Posts by Russ Simnick


Russ Simnick


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National Report Shows Need for Education Reform in Oklahoma: Charter Schools in Capital City Provide Model for Rest of State

As the Oklahoma General Assembly convenes this week, it will have a lot of issues on its plate. Always important is the issue of education. Though there are bright spots, such as Oklahoma City charter schools, statewide academic performance is lagging the nation.

A recent Education Week report reveals that Oklahoma eighth grade students ranking “advanced” in math measures on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test was just 3.7 percent, less than half the national average. And fewer than 14 percent of Oklahoma students who took advanced placement tests achieved a high score, which is also about half the national average.

Additional student performance measures on the NAEP math assessments paint a similarly bleak picture. For fourth graders, only 36.4 percent scored proficient in math and fewer than 30 percent hit proficiency in reading. Among eighth graders, one quarter of students were proficient in math, and 28.7 percent in reading. Again, these rank far below the national averages.

However, there was also some positive education news to come out of Oklahoma this month. In an article in the Oklahoman, “Charter Schools Make their Mark on OKC District,” Tim Willert writes that Oklahoma’s small charter school movement is making an impact for kids in the capital city. On the state’s A-F grading metrics, five of the district’s 13 public charter schools received an “A” designation, and three received a “B.” That is more than 60 percent of charter schools in Oklahoma City receiving either of the top two rankings.

For the non-charter schools in that district, more than 63 percent schools in the Oklahoma City district schools scored either a “D” or “F,” with only slightly more than 20 percent scoring an “A” or “B.” Fortunately, rather than seeing these rankings as something to divide charter and non-charter schools, traditional district schools have started to embrace public charter schools as a collaborative partner. Willert notes an interest from interim superintendent Dave Lopez to bring “best practices” from Oklahoma City’s charters to the rest of the district.

Strong charter school academic performance and charter-district collaboration are changing lives in Oklahoma City and it is exciting to see families access these innovative educational options for their children. However, parents outside of the urban centers in Oklahoma do not have this choice, as state law restricts charter schools (with very few exceptions) to Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

As the Education Week report demonstrates, improvement in Oklahoma’s education system is not just a big city issue, but a statewide priority. We know that charter schools are a key part of the solution. With high demand and demonstrated success for charter schools, there has never been a better time for policymakers to lift the restrictions that keep charters confined to the cities and let this proven model be accessible for all of Oklahoma’s students and families.

Russ Simnick is senior director of state advocacy for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. 

Russ Simnick


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Who Will Lead Oklahoma’s Schools? Charter Founders May Square Off in 2014 Election for State Education Chief

Education reformers agree that the Sooner State is one to watch in the years to come. Momentum is currently building in Oklahoma to expand school choice beyond a limited number of charter schools. If this happens, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction would play a key role in advancing current education reform initiatives.

However, with the general election just over a year away, predicting who will be superintendent is a tough task, with as many as seven possible candidates looking to run. Of particular interest to education reformers is that one of the top contenders from each party is a public charter school founder–despite the fact that of the 1,200 schools in the state, only 25 are charter schools.

The current superintendent, Dr. Janet Barresi, is the first Republican state education chief in Oklahoma. In 2000, Barresi founded one of Oklahoma’s first charter schools, Independence Charter Middle School. She is also founder and former board president of Harding Charter Preparatory High School in Oklahoma City.

While Barresi is the only declared candidate on the GOP ticket, Tulsa Republican Joy Hofmeister reportedly resigned from the Oklahoma State Board of Education to explore a candidacy and is now raising funds for a possible challenge.

The Democratic side is more crowded and continues to grow. As of early last week, Democrats Donna Anderson, John Cox, Jack Herron and Ivan Holmes were the declared candidates for their party’s primary. But that changed last Tuesday when Dr. Freda Deskin announced her candidacy.

Dr. Deskin was one of two finalists in the 1980s from Oklahoma competing to become the first teacher in space. She also has something in common with the current superintendent as she too founded a public charter school—ASTEC Charter School in Oklahoma City—where she currently serves as CEO. Her chances of winning the top spot may be aided by former Oklahoma First Lady Kim Henry, who chairs her campaign.

Both Barresi and Deskin are seen as strong candidates who could win their primaries. With charters representing approximately 2 percent of the total number of schools in Oklahoma, it seems hard to believe that two charter school founders could square off in the general election for superintendent. However, when the primary rolls around on June 24, 2014, we may learn that will indeed be the case.

Russ Simnick is a senior director for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Russ Simnick


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Will Virginia’s New Governor Make Charter Schools a Priority?

