Posts by Renita Thukral

 

Renita Thukral

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Weighted Lotteries: Bringing Federal Rules in Line with State Charter School Laws

For years, charter schools across the country have been trying to give preferences to underserved students in their lotteries, only to find themselves barred from federal funding by the Department of Education. In an issue brief published in May 2012, titled “A Mission to Serve: How Public Charter Schools Are Designed to Meet the Diverse Demands of Our Communities,”the National Alliance identified this federal barrier as a major obstacle for the charter school community and urged the department to reconsider its position. Now, they have.

On January 29th, the department released new non-regulatory guidance permitting the targeted use of weighted lotteries. Randomized lotteries still will be used to enroll students on waitlists;, however, a slight preference may be given to certain groups of students – for instance, students with special needs, those who are low-income, homeless or neglected, or those who are learning English.  The updated guidance establishes that a charter school may give a slightly better chance of admission to these educationally disadvantaged students and still be eligible for federal dollars.

The department is not requiring, encouraging, or discouraging schools to use weighted lotteries; this new guidance simply offers charter schools an additional tool to better serve these students. The use of weighted lotteries remains completely voluntary.

So, what does this mean for a school interested in conducting weighted lotteries?  The impact of the new guidance will hinge on state law. Specifically, according to the revised language, a charter school may use a weighted lottery only if such lottery is permitted under state law.

The guidance details several ways in which state law may articulate such permission:  either expressly in statute, policy or regulation, or in a written opinion by the state attorney general. Moreover, if state law provides permission, additional criteria must be satisfied in order for the Department to sign off on a grantee’s eligibility to receive federal dollars. Such additional criteria include whether there is an oversight entity (such as an authorizer) monitoring the use of weighted lotteries, whether such lotteries serve the approved mission of the school, and whether the weights assigned through the lottery are reasonable.

This new guidance brings the federal government in line with existing state statutes and policies and offers another tool to charter schools to enroll a greater number of educationally disadvantaged students.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Renita Thukral

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Reason #4: Charter schools are tuition-free, public schools, open to anyone.

NACPS_fb_v2-05Charter schools are open-enrollment, tuition-free, public schools. Any student can attend a public charter school and typically there are no admissions requirements. In addition, public charter schools must serve all students who seek to attend (provided there are available seats). Under the law, public charter schools cannot discriminate, and state and federal civil rights laws apply to every public charter school in the country.

If more students wish to enroll in public charter schools than the schools can accommodate, the school must hold an admissions lottery.  These admission lotteries are random—everyone has an equal chance of being selected.

But some charter schools are created with a mission to serve a special blend of students. Just yesterday, the United States Department of Education released new guidance allowing public charter schools to give preference in enrollment lotteries to students who are low-income, have special education needs, are neglected or homeless, or may be learning English. This new guidance gives charter schools another tool to ensure high-quality options are available to educate more of our country’s most underserved families and students.

Unlike traditional district schools, no student is ever assigned to a charter schools.  Instead, families and students choose to attend public charter schools. As schools of choice, charter schools compete with other schools to fill their seats and receive funding only for the students who enroll.  As a result, the pressure is on schools to offer unique, innovating teaching models in order to attract and retain students.

Public charter schools are held to the same academic standards, established by state law, as all other public schools. And, notably, unlike traditional public schools, public charter schools can be—and sometimes are—shut down for failing to meet state academic standards. Simply put, failing charter schools are not permitted to continue operating.

All children deserve access to high-quality public schools. For families who need options, public charter schools are here to serve students of every type.

This blog is the fourth in a series called “5 Reasons Public Charter Schools are Great” to celebrate School Choice Week. To read the other posts in the series, visit The Charter Blog here.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Renita Thukral

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A Legal Question for Charter Schools: Can We Operate a Single-Gender Charter School in Delaware?

In early January, a federal district court in Delaware was asked to consider a very tricky question: would closing an academically failing all-girls charter school (as the school’s authorizer recommended) violate the federal constitutional ban against gender discrimination? The all-girls school argued it would; the state of Delaware argued it would not and emphasized the state’s authority and obligation to close failing charter schools. The court sided with the school. As a result, the academically failing all-girls charter school will continue to operate for an additional year.

This feels like an odd result: A court permits a failing school to continue operating, even though the school’s authorizer says it needs to close. What’s going on?

