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Money can’t buy success. Or explain failure.

I recently suggested to a group of education researchers they should develop some kind of algorithm to inflate charter school test scores according to each state’s gap in public funding between charters and district-run schools. I was kidding, but trying to acknowledge an elephant in the room. Whatever charter schools are accomplishing, they’re doing it on far less than district schools. Yet, because we believe all public school students should be funded equitably, we don’t argue that “we can do more for less” and we avoid blaming  chronic underfunding for performance problems.

Not so in the other sector, it seems.  For a new Fordham/NSBA study, Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks surveyed school board members and found this: “More than two-thirds of boards report that the budget and funding situation is extremely urgent, and nearly 90 percent think it is extremely or very urgent…By far, board members in this study report that the most significant barrier to improving student achievement is a lack of funding. Over 74 percent indicate that finance/funding is at least a strong barrier to improvement, with 30.2 percent going so far as to label it a total barrier.”

Wow. How long do you think the charter movement would last if nearly a third of our leaders just said nope, no can do, not without more money?

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Did Michelle Rhee Plant this Story?

Rhee just launched Students First, her new outfit that will aim at getting school systems to put kids’ best interests ahead of politics and bureaucracy. I can’t imagine a better illustration of “Students Last” than this Catalyst article. The Illinois State Board of Education has raised the bar for college students hoping to get into teacher-ed programs. They used to get in with a score of 35 percent on the math section of the Basic Skills test (yes, you read that right); now they have to score at least 75 percent. It has cut the pass rate dramatically, particularly among minority candidates, raising the predictable howl.

But as one of the commenters in a related story put it: “Would you want a surgeon to cut you open if they only had a success rate of 35 percent on their operations?”

Maybe Rhee’s new group will help persuade policymakers to worry a little more about the low-income, black and Latino kids in urban school systems, and less about adults who view said systems as jobs programs.

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Are You Walking Away from a Chance for Funds?

It’s well-established charter schools get less public funding than their district counterparts. But charters may also be ignoring some competitive-funding opportunities.

 

So said the Government Accountability Office in a report issued last December. GAO identified 47 federal discretionary grant programs for which charter schools are eligible, but found a lot of confusion among charter operators and advocates about who could apply for what. Very few charter schools that are part of district-LEAs have stepped up, apparently believing the district itself had to apply. Yet two-thirds of the federal programs explicitly specify public schools or non-profit organizations are eligible.

Adding to that confusion is a real catch-22: Among the charter respondents, 44 percent said they didn’t apply for federal grants because they lacked the resources. Translation: They’re too poorly-funded to hire grant writers. The good news is at least one-quarter of the charters that applied during the 2008-2009 school year received an award, which the Department of Education noted is a higher win-rate than that of average applicants.

In fact, the Department said it’s been working to make sure charter operators know their rights. In a formal response to GAO, Jim Shelton of the US Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement pointed out the Department has already put language making charter-eligibility explicit in most of the grant competitions they run, and is working with other agencies like the Justice Department and Housing and Urban Development Department to make sure they do the same. (We forget too often it’s not just “Education” that makes funding available for schools!). Also, the National Charter School Resource Center will post notices like this one on its site and is developing a direct e-capacity to get word directly to schools.

 

Discretionary grants won’t make up for the full gap charters experience, but let’s not make it worse by leaving available dollars on the table.

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Washingtonian Disses Board, Misses Point

It’s good to see the GAO’s new report giving a high-five to my alma mater, the DC Public Charter School Board. The PCSB is a standard-setter in its field, recognized as such by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But Alyssa Rosenberg’s Washingtonian blog about the report includes an odd take on the PCSB’s tough accountability record: “Since the board began granting charters in 1996, it has closed down 24 of the 76 schools it’s opened. Of those 24, three gave up their charters voluntarily and four gave them up after they couldn’t attract enough students to stay financially viable….” Noting a higher closure rate than the national average, the piece concludes: “The problem, it seems, isn’t oversight after the fact—it’s picking the proposals for schools that have the best chance to succeed during the application process. And if the Public Charter School Board could find a way to weed out schools that were likely to fail, the organization might need fewer of those outside performance review consultants that are driving up its personnel costs.” (Homework needed here: The PCSB has actually been quite parsimonious in awarding charters, for example approving just four of thirteen applications in the 2010 cycle.)

But here’s the big, unmentioned factual gap: Of the 24 charters closed since 1996, 14 were chartered not by the PCSB but by the now-defunct DC Board of Education, commonly acknowledged as one of the nation’s worst authorizers (so bad that its charter officer went to the slammer for diverting school funds to a sham contract operation set up by her daughter). The old Board handed out charters at random and did no oversight; by imposing some serious standards and giving schools close scrutiny, the PCSB is thinning the herd. It’s closed six of the schools inherited when the DC Board was put out of its misery in 2007.

