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Ohio Takes a Step in the Right Direction by Requiring Transparency

Ten Ohio public charter schools are in the process of completely severing ties with a private charter management company that has been under intense scrutiny for mismanaging the schools’ funds. The resolution of this dispute will allow charter school leaders to focus on quality, which is seen in student achievement, and other pivotal issues like cultivating a collaborative culture for parents, teachers and students. Their efforts are exemplary—these proceedings are a testament to the level of accountability and transparency all charter school leaders and operators should continually strive. I expounded on this issue in the Huffington Post.

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Another Mid-Term Victory

Whatever your thoughts about the mid-term elections, it’s clear we will have many new faces in state capitols, governors’ mansions and at the U.S. Capitol. The vast majority of these newly-elected people were not voted in purely on an education platform. However, many of them ran in part as education reformers, and on a night where seemingly everyone was concerned about red and blue, it was the color purple that surprised me most.  Candidates from both parties who are supporters of substantive education reform in general, and charter schools in particular, were elected from every region of the country. Some notable examples include Janet Barresi, the new Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction who helped found two charter schools in Oklahoma City and Delaware’s new U.S. Senator, Chris Coons also knows his way around education reform issues. John Hickenlooper, governor-elect from my home state of Colorado, and Joe Walsh, a newly-elected U.S. Representative from Illinois are also friends of education reform. While it’s too early to say exactly how these new players will affect key education issues, it is another indication of the growing support for high-quality education from both parties.  Who can say whether we’ll see the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a third round of Race to the Top funding, or improvements to weak charter laws in several states?  It’s anyone’s guess. But, I do know that if there’s one issue everyone can agree to work on, it’s education. Voters had a lot on their minds this election season, and school reform was admittedly a few notches down from hot-button issues like jobs and the economy. Yet, buoyed by the release of “Waiting for Superman,” the attention of Oprah Winfrey and a solid two months of news coverage on the issue, education reform has dominated political discourse like never before.  While it still falls shy of being a deciding issue for voters, more and more people are holding their elected officials accountable for improving public education for all students.

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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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Turning Over the Teacher Turnover Question

More teachers leave charters than leave district-run schools – a familiar phenomenon that’s currently drawing a flurry of research scrutiny. The sector usually contends that turnover is to be expected in start-ups, and that the numbers are really driven by terminations of ineffective teachers. Not so fast, said a recent DOE study, blogged by colleague Anna Nicotera: salary and working conditions seem to play a big role too. A couple of new studies may further reframe the discussion. The National Charter School Research Project’s new look at charter vs. district teacher mobility in Wisconsin finds that “charter” per se may have little to do with whether teachers leave or stay. Younger teachers tend to move more whether in charters or traditional schools, and so do those who teach in disadvantaged areas, where most charters are located. In fact, urban charters actually retain teachers somewhat better than their district-school counterparts. (A caveat here: WI may not be the ideal state for this comparison, since teachers in so many charters stay in the district’s union contracts – a point noted by the researchers.) But maybe the whole debate is upside-down. Maybe the problem is not too many charter school teachers moving, but too few teachers leaving district-run schools. As a new Education Sector report notes, the vast majority of teachers in traditional district schools are tightly tethered to defined-benefit pension systems of the sort rarely found in the private workforce anymore. They lose out if they sever that connection, whether it’s to move to another kind of school or to switch careers altogether. Ed Sector cites a 2008 survey in which nearly four out of five teachers agreed that ‘too many veteran teachers who are burned out stay because they do not want to walk away from the benefits and service time they have accrued.’  (Remember that one next time you hear the charge of “too many young, inexperienced teachers in charter schools.”) Most of our economy now functions on the assumption of worker mobility. Eighty percent of pensions are now portable plans such as 401Ks and 403Bs; just 7.2 percent of private-sector workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements; and COBRA provides a long off-ramp for health coverage when employment ends.  Public charter schools are clearly riding this wave, reflecting the realities of the current and future workforce more closely than their counterparts in public school districts. The Alliance’s Model State Charter Law gives its highest rating in this area to just 11 states that provide access to state-run employee retirement systems, but do not force charter schools to participate. It’s a macro version of the balancing act required in today’s best-run charters, who are offering compensation and benefit packages that permit – but do not require – making a career of it.

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Don’t Forget the Motor City!!

At a DC symposium on Wednesday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan once again called Detroit “arguably the worst” school system in the country, and “Ground Zero” for education reform. The good news is city leaders are finally putting money and muscle into turning the situation around. Here’s a specific date to watch: February 1, 2011. That’s when proposals to open new high schools in the fall of 2012 are due to Michigan Future Schools, the business/education/philanthropic nonprofit that’s spearheading the city’s turnaround effort. Michigan Future Schools has a straightforward approach. They want more quality high schools (defined as “students graduating ready for college without remediation”). They support one active high school and are already incubating four more, two charter and two non. They’re basically agnostic about the governance question — but they’re hoping that some great charter EMO/CMO outfits apply. We need this in other cities too. There are fewer charter high schools than elementary/middle schools, and as MFS says: “The absence of high-quality urban high schools is a national problem, not just here in Detroit. It needs fixing.” But not surprisingly, the need is particularly acute in Detroit. According to MFS, “There are no open-enrollment high schools (traditional public or charter) serving Detroit students with high graduation rates, high college attendance rates and high levels of academic achievement.” Here’s information on the initiative and a link to the RFP. Message to top-notch charter outfits: Go for it!