The federal constitution and Title IX require boys and girls to have substantially equivalent access to educational opportunities. Right now, there is an all-boys charter school operating in Delaware. It performs well and continues to be renewed. The failing all-girls charter school in question is the state’s only all-girls charter school.  If it is closed, no equivalent educational option would exist for Delaware girls.  Further complicating matters, new single-gender charter schools cannot open in Delaware because the statutory provision permitting such schools sunset on June 30, 2013.

Taken together, the court determined that closing the only all-girls charter school combined with the state’s statutory ban against opening a new all-girls charter school would indefinitely prevent Delaware girls from accessing a substantially equivalent education, as is required under binding Supreme Court precedent interpreting Title IX in this context (established in 1995 in United States v. Virginia). Even though this means Delaware girls may continue choosing and attending a failing school for another year, the federal district court felt its hands were tied.

Renita Thukral

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Washington State Charter School Law Upheld in Court

On December 12, the King County Superior Court in Seattle ruled in League of Women Voters of Washington v. State of Washington, finding that public charter schools are legally permissible in Washington State. As detailed in this blog previously, the case challenged the state constitutionality of Washington’s recently-enacted Charter School Act with seven different claims. Many of the arguments echoed those raised in constitutional challenges filed against charter school laws in other states; other claims relied on unique provisions of Washington’s constitution.

The trial court upheld the act, with two exceptions. Judge Jean Rietschel held that the court was bound by a 1909 state supreme court decision (School District No. 20 v. Bryan) to find that charter schools are not “common schools” because they lack local school district-based voter control (a unique provision of the WA constitution). As a result, the court concluded charter schools are not eligible to receive construction funds reserved by the state for its “common schools.”  However, these two aspects of Washington’s Charter School Act are severable, meaning they can be struck down while the rest of the law remains intact.

We expect plaintiffs to file an appeal, and we anticipate the case will proceed to Washington State Supreme Court by next summer. However, even if the state supreme court agrees with Judge Reitschel and affirms the trial court’s decision, the immediate impact will be minimal. Most charter applicants seeking to open schools in 2014 have proposed leasing space in existing schools or community facilities; they are not intending to construct or remodel facilities before opening their doors and therefore do not qualify for the common school construction funds.

As this case winds its way through the legal process, charter school applicants are charging ahead. The Washington State Charter School Commission and Spokane Public Schools are continuing their consideration of 21 applications for eight spots. For the students and families looking to attend charter schools next year and the teachers, parents, and community leaders working to open them, last week’s ruling was a green light to proceed.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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School Spotlight: Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School Serves ELL Students Well

Earlier this year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a toolkit to help charter schools better serve English Language Learners, understand federal civil rights laws and regulations, and learn about best practices underway across the country. The Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) is one of the schools profiled in the toolkit.

Located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, FACTS is a K–8 school founded by Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project in 2005 with the goal of serving immigrant and refugee communities.

In the 2012-13 school year, FACTS enrolled 479 students, approximately 68 percent of whom were Asian American, 20 percent were African American, 6 percent were multi- racial, 4 percent were Latino, and 2 percent were white. Sixteen percent of these students were classified as English Language Learners (ELLs), with approximately 70 percent of the student body speaking a language other than English at home. FACTS has seen remarkable success–meeting its Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for four consecutive years and Annual Measurable Achievement Objective (AMAO) for ELL students as well.

FACTS attributes their success to several best practices:

  • When FACTS opened, one of its founding organizations, Asian Americans United, already had a reputation among immigrant communities as a trustworthy resource and partner. Recruiting efforts included direct engagement with immigrant families in their resident neighborhoods. Over time, the school proved itself successful and parent demand rose quickly. In 2012-13, the school’s waiting list had over 400 students, including 140 hoping to enroll in kindergarten.
  • To evaluate each ELL student’s academic abilities, the school uses comprehensive assessment tools like:
    • a home language survey that captures nuanced information such as the dominant language for both father and mother;
    • a detailed assessment of state standardized test scores; and,
    • input from teachers, administrators, and parents.
  • ELL students are on a “flexible program model” customized to their individual needs and designed to integrate these students into general education classrooms as much as possible.
  • FACTS’s students are monitored for two years after they exit the ELL program. Additionally, to monitor its program’s overall success, FACTS conducts an annual evaluation based on students’ test scores and feedback from administrators, parents, teachers, and students.
  • FACTS translates the school’s application, flyers for events, and all notices sent to students’ homes. An interpreter language line service is available when parents call the school, and FACTS offers professional interpreters to ensure parents are able to participate fully for report card conferences and at school events.

