Nora Kern


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Diversity in Charter School Models

A recent report by AEI, Measuring Diversity in Charter School Offerings, examines the type of instructional model used by 1,151 public charter schools in 17 U.S. cities to see what the available options are for families interested in public schools of choice. Using the National Alliance’s Data Dashboard to identify every charter school in their target cities, the researchers then scoured each school’s website and coded information about its pedagogy (e.g. “no excuses,” online, or single-sex learning) and content (e.g. STEM, arts, or vocational) emphasis. Overall, the report found an almost even split between “specialized” and “general” public charter schools—those without a particular pedagogy or curriculum. A foundational idea behind the public charter school movement is to give charter schools the autonomy to be innovative, and the amount of specialized schools suggests that this idea is being implemented.  

In terms of the specialized schools, the most common models were no excuses (“generally used to describe schools that have strict discipline systems and high expectations for student behavior,” according to the AEI report) and progressive (including “project- and inquiry-based,” and “child-centered” learning) schools.  The authors analyzed each city and found that demographics, the charter school enrollment share, and the number and type of authorizers contributed to differences in the educational offerings. For example, the researchers postulate that, “academic achievement is often the primary concern for low-income communities; thus, there are more no-excuses and STEM schools in poorer communities,” because they are tested and trusted methods.

In 2012, the National Alliance conducted a nationwide survey of charter schools to learn more about their instructional models, among other information. Our survey found that more than half (58 percent) of respondents categorized their school as “college prep,” with STEM, community service, and arts-focused schools comprising the most common secondary categories also selected by “college prep” school leaders.

Data on instructional public charter school models are difficult to collect. We appreciate AEI’s report which helps to pull back the curtain on public charter school instructional strategies.

Nora Kern is the Senior Manager for Research and Analysis at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Diversity in Charter School Models

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.

Nora Kern


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What the Data Actually Say About Teacher Turnover

There is a persistent criticism that charter schools have dramatically high rates of teacher turnover due to burnout or dissatisfaction. However, national data paint a different picture.

Education Week’s Charters & Choice blog recently revisited the only national representative data on the rates at which teachers in charter and traditional public schools stay, move, or leave their teaching positions. The Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), administered by the U.S. Department of Education, acknowledged that the rate of teacher turnover has declined over the last three survey administrations.

According to the SASS Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS), between 2011-12 and 2012-13, about 84 percent of all teachers stayed in their job at the same school, eight percent continued to teach but moved to a different school, and eight percent left teaching. The overall teacher turnover rate has remained steady at around 15 percent for nearly 25 years.

However, the turnover rate for charter school teachers has declined over the past three rounds of the TFS, from about 24 percent to 18 percent. The most recent data (2012-13) show no statistically significant difference in the turnover rates between traditional public schools and charter schools for either movers or leavers.

map_teacher turnover

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS), “Current and Former Teacher Data Files,” 2012–13.

Additional EdWeek coverage does a good job a good job of noting complications with the data (see here and here), especially the difficulty in capturing variations at the school- and district-level. However, the national-level data do not indicate that on the whole charter schools have a problem with teacher retention.

Nora Kern is the Senior Manager for Research and Analysis and Susan Aud Pendergrass is the Senior Director for Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

David Dunn


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Texas Charters Closing the Gap

The continued hard work and improvements in student achievement of Texas’ public charter schools was recognized in a recently-released report that shows the state’s charter movement closed the gap in reading and continues to make strides in math.

Texas public charter schools serve more economically disadvantaged, more English language learners and more minority students than traditional public schools, based on data from the Texas Education Agency. Also, more than 20 percent of public charters are alternative education accountability (AEA), serving our students in the most need in residential treatment centers, juvenile detention facilities and dropout recovery schools.

The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford report on Charter School Performance in Texas confirms the hard work from 2009 to 2013 of all Texas charter schools, which operate on about $1,000 less per-student funding than traditional public schools.

Texas charter schools acknowledge the need for even more improvement, especially those with the mission of serving the students most in need of educational support. Which is why the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA) has developed the first-in-the-nation Quality Framework, a research-based continuous improvement tool and process designed to help public charter schools assess quality and improve academic performance. TCSA also served more than 1,000 charter leaders, board members and educators in the past year through in-person and online trainings and its annual conference. TCSA staff and its member schools are proud of their work with students in need and committed to accelerating student achievement by addressing any areas of weakness.

The CREDO report highlights three major accomplishments of Texas charter schools:

  • The gap in performance in reading between public charter school students and traditional public school students has been completely eliminated.
  • ELL students in charter schools outperform their traditional public school peers.
  • Students in poverty in charter schools outperform their traditional public school peers.

