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Todd Ziebarth

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To achieve a strong charter sector, start with supportive laws

Senior VP of State Advocacy and Support Todd Ziebarth has a guest blog at Flypaper as part of their “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while other are falling behind. Here’s an excerpt of Todd’s response:

The short, but unsatisfying, answer to Mike’s question: It’s complicated.

Since we released our first rankings of state charter school laws against our model law in 2010, we’ve been asked about the relationship between a state’s ranking in our report and the results of that state’s charter schools—so much so that we’ll be releasing a new report in a couple of months that begins to tease out this relationship in each state entitled The Health of the Public Charter School Sector: A State-By-State Report. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about this relationship.

Supportive laws are necessary but not sufficient

First, to quote directly from our model law,

It is important to note that a strong charter law is a necessary but insufficient factor in driving positive results for public charter schools. Experience with public charter schools across the country has shown that there are five primary ingredients of a successful public charter school environment in a state, as demonstrated by strong student results:

  • Supportive laws and regulations (both what is on the books and how it is implemented);
  • Quality authorizers;
  • Effective charter support organizations, such as state charter associations and resource centers;
  • Outstanding school leaders and teachers; and,
  • Engaged parents and community members. 

While it is critical to get the law right, it is equally critical to ensure these additional ingredients exist in a state’s charter sector.

Some states with supportive laws (those that show up high in our annual rankings) have implemented them well and have therefore achieved strong results. Conversely, other states with supportive laws that show up high in our rankings have implemented them inconsistently—and have therefore achieved uneven results.

To read the rest of Todd’s response, visit Flypaper

   
Todd Ziebarth

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Charter Law Rankings Demonstrate Significant Progress in State Policy across the Country

This week, we released the third edition of Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of State Charter School Laws.  Notwithstanding the positive response the report has received, there were two criticisms of it worth addressing. The first came from Diane Ravitch: “This is a national advocacy group that wants more charter schools. It speaks for the charter industry,” says Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and critic of charters. “Asking them to judge your charter law is like asking Philip Morris whether your state is doing enough to regulate tobacco.” We doubt Dr. Ravitch actually read the report because it hardly reflects her critique. We plead guilty to wanting more charter schools, but we also want those that open to be high quality. That’s why this ranking places significant weight on quality-control provisions such as transparent application and renewal processes as well as performance-based charter contracts, while also valuing provisions that support growth such as autonomy, funding equity, facilities provisions and no caps. The second came from the Center for Education Reform (CER), which criticized our report for ranking Maine’s new law at the top.  We acknowledge the complexity of evaluating the strengths of state charter school laws, and understand that the ranking process should undergo scrutiny.  We note, for example, that CER ranks the District of Columbia’s generally good law as #1.  Yet there is a 40 percent funding gap between D.C.’s traditional public schools and public charter schools – the largest such gap in the country according to this study.  This hardly represents true educational justice and equality for kids, which is why Friends of Choice in Urban Schools and the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools are fighting to remedy this significant inequity (and a major reason why D.C. is ranked #11 in this year’s report). By highlighting this point, we believe this report can drive policy makers towards rectifying this inequity. The NAPCS model law, which was developed by a broad group of individuals with deep expertise in public charter school law and is the basis of our rankings report, is grounded in two decades of experience about how good legislation supports successful charters. Maine enacted a law that is well aligned with many of the NAPCS model’s 20 components, receiving the highest scores possible on eight of the 20 components including those related to autonomy, operational and categorical funding equity, and performance-based charter contracts.  Maine’s law is far from perfect – it received 158 points out of a possible 208 – and we will assist state leaders in pressing ahead to strengthen it.  Also, Maine’s law is brand new – which means its impact on Maine’s charter school sector needs close monitoring. This year’s rankings demonstrate the positive momentum for the movement in state capitols across the country. Sixteen states strengthened their charter laws this year, leading to an increase in their scores in our report. Nine states lifted caps, seven strengthened their authorizing environments and 10 improved support for funding and facilities. Indiana, for example, overhauled its charter school law last year, lifting its caps, allowing for multiple authorizers, providing facilities access and increasing flexibility and accountability. As a result, its overall score increased from 97 points to 132 points and its ranking catapulted from #25 to #6 – the largest leap for any state on record. Many states based new legislation on the experiences of those with stronger laws such as CaliforniaColorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York. Some states fell in the rankings simply because other states made positive strides by enacting stronger laws.  These developments represent progress for the movement, not black eyes for any set of states. In addition, four states saw their scores in our report drop this past year.  For example, Georgia’s Supreme Court invalidated its statewide charter school authorizer, causing the state to slip from #7 to #14.  This was a tremendous setback for Georgia’s charter movement, and this report serves as a reminder to Georgia’s policy makers that they need to act boldly to rectify it. Strong laws matter.  They allow good educators to create quality opportunities for more kids.  Weak laws prevent these opportunities from happening.   NAPCS welcomes healthy discussion about what constitutes a good charter law (and how to evaluate them) and will continue to work with charter leaders to drive positive changes in charter school laws across the country – from actually getting them on the books in states like Alabama and West Virginia to significantly improving them in states like Mississippi and Missouri.
Todd Ziebarth

