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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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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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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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Perfection First, Change Last

Over the holidays the NY Times ran a piece about NYC’s use of student data in teacher rankings, and the tug of war that’s emerging over so-called “value-added” evaluations. Among a slew of letters it generated was one from Deputy Chancellor John White, concluding with this biting comment: “Shame on unions and school districts charged with improving antiquated evaluation systems if they hide behind sideline critics advocating perfection first and change last. No system is perfect, but the status quo is not fair to children.” Researcher Dan Goldhaber, subbing for Rick Hess over at Straight Up, makes a similar point:  “I am continually struck by the fact that policy debates over a whole variety of issues focus almost entirely on the downside risks of reform, while massively ignoring the costs or downsides of business as usual.” Citing work he and co-authors contributed to a recent Brookings report, he says “much of the debate about using value-added for teacher evaluation is framed around the potential consequences for teachers rather than focusing on the known or potential consequences for students,” and adds: “The counterfactual matters and we are not comparing reform to an existing nirvana.” White and Goldhaber aren’t talking about charter schools, but we need to keep their argument handy. Sure there are imperfections in charter schools – we worry more about them than anyone else does. But parents who choose them know the “counterfactual” all too well. Here’s a suggestion for the new year.  When you hear someone railing about the dangers of public charter schools, hit them with the question a parent asks: “Compared to what?”

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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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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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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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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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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.