The CREDO report also highlights three areas of improvement needed in Texas charter schools:

  • The gap in performance in math has significantly improved since 2009, but must be eliminated.
  • Black and Hispanic students in charter schools perform below their traditional public school peers.
  • The expansion of high performing charter schools and the closure of consistently poor performing charter schools should be accelerated.

TCSA continues to call on CREDO to disaggregate the data and separate AEA schools from standard accountability charter schools. Including AEA student performance in the report skews the data, making it difficult to isolate the areas of need. A separate report would result in better policy decisions and a clear comparison between student performance in AEA schools, standard charter schools and traditional public schools.

We welcome another CREDO study that includes the effects of Texas’ Senate Bill 2, which in 2013 implemented strict accountability measurements with failure to achieve tied to school closure. Due to the new state law, 19 charters have been closed ̶ six have been officially revoked and another 13 have received revocation notices to close at the end of the 2014-15 school year. The association continues to support Senate Bill 2 as it seeks to replicate high quality public charter schools and close charters that chronically fail to meet the needs of students.

While we are pleased with our improvement, we’re not satisfied with our progress, and TCSA stands committed to working with charter leaders in the state to continue to accelerate the achievement of all our charter students.

David Dunn is the executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association. 

Riya Anandwala


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New Report: Charter Schools and pre-K education

Last week, the National Alliance and Thomas B. Fordham Institute rolled out a new report that analyzes pre-K offerings in public charter schools. What did they find? Charter schools in 36 jurisdictions are significantly restricted from offering pre-K programs – mainly because of policymaking and financial limitations, excluding them from the pool of pre-K providers.

The report dove deep into each state’s political environment for starting pre-K programs and found astonishing results. In the map, you’ll see states that have hospitable, somewhat hospitable and not so hospital climates for charters to offer pre-K education.

Also important to note, in states that do allow charter schools to offer pre-K, the schools still face several roadblocks, ranging from limited pre-K funding to restrictions on new providers. Charter schools are also often barred from automatically enrolling pre-K students into kindergarten programs without first administering a lottery for enrollment.

Investing in early childhood development is important in shaping a child’s education and career ahead. Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance, explains three essential factors lawmakers need to keep in mind while formulating the next pre-K imitative in her latest U.S. News and World Report blog.


pre-k map


Robert Reed


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New Report Provides Clarity on the Use of Weighted Lotteries in Schools That Receive Federal Charter School Funding

This week, the Senate began debating the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Tucked in the law is a program called the Charter School Program (CSP) that provides critical funds to help launch and replicate new charter schools. As a condition of receiving federal funds, these schools must conduct a blind lottery if they receive more applications than they can accommodate. This provision was put in place due to the long-held belief that charter schools are open enrollment schools and to guard against the potential for some schools to cream the best and the brightest. In reality though, this provision has had a negative impact on charter schools that are trying to attract the most disadvantaged students – as every child gets equal weights when they enter a lottery.

To address these concerns, in early 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidance on weighted lotteries for charter schools. Under the new guidance, charter schools receiving CSP funds were allowed to give educationally disadvantaged students slightly better chances for admission through the use of a weighted lottery if state law permits.

That caveat—if state law permits—has some cause for concern because few states have language that clearly permits weighted lotteries. In a new report released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, State Laws on Weighted Lottery and Enrollment Practices: Summary of Findings, we studied state laws and policies to better understand the potential impact of the new guidance. What we found was that most states did not have a clear answer.

Here are some of the key findings from the report:

  • Four states expressly permit the use of weighted lotteries (Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Rhode Island).
  • No states expressly prohibit the use of weighted lotteries.
  • There are 16 states with statutes that may be interpreted to prohibit the use of weighted lotteries (Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin).
  • Seven states are silent on the issue (Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, and Maryland).
  • Nineteen state statues may be interpreted to permit the use of weighted lotteries (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Utah).

Fortunately, both the House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bills include our policy recommendations to ensure that weighted lotteries are permitted unless state law specifically prohibits the practice. Since our findings show that no states expressly prohibit the practice, this proposal would make it significantly easier for schools to take advantage of weighted lotteries to serve more educationally disadvantaged students.

Riya Anandwala


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Study: Charter School Students in LA Report Higher Graduation Rates, SAT Scores

According to a new study by the California Policy Center, Los Angeles Unified School District’s charter high schools perform significantly better than the district’s traditionally operated public schools, despite receiving a lower per student funding amount.