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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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Midnight in Georgia

Pretty amazing week. Charter School Hall of Famer John King was named New York State education commissioner; New Schools Venture Fund’s Summit 2011 brought the “edurati” together for another exhilarating brainfest; liberal icon Howard Deandeclared charters “the future”;  the UFT and NYC’s NAACP chapter filed another lawsuit to block closure of failing schools and co-locations with charters; and the who-interrupted-whom saga of Diane Ravitch and Rhode Island Education Commission Deborah Gist took an intriguing turn when it became known that a filmmaker recorded their disputed meeting with Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (hint: Gist is fine with releasing the video).  But the central event took place in the Georgia Supreme Court, where the abominable Gwinnett v. Cox decision abolished the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, the statewide authorizer created in the wake of district refusals to approve new charters.  No wonder that two days later, hundreds of Georgia parents, and kids rallied against the ruling, which derailed (we hope temporarily) the schools the Commission had chartered. The 4-3 decision turned on a semantic distinction finer than “what the meaning of ‘is’ is. The Court held that Georgia’s constitution forbids “special” schools unless they’re intended for specific slices of the student population not served by district schools. (Apparently the Court hasn’t heard of IDEA and the fact that districts are actually required to serve those “special” kids.) Nor did they provide more than a footnote about why state-chartered schools approved by the State Board of Education on appeal are OK, but not state-chartered schools approved by a State Commission. Neither have they read up on Georgia’s history of creating other state-approved schools, as the “superbly researched, reasoned and argued” dissent by Justice David Nahmias shows. Nahmias also points out that the state’s $400 million Race to the Top federal grant was awarded in part because the state could claim an alternative charter authorizer. Note to Arne Duncan…. This is a worse act of judicial usurpation than the 2008 Florida appeals court decision that struck down the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, similarly created as a statewide authorizer. There, the language of the state constitution was clear, if perverse: “The school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.” (Article IX(4)(b). That geographic specificity proved to be an insurmountable barrier to the arguments of charter lawyers.  In the Georgia case, the court is taking language far less clear, and using it to reach an ideological – and perhaps partisan — conclusion. What both these decisions have in common is the musty odor of senescence. State constitutions that treat local districts as fiefdoms, funded through 19th-century tax schemes that treat land as the source of all wealth, surrounded by a legal moat keeping children in and everything from charter schools to online-learning out, need to be updated.  Especially when decisions like this one shred a promise the state made to thousands of families whose aspirations were being thwarted by local school districts.

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Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway?

A couple of years ago, in a speech at the National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago, I said it was time to break the traditional district monopoly on public school facilities. The audience’s response was really strong – confirming that this was an issue whose time had come. Two decades ago the charter movement began dismantling districts’ “sole proprietorship” on academic offerings; yet today, public charter schools still have to beg for access to school buildings bought and paid for with tax dollars. We’ve managed to win a facilities allowance here and co-location there, but still enjoy no fundamental right to public school space – nor an adequate supply of public funding with which to build our own. So it’s time to reframe this issue. School facilities should be a municipality-wide concern, not just the province of the traditional district. And some impartial entity (a mayor, a real estate trust, a municipal building corporation) should manage the building stock on behalf of all the kids, not just those in district schools. That’s the point of my new report, An Accident of History. It was fun tracing the roots of this dilemma way back – to 1642, in fact – and then looking at a variety of solutions for creating a more equitable way of financing, developing, and deploying public education facilities. The title really makes the central point – that the laws and policies governing public school facilities wouldn’t resemble their current shape had there been charter schools (or substantial numbers of other public non-district schools) when they were written. Education Next is also running an article drawn from the report. I’m hoping that readers of this blog will ask mayors, school boards, and lawmakers the question its title poses: Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway? And I’m really looking forward to your comments, questions and disputations. Let’s get this argument started! Nelson Smith Headshot                 Nelson Smith is a consultant on education policy and former president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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Debunker Debunked

You may have caught a recent column on the Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money site, “10 Things Charter Schools Won’t Tell You.”  It’s a recurring feature and they’ve applied the same approach to landlords, gas stations and school districts.  I get that it’s supposed to be snarky and provocative – but really, this one was pretty egregious. Fortunately, Chalkboard’s Peter Murphy is on the case, providing point-by-point deconstruction in a series of blogs (the lastest posted today; the priors linked). Well worth checking out…

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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?