FACTS is an excellent example of how charter schools have the ability to serve ELL students well. To learn more about the work of FACTS, visit http://www.factschool.org/. 
To learn about other schools and best practices, view the toolkit here.

This blog is excerpted from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ recent publication, Serving English Language Learners:  A Toolkit for Public Charter Schools.

Renita Thukral is vice president for legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Renita Thukral

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Washington State Should Reject Charter School Opponents’ Failed Tactics

In November 2012, Washington state voters became the first in the country to approve a public charter school law by a ballot initiative. Initiative 1240 authorized the creation of 40 charter schools over five years beginning with the 2014 school year.  Just months after I-1240 passed, however, charter school opponents filed a lawsuit in state court to block the law from being implemented, arguing it violated the state constitution in several ways.

This is not the first time charter school opponents have taken their policy disputes to court when they haven’t been successful convincing legislators or voters to block charter schools. In fact, over the past 15 years, arguments similar to those made by Washington charter school opponents have been tried in other states, and they have failed every time. From California to Ohio to New Jersey, the same constitutional claims raised in the Washington case have been raised and rejected by state courts of appeal and state supreme courts.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently released a paper explaining when and where these constitutional claims have been made, what the respective outcomes were, and how the lessons learned from these cases can–and should–be applied to the Washington constitutional challenge.

Washington courts should follow the sound reasoning applied by other state courts that have considered and denied similar constitutional arguments.  Each of the arguments raised in the Washington suit have been presented, in one form or another, to other state courts with comparable constitutional provisions, and they have been uniformly rejected. The Washington courts should do the same.

This blog is excerpted from the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s publication,  We’ve Been Here Before:  Charter School Opponents Use Same Legal Arguments and Lose Every Time, by Chad A. Readler and Kenneth M. Grose.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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School Spotlight: El Sol Science and Arts Academy Serving English Language Learners Well

Located in Santa Ana, California, El Sol Science and Arts Academy (El Sol) is a dual immersion school using a 90/10 model. When the students enroll in kindergarten, 90 percent of the day is conducted in Spanish. The rate decreases by 10 percentage points each year until the fourth grade when the students reach a 50/50 language ratio.

Opened in 2001 with a kindergarten and first grade class, El Sol has added one grade level each year. During the 2012-13 school year, El Sol served 763 students in K–8th grade and 72 students in its part time pre-k program. Ninety-six percent of El Sol students were Latino, many of whom were recent immigrants. Moreover, 70 percent were English Language Learners (ELL), and 80 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch.

Here are a few of the ways El Sol is working to serve ELL students:

Special Programs 

  • Every student who enrolls must complete a home language survey that is required by the State of California. The answers to the survey determine whether the student must take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) to determine her/his level of English proficiency. This test helps determine the particular level of instruction the student will need, and El Sol provides targeted instruction in each grade at every needed proficiency level.
  • The students have a longer than normal school day and extended day tutoring programs are available for students who need them.
  • To assess academic progress, students undergo writing and oral assessments in addition to the required standardized exams. Students’ portfolios and grades are discussed by teachers before making decisions to advance the respective students to the next level.

Parent Engagement and Cultural Understanding 

  • To ensure parents understand what is happening in their child’s school, all school correspondence goes home in English and Spanish, and virtually the entire staff can speak both languages.
  • The school offers a full array of family services, including an onsite wellness center, ESL and citizenship courses for parents, and attorneys who come in to do pro bono work.

Bilingual Teachers 

  • El Sol partners with local universities to recruit high-quality teachers. One nearby university, Chapman University’s School of Education, sends student teachers to the school as part of their training program.
  • Teachers at El Sol are required to have a bilingual certificate in language acquisition development in addition to their teaching credential.
  • El Sol seeks out teachers who have taken nontraditional paths to the profession. They often hire staff from other countries who do not have U.S. teaching credentials but do have higher education degrees from other countries. They use them as instructors who supplement the work of teachers.

El Sol’s model is an excellent example for all charter schools. As the charter school movement grows, we must continue to serve all students well, preparing them for academic success and beyond.

Renita Thukral is vice president for legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

This blog is excerpted from the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s publication, Serving English Language Learners:  A Toolkit for Public Charter Schools. 