This report offers more evidence about the positive impact of charter schools on students, communities and the public education system. Specifically, the study found charter students had higher performance rates on three counts:

Academic Performance Index scores: 762 vs. 701

Graduation rates: 92 percent vs. 84 percent

Normalized SAT scores: 1417 vs. 1299

Just last month during National Charter Schools Week, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a report that profiles ten big cities with a large wait list of student names to attend charter schools. Los Angeles has the second largest wait list with more than 68,000 students. The wait list numbers – which are over a million nationwide – along with strong academic performance is case in point for the need of additional federal money to help start new charter schools, especially in cities where the wait lists are in the tens of thousands.

This study is an excellent showcase of what charter schools are achieving in one of the biggest cities in the nation, and a reminder that a one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work for every family. There are thousands of students who could benefit from a charter school education and accomplish the kind of academic excellence that prepares them for a solid college career.

Nora Kern


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The Debate on Charter School Applications

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently release a report, The Paperwork Pileup, that analyzed the various questions and documentation required of public charter schools seeking authorization by state education agencies, higher education institutions, and independent charter boards. The report authors categorized the application questions into four quadrants according to the (in)appropriateness and (un)manageability of the requirement in terms of how the questions could impact school effectiveness. In short, AEI concludes that, “By larding up charter applications and branding those who do not want to or cannot jump through those hoops as not serious or qualified enough to run schools, we risk unjustly narrowing the pool of charter operators and shutting out innovation.”

Common sense says that paperwork for paperwork’s sake is unnecessary, but due diligence to ensure quality is necessary. Yet, the debate opens from there. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and Thomas B. Fordham Institute both issued rebuttals to assertions made in the AEI report. So where do you fall on the authorizing debate? Are regulations overtaking autonomy, or are they necessary gatekeepers to ensure quality school openings? Thanks to AEI for elevating this important conversation, and to NACSA and Fordham for weighing in. Please leave a comment to tell us your thoughts on charter school application requirements.

Nora Kern is senior manager of research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


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Three Reasons Why Authorizer Accountability Is Right Policy for Every State

In a new report, “Holding Public Charter School Authorizers Accountable,” the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association for Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) take a closer look at why policy that creates quality, strong authorizing is an essential part of model charter policy.

Quality authorizing looks after the interests of students and the taxpayer, while protecting school autonomy and fostering high standards. As the field has coalesced around these core principles, it has also concluded that policies can be powerful levers for authorizer quality—with authorizer accountability chief among them. Get authorizer accountability right and you create an environment where quality charter schools can thrive and grow. Get it wrong and it may lead down a path where school autonomy, a fundamental part of the charter promise, is threatened.

We can get authorizer accountability right. The recommendations and case studies in this report demonstrate how authorizer accountability can be used in every state to enhance the quality of their charter sector. The specific policy changes that will help the most in each state require customization and an understanding of the particular challenges the individual state faces. But you don’t need to start from scratch. Authorizer accountability includes three core tenets that are appropriate everywhere:

  • Standards of Practice: Authorizing is both a major public stewardship role and a complex profession requiring particular capacities and commitment. Professional standards help set the bar for authorizing high and establish a uniform measure to hold authorizers to.
  • Transparency: States should require authorizers to report annually on the performance of the portfolio of schools they oversee and, separately, on select practices authorizers employ. These reports not only help schools, policymakers and parents know how each school is performing academically, but also help identify patterns of school performance or authorizing activities that may point to poor or hostile authorizing practices.
  • Accountability for Practices and School Performance: We trust authorizers to serve the public good. Authorizers who are too willing to grant charters to poor applicants or continue to allow persistently poor-performing schools to remain open are violating this trust. By the same measure, authorizers who are hostile and erode school autonomy are also violating this trust. Policymakers should have an appropriate mechanism for evaluating authorizer behavior, intervening, and, if necessary, pushing these kinds of authorizers out of the sector.

Authorizers exist to facilitate the creation and maintenance of a quality charter school sector. Authorizer standards give authorizers a roadmap to do their job; and transparency and accountability give the public the tools they need identify and correct authorizers if they go off course. Let’s continue to push all states to adopt accountability policies that incorporate these core tenets. Through authorizer accountability we can protect students and the public from failing or fraudulent charter schools, while protecting the autonomy of great charter schools.

Alex Medler is the Vice President of Policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).