Four charter schools in 15 years.  At a time when states throughout the nation are embracing charter schools and enrollment in them is growing rapidly, those six words – four charter schools in 15 years – make a strong statement about the charter school movement in Virginia.

Even though a fifth school is anticipated to open in the coming school year, it is still difficult to comprehend how a state could have had a charter school law for so long (15 years), yet serve so few students (fewer than 500). The answer lies in the state charter school law itself.

Virginia’s charter school law is ranked as one of the weakest in the nation by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (#39/43), and it needs improvement across the board. Whether or not those improvements are made may depend on the next governor.

With one of only two 2013 gubernatorial races in the nation (the other is in New Jersey), Virginia voters will decide this November whether former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe or current Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will replace Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Charter schools have support in the Virginia legislature, but it’s going to take a governor to make improving its charter law a priority, which McDonnell did not do. McAuliffe’s campaign website uses a mere 122 words to describe his K-12 education platform. The words charter schools, choice or options are not found anywhere. If he does support charter schools, like many leading Democrats around the country—including President Obama–there’s no indication of it.

Cuccinelli released his detailed education plan last week. He wants to enact a “Parent Empowerment and Choice Act” for parents whose children attend failing schools. This would allow parents to make moves to close failing schools altogether, or convert them into charter schools. Cuccinelli also calls for allowing parents to enroll their students in other public school districts if their current school is failing.

Cuccinelli’s plan states that “Virginia has one of the most useless charter school laws in the country,” and adds that he would advocate for a change to the Virginia constitution that he believes is curtailing charter school growth.

Big changes always come from the top. Will Virginia finally focus on giving families more public school options? In a race that is widely seen to be a tossup, we will have to wait to find out.

Russ Simnick is a senior director of state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Learn More:

McAuliffe for Governor

Cuccinelli for Governor

Russ Simnick


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Guest Blog: Study Shows Indianapolis Charter Success at Key Moment in Movement’s History

Indianapolis charter school performance will be carefully scrutinized in the upcoming battle for scarce dollars for education funding when Indiana begins to draft its two-year budget in January. The National Center on School Choice’s report by Anna Nicotera, “Charter School Effects in an Urban School District: An Analysis of Student Achievement Gains in Indianapolis“, comes at a perfect time to provide an accurate picture of performance in Indianapolis charter schools and provides sound guidance for sustaining the progress achieved.

Since the first student took a seat in an Indianapolis charter school in 2002, more than 23 schools have opened and enrolled approximately 6,000 students in this city. Growing in the shadow of a large, urban district that has experienced declining enrollment for decades, the Indianapolis charter school movement has become a target of the education establishment, accused of taking money from traditional districts but failing on its promise to educate.

The first slings directed toward charter schools were based on untruths and myths. When facts stepped in to repudiate these fallacies, opponents next directed their criticisms to charter school performance using examples of new charter schools that performed poorly on state standardized assessments. Absent in the criticism was attention to mitigating factors such as students’ prior level of academic achievement (often well below grade level), the newness of the school, the limited time the school has had to educate the student before the test and certainly not the amount of growth a student attains regardless of passage or failure on a state assessment. This is why a broader view is needed to more accurately evaluate these schools.

The report found that students who switched to Indianapolis charter schools experienced significant gains in mathematics achievement. Further, the report found gains in reading among these students, but at levels lower than the gains in math. The report also found that parents chose Indianapolis charter schools for academic reasons and that the charter schools differed in their approach to instruction than their traditional public school counterparts.

This is important. Local charter critics claim that charter schools perform no better than district schools and are not innovative. The National Center on School Choice report refutes both claims.

Next, the report indicates that time spent in charter schools is a significant factor in academic growth. This provides support for the argument that it is unfair to judge a charter school’s performance in its first few weeks of operation, regardless of how often charter critics use this tactic.
Finally, it was heartening that the report looked at external factors contributing to charter success in Indianapolis. Mayor Greg Ballard, the only mayor in the nation with authorizing powers, has a strong Office of Charter Schools. Its focus on quality is exceptional, and the results found in this study speak for themselves. Other organizations such as the Indiana Public Charter Schools Association, local business groups, and supportive state officials like Gov. Mitch Daniels, Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, and many legislators have made Indianapolis and the state of Indiana a place with great promise and opportunity for public charter schools.

I am pleased the National Center on School Choice’s well-timed report has provided support for the hard work of these groups and individuals. “Charter School Effects in an Urban School District” provides ammunition to refute the entrenched education establishment’s efforts to criticize charter performance, even if the facts get in the way of their claims.