Renita Thukral

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New Organization Will Help Strengthen Special Education in Charter Schools

Earlier this month, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) announced its launch at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ (NACSA) 2013 Leadership Conference. This new nonprofit organization is the first to focus solely on working proactively with states, authorizers, charter school and special education advocates, and other stakeholders committed to serving students with special needs. NCSECS will seek to improve access, create dynamic learning opportunities, and address barriers that may impede charter schools from enrolling and effectively educating students with disabilities.

Accompanying its national launch, NCSECS released its first publication, Improving Access and Creating Exceptional Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools. The report:

•    explores the relevant legal framework that shapes special education in the charter sector;
•    outlines both the challenges and opportunities facing charter operators;
•    identifies key accountability structures; and
•    offers recommendations for improvement.

Notably, the organization’s co-founders and report’s co-authors, Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O’Neill, begin their analysis with a cautionary note:

“Provision of special education and related services in public charter schools has been an ongoing source of debate since the sector’s inception:  Where do these new, autonomous schools fit in the topography of public schools under federal special education requirements? And are public charter schools welcoming students with diverse learning needs?…The charter sector needs to proactively address concerns related to access and provision of quality services for students with disabilities.”

Their words could not come at a better time. The charter sector has seen litigation across the country—sometimes against individual school operators, sometimes against the entire charter community in a city (for instance, in New Orleans and Washington D.C.)—claiming charters aren’t meeting their legal obligations to serve special needs children. To make sure we stay on the right side of the law, charter schools must comply with all federal and state civil rights laws, including those that protect special-needs students. This new report and organization will be helpful tools in ensuring that compliance.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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California Charter Schools’ Fight for Facilities Heads to State Supreme Court

Many charter schools across the country don’t have access to adequate buildings or facilities funding. It’s a national problem with significant consequences. Quality facilities are hard to find and often unaffordable, limiting charter schools’ enrollment and expansion, and forcing students onto long waiting lists.

Most state charter laws place the burden of obtaining and paying for facilities on charter schools. These schools must pay rent or mortgage costs directly out of their operating budgets – which means every dollar spent on a charter school facility is a dollar taken out of the classroom. By contrast, traditional district schools are provided buildings rent-free by their districts.

In 2000, California voters took matters into their own hands, signaling their commitment to treat all public school students equally. They approved Proposition 39 (Prop 39) to address charters’ facilities struggle. The law says “public school facilities should be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools,” and requires school districts to make “reasonably equivalent” facilities available to charter schools upon request.

Unfortunately, getting Prop 39 on the books wasn’t enough. Over the past decade, California school districts have not complied consistently with the law, resulting in confusion and uncertainty for CA charters. In 2010, the California Charter Schools Association fought back by suing the Los Angeles Unified School District. Over the course of the protracted litigation – marked by a trial court win for charters, then an appellate court loss – the parties have argued how to apply Prop 39’s language, in particular how to calculate what constitutes an “equivalent” amount of space. The case has now made its way to the California Supreme Court, where oral arguments will be scheduled in the coming months.

Renita Thukral is vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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The Newest Charter School Law Under Siege: Washington State Charter Advocates Go to Court

Charter school advocates in Washington State are defending their brand new charter school  law in King County Superior Court. The new law is modest; it opens the door for charter schools in Washington State and gives students, families and communities the opportunity to get acquainted with the charter school model and school choice. It authorizes up to 40 public charter schools over the next five years, with a maximum of eight new schools permitted to open across the state in a single year. The law explicitly seeks to provide alternatives for “at-risk” students or students in low-performing public schools. The initiative’s drafters put two decades of national experience to good use, writing one of the nation’s best laws; the National Alliance ranks Washington State’s law as the third strongest in the country.

Nevertheless, opponents of the law, including the League of Women Voters of Washington, the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Washington Education Association, allege charter schools are unconstitutional on three grounds:

  • Charter schools are unconstitutional under the Washington state constitution’s mandate for the state to provide a “general and uniform” system of education;
  • Funding for charter schools is unconstitutional because charters receive monies earmarked for “common schools” and charters are not “common schools” under WA state law;
  • The statewide charter school authorizer is impermissible because the State Superintendent does not have supervisory authority over schools authorized by the independent commission in violation of the WA constitution.

Similar constitutional challenges have been filed in several other states – California, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and Utah – and all have failed. Charter advocates in Washington State are aggressively defending their law, and it is expected this battle eventually will land in Washington State Supreme Court. The National Alliance applauds the team of charter advocates in Washington State for their tenacious and unshakeable commitment to the students of their state.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.