Nora Kern


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CSP Funding Profile: Namaste Charter School

A Mission to Serve

Namaste Charter School was founded on the belief that healthy children are better learners. Its vision—to change the trajectory of underserved children’s lives—is enacted through holistic education for the children of Chicago’s South Side. Namaste’s daily health and wellness programs include 60 minutes of physical education and 20 minutes of recess, a ten-minute “Morning Movement” stretching and exercise routine set to music, and healthy breakfasts and lunches. Additionally, a peaceful school culture, collaborative practice, and respect of other languages and cultures are among the school’s core values. The public charter school operates on an extended school day and year, offers half of its classes as bilingual education (English and Spanish), and provides support for families through its Parent Center, so that teachers, staff, parents, and neighborhood leaders can work together to provide an exceptional academic environment.

From Vision to Reality: How CSP Funds Enabled Namaste to Open

The state of Illinois received a federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) State Education Agency (SEA) Grant in 2003. In December 2003, Illinois allocated funds from its CSP SEA Grant to award a pre-planning grant to Namaste Charter School prior to its authorization. Namaste used these funds to plan for the curriculum and structure of the school, as well as research the implementation of best practices.

Namaste opened in 2004 with just a kindergarten and first grade class, and has grown by one grade level each year to now serve K-8. For the first eight years of the school’s operation, Namaste had fixed asset costs for desks, furniture, books, computers, teacher professional development, and “everything under the sun” as founder Allison Slade described it. In addition, the school’s original building needed about $100,000 of renovations to the infrastructure—including building a kitchen, which was essential to provide the healthy meals that are a central part of the school model.

In 2006 Namaste received a second CSP grant, which was crucial to helping the charter school grow. The CSP funds were used to cover start-up costs, as well as seed money for the school library. The library resource center has been crucial for providing high-quality literacy instruction and increasing access to text for students and their families during the school day and on weekends. After three years of operation, Namaste outgrew its original building and needed to renovate a larger school space.

For its future, Namaste has invested in circulating its best practices nationwide instead of replicating the school. It received a $192,000 two-year CSP Dissemination Grant in 2012 from the U.S. Department of Education that helped launch the Learning the Namaste Way Institute, which has trained more than 80 school leaders during two- to three- day seminars that share holistic education best practices and provide ongoing support for implementing them in their own schools. For the future of all public charter schools, Ms. Slade believes that Congress can best support high-quality growth through access to facilities funding and protecting the autonomy that allows a charter school to nimbly allocate its resources to serve student needs.

Principal’s Office

During her career as a teacher, as a Teach for America corps member in Houston and then in the Chicago inner-city and suburbs, Ms. Slade never felt that she really found a place that matched her beliefs about education and had all of the elements in place to propel teachers, students, and families to their highest possible achievement. She was on a volleyball team with fellow educators, and they would discuss what the perfect school would look like. At the same time, Illinois raised the cap on the number of public charter schools allowed in Chicago. So Ms. Slade decided to pull together everything she had talked about with fellow educators, health professionals, and other experts, into a proposal for an innovative public charter school.

As Ms. Slade describes the resulting Namaste Charter School, “We pride ourselves on having this rigorous academic curricula that is tied together with health and wellness and a peaceful school culture. We not only implement that in our school, but now with the CSP funding, we also disseminate those best practices to other schools across the country.”

Heard in the Halls: Teacher and Student Perspectives

  • “What I enjoy teaching most at Namaste is that beyond our health and wellness initiative, I truly think that students, staff, parents are all pushed to be our best selves.”—Veronica Acuna, Special Education Manager 

  • “Seeing students just happy to come to school is a very rewarding thing. Parents come to us and say ‘we’re so lucky we found you. We are so happy that we got a lottery spot for Namaste.’”—Veronica Acuna

  • “I am proud to work at Namaste because I have the freedom to choose a curriculum that fits my students’ lives.”— Milli Salguero, middle school Social Studies

  • “Teachers feel really empowered here to implement what they think is most necessary for their students to achieve at high levels. Now, after three years of graduating classes, we have the great fortune to have our alumni return back and talk to us about how Namaste has impacted their lives.”—Allison Slade, Founder

  • “Really changing the trajectory of underserved children’s lives, which is Namaste’s vision, is a long-term prospect. That is not something you’re going to see after a year or two years. But after 11 years [of operation], we are far into really feeling some very powerful examples of that.” —Allison Slade, Founder

  • “I truly believe that charter schools are houses of innovation that can try things differently and teach public schools, and other schools, ways to do things more efficiently to get better results quicker. And really and truly here at Namaste, that’s what we’re trying to do.” —Allison Slade, Founder