of its students are 17 or older as a dropout recovery school. California requires at least 70 percent of students at a school fall into one of seven at-risk categories before it is called “alternative.” California also has a specific definition for a dropout recovery school as schools with at least 50 percent of its students classified as dropouts or students who have transferred but not reenrolled in another school for 180 days. Other states have no threshold and only require that a school’s stated mission be to serve an alternative population.

The report recommends setting a high bar when defining such schools. Schools should only be classified as alternative if they have a large percentage of students with extraordinary learning difficulties, acute risks to their ability to succeed, or a documented history of academic failure that leaves them significantly far behind their age group in high school credits.

All public schools, including public charter schools, should receive credit for the progress that they make with high-risk students. But unless there are clear definitions of “alternative” public charter schools, however, there is a “high risk” of simply making excuses for schools and not evaluating them on the basis of clear performance measures.

Christy Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Christy Wolfe


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State Accountability Systems Could Change as ESEA Waiver Renewal Process Gets Underway: Now is the Time to Get Involved.

The ESEA accountability landscape across the county is about to shift again – but not because Congress has come to agreement on ESEA. Due to Congress’ lack of progress on the long overdue ESEA reauthorization, the U.S. Department of Education is instead taking steps to extend the flexibility it has provided states in holding schools accountable for student achievement. The first two rounds of states that that had their waivers approved have been invited to begin the renewal application process. Thirty-five states were approved in those rounds and are set to see their flexibility expire.

The U.S. Department of Education has released guidance for the renewal of ESEA waivers, and it isn’t as straightforward as many would have liked. In addition to requiring that states demonstrate that they are fulfilling the commitments made in their approved waiver plan, there are several new requirements they must address in their application related to teacher quality and the distribution of effective teachers.

The Department is also using the renewal process to address concerns with perceived accountability loopholes under the current waiver process. To look more closely at how school accountability has played out in states with waivers, the Department is examining state achievement and graduation rate data, as well as whether schools are being held accountable for the achievement of all students.

If the data indicates that a state’s accountability system is not identifying low-performing schools and subgroups appropriately, the Department “will work with the [state] to determine if there is any misidentification or under-identification of schools” and figure out why. The Department will provide states with this data in October.

While many states may want to stick with their current accountability plans, the Department’s findings and new requirements may require them to make changes. Now is the time to get involved in providing input into your state’s renewal application, as they are due as early as January 2, 2014, depending on which phase a state chooses to submit their application.

Ultimately, the National Alliance would rather see ESEA reformed and reauthorized, eliminating the need for waivers. Congress should see this complicated, convoluted, state-by-state waiver renewal process as another reason to reform the underlying statute governing school accountability as quickly as possible.

Christine Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Christy Wolfe


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Accountability Standards for Teacher Prep Programs Overdue

The National Alliance joined a coalition of 23 leaders in the education reform movement in issuing a letter calling for the Obama Administration to seek public comments on its draft Higher Education Act (HEA) rules which would shine a spotlight on teacher preparation program quality, programs that receive approximately $4 billion each year from the federal government. These draft regulations were released in early 2012 but haven’t moved forward since then.

In order to address concerns with the quality of teacher preparation programs and to identify high quality, as well as low-performing programs, the U.S. Department of Education proposed rules that would require states to:

1. Meaningfully assess teacher preparation program performance; and
2. Hold programs accountable for results.

The rule-making panel didn’t agree on all points, but did agree that the quality of a teacher preparation program should be directly linked to the student outcomes of their graduates. The next step in the process is for the U.S. Department to issue the proposed rules for public comment, but they are apparently stuck in the Administration’s clearance process.

Whether a school is a traditional or public charter school, teacher quality matters.  Teacher preparation programs play a critical role in preparing teachers for success in the classroom. Effective teachers are the single most important school-based factor in student learning and are critical to successful schools. Particularly in high-poverty schools, teachers can mean the difference between students meeting grade level expectations or falling farther behind. The stakes are too high for students; teacher preparation programs should be held accountable for not preparing teachers well.

Despite requirements that have been in current law for more than 10 years, for states to assess teacher preparation programs and identify the lowest performers, less than 3 percent of all colleges and universities with teacher training programs have been identified as low-performing, and most states have never identified a single low-performing program.

Now is the time to move forward with meaningful reporting and accountability to ensure that low-performing teacher preparation programs are improved.

Christine Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Christy Wolfe


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Public Charter Schools Need a New Elementary Secondary Education Act

The National Alliance has released its priorities for the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA): Free to Succeed: Public Charter Schools & the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The last time Congress reauthorized the law, public charter schools were an educational experiment, and the purpose of the Charter Schools Program (CSP) was to increase the “national understanding” of the charter school model. Today public charter schools are no longer a fragile educational experiment, but rather a robust sector that is driving educational innovation throughout the country. Moreover, there is significant demand for seats in high quality charter schools—demand that exceeds capacity by nearly 600,000 seats.

There are many programs in ESEA that impact public charter schools, not just the Charter Schools Program for start-ups. That is why Congress needs to renew ESEA in order to preserve charter school autonomy and foster expansion of the number of high quality public charter schools throughout the nation.

Our proposal includes four key principles (detailed in the paper):

1. Expand and reform the Charter Schools Program 

  • CSP grants should be awarded to the statewide entity that is best able to administer the grant. Therefore, the list of eligible applicants should be expanded to include other statewide entities, such as statewide charter boards and Charter Support Organizations.
  • CSP should encourage the creation of quality schools by prioritizing funds for states with laws that, for example, do not arbitrarily restrict charter school growth and that provide for equitable funds, promote facilities access and work to ensure charter autonomy over personnel and operations.
  • Recipients of state grants should have the flexibility to award state CSP funds for replication and expansion, not just start-ups.
  • The law should include the current national grant competition for the replication and expansion of high quality schools.

2. Recognize success and implement consequences for failing charter schools 

States should hold all schools accountable for improving the student achievement of all students and groups of students. Clear parameters should be set by states for the non-renewal, nonrenewal and revocation of charters. Failing charter schools should be closed and not required to implement federal turnaround requirements.

3. Encourage innovation and eliminate unnecessary regulations

The definition of a “highly qualified teacher” has created a web of burdensome requirements that have little to show in terms of results. Instead of focusing on credentials, federal law should encourage teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Charter schools should also have freedom to design and implement their own teacher evaluation systems. Congress should also authorize the Investing in Innovation program (i3).

4. Ensuring equitable treatment and funding of public charter schools in federal programs  

Changes should be made to federal formula grant programs to ensure equitable funding for public charter schools, including new and expanding charter schools. States and districts should be clearly required to consult with charter schools leaders when working to develop their Title I plans for services for educationally disadvantaged students. States or districts that use weighted-student funding formulas should be permitted to allow federal dollars to follow a student to their school of choice.

The National Alliance will be working with Congress to ensure that our principles are reflected in a new ESEA. We look forward to working with the charter school community to support their inclusion into the new law.