You wouldn’t know from the blog the report is actually titled “District of Columbia Charter Schools: Criteria for Awarding School Buildings to Charter Schools Needs Additional Transparency.” GAO’s major recommendations are aimed not at the PCSB but at the mayor and the city, faulting them for failing to fulfill the spirit of DC’s public education facilities laws, which give charters right of first refusal on excess school-district property. In a response included with the report, Mayor Vincent Gray commendably sets out new rules for accommodating charters in the decision process.

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Dr. Tell? Don’t Ask!

One of the advantages of reading the news online is that you get reader comments too. That helps when a curious piece appears – as in the case of one Shawgi Tell, Ph.D., who reminded Rochester readers of some “overlooked facts” about charter schools in a Saturday op-ed. Facts such as “Many principals at charter schools lack the same credentials as their counterparts in traditional public schools” and “Charter schools siphon away millions of dollars from school systems in segregated and impoverished urban communities.” (And so on…)

Hold your cards and letters, folks; readers have already done a job on Dr. Tell’s thesis. (Was it below the belt to include students’ reviews of the good Dr.’s classes from Ratemyprofessors.com? You decide.)

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Thoughtless Pause

Elegant phraseology doesn’t conceal the fact that the “thoughtful pause” proposed by Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee is a moratorium on charter growth. Some actual thinking has been provided by RI-CAN, the state’s new ed-reform group, who looked at data and found that charters are pushing achievement upward. Think again, Governor.

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Harriett Ball, RIP

A great teacher died yesterday. Back in the ’90s, Harriett Ball took two rookie Houston teachers under her wing and showed them how to make a classroom a joyous place to learn … and then travelled with Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg through the amazing journey of KIPP, while continuing to teach and consult. We were proud to induct this great lady into the Charter School Hall of Fame along with her KIPP colleagues in 2009. She succumbed to a sudden heart attack on Tuesday. What a legacy she leaves!

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Delivering on the Promise in Missouri

The Land of Truman has a unique charter environment. State law restricts chartering to St. Louis and Kansas City, but charter schools account for major market share in both places. Where 90 percent of charter authorizers around the country are local school districts, it’s universities that oversee nearly all the charters in the Show-Me state. There are some stars but, alas, way too many charters that keep scraping the bottom year after year. Policymakers (and the state’s charter movement leaders)  have grown  impatient. We’ve just taken a thorough look at this situation and are calling for some tough love….

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Obama’s Challenge

Last night’s briskly-delivered State of the Union address capped a dizzying few months for President Obama. He was looking out at 84 new GOP House of Representatives members — 63 of whom were occupying seats previously held by Democrats.  However, he was enjoying a rebound in personal popularity, coming off a surprisingly productive lame-duck session, and hoping to sustain and leverage the shift in national mood following the Tucson tragedy.

It was  not the night to play the usual SOTU games – how many times did he mention “X” – and so the absence of the words “charter schools” didn’t bother me a bit. The key points on education weren’t drawn from a laundry list of programs; instead he tried to frame the challenge and leave the details for the upcoming budget message. Some of the key education passages:

The rules have changed.  In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business.  Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100.  Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers and sell their products wherever there’s an Internet connection.
Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.
Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.  And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.  The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.  And so the question is whether all of us –- as citizens, and as parents –- are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

The task for charter folks is to show that our schools are part of the solution…that our kids leave 12th grade ready for college –and ready to succeed in college and beyond. Let’s show that we’re using our freedom not just to get rid of paperwork, but to equip kids with the knowledge and habits of mind to lead an international economy.

And if a charter school is part of the problem, we need to take action. Now.

Without saying exactly how, the President did also say that “Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”  I trust that means the Administration will continue pressing states for facilities aid, fiscal equity and an end to caps. It will be interesting to see how those proposals fare in a Congress that generally wants to expand state rather than federal authority.

By the way, today’s New York Times has a cool seating chart illustrating the “new civility,” with some odd couples listening to the speech: Schumer and Coburn; Patty Murray and John Cornyn; Louie Gohmert and Carolyn Maloney. Let’s hope the era of good feelings persists.

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David Kearns

We lost a giant last weekend. David Kearns blazed a trail of innovation as CEO of Xerox and then answered a plea from former President George H.W. Bush to serve as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education. There, among many other accomplishments, he created New American Schools, the non-profit that fostered “whole-school” models such as Expeditionary Learning and Modern Red Schoolhouse – and in doing so, served as a seedbed for the charter movement.  Here is yesterday’s eloquent floor statement by his former boss, now U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander. Note the history he traces, as well as his testimony to the respect and fondness Kearns inspired in everyone who knew him.