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Updates to Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law Desperately Needed

In 2011, charter school supporters were optimistic that Pennsylvania was finally going to make some much-needed updates to its charter school law. Over the past three years, there have been a number of attempts to do so, but they’ve come up short each time. While Pennsylvania lawmakers have failed to act, policymakers in other states have been making significant improvements to their charter laws. As a result, Pennsylvania’s charter school law continues to fall in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual rankings. It came in at #12 in January 2010, but fell to #19 by January 2013. With a number of states making improvements to their laws this year, Pennsylvania is sure to drop even further in our next report in January 2014. In the most recent attempt to overhaul the state’s charter school law, a coalition of six organizations–the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter SchoolsPhiladelphia Charters for Excellence, Philadelphia’s Black Alliance for Educational OptionsStudents First PAPennCAN, and StudentsFirst–released a “Position Paper on SB 1085 Charter School Reform Legislation.”  This paper details some important and overdue changes that these organizations are supporting in Senate Bill 1085, including allowing universities to serve as authorizers, creating an academic performance matrix to inform authorizers’ decisions during the charter renewal process, and allowing high-performing charter schools with multiple campuses to combine and operate under the governance of a single board. The paper also calls for the creation of a commission to study how charter schools should be funded in the state. As the organizations acknowledge, SB 1085 is not perfect, and they are working to improve the bill as it makes it way through the legislative process. SB 1085 recently passed the Senate Appropriations Committee with additional amendments on a 15-11 vote. The most controversial issue is university authorizers, which isn’t surprising given the potential game-changing impact of that provision. The amended bill now moves to the full senate for a vote, either later this year or in January. We remain hopeful that the hard work of Pennsylvania’s charter school advocates will result in a bill that creates more high-quality public charter school options for the state’s students. Todd Ziebarth is the senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Todd Ziebarth

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New Directions for Public Charter School Governance

The Fordham Institute released a pithy new paper today on the governance of public charter schools. In it, the author, Adam Emerson, questions one of the age-old (at least since 1991, when charters first came on the scene) assumptions about charters:  that each school must have its own community-based governing board that operates the school and serves students from nearby communities. A lot has changed over the last 22 years, with “all of those Os” emerging in the sector (via CMOs and EMOs), as Dr. Howard Fuller said at our conference in 2009. While 68 percent of public charter schools still fit the original “mom and pop” mold, 20 percent are operated by non-profit charter management organizations (CMOs) and 12 percent by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs). And 200+ charters offer full-time virtual instruction. Emerson offers two sets of policy recommendations for better aligning the regulatory environment for charters with what’s happening on the ground that are consistent with our model law:
  • The first would allow a single governing board to manage multiple schools to make it easier for high-performing charters to replicate and expand (that’s Component #15 in our model law).
  • The second would create statutory guidelines for relationships between charter schools and educational service providers to ensure that the schools are in the driver’s seat in these relationships – not the other way around (that’s Component #10 in our model law)
Emerson also recommends that virtual charter schools be authorized by state authorizing entities, given that these schools usually end up serving students from all over a state. Among other things, this approach would remove the financial incentives and quality disincentives that exist for small districts to authorize large virtual charter schools. It’s a sensible recommendation, and one that we’ll be considering when we revisit our model law in the future.
Todd Ziebarth

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Is the Third Time the Charm in Wisconsin?

It was déjà vu all over again last week in Madison. In July, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a paper showing 35 states made policy improvements between January 2010 and December 2012 that resulted in increases in their scores on the National Alliance’s annual state charter law rankings report. Only seven states have not made policy improvements; one of them is my home state of Wisconsin, whose law is currently ranked #37 (out of 43) – one of the weakest in the country. The stalemate in Wisconsin hasn’t been for lack of trying. In 2011, a coalition of national, state, and local organizations (including the National Alliance) worked with a bipartisan group of legislators to craft legislation that would have significantly overhauled the state’s law. Then, Governor Scott Walker decided to tackle public sector collective bargaining. Not only did our Democratic supporters leave the state, they also pulled their support for our bill. Needless to say, in the midst of the battle over collective bargaining, and the ensuing recall elections, our bill stalled and died. This year, that same coalition worked with Governor Walker to include much of what was in the 2011 bill in his budget. In the end-of-session budget negotiations, however, charters got caught in the crossfire between traditional public school supporters and voucher supporters, and most of the charter provisions were stripped out of the budget bill, with the governor and key legislators pledging that the legislature would take them up in a separate bill this fall. That’s how I ended up back in Madison last week, testifying at a Senate Education Committee hearing on a charter school law reform bill. Unlike the 2011 bill and the governor’s budget bill this year, this proposed legislation would only make modest improvements to the state’s charter school law, such as the expansion of non-district authorizers statewide. While these improvements are necessary, there’s much more that needs to be done. Most critically, it needs to ensure that all types of charter schools have the flexibility that is at the heart of the charter bargain, ensure that all types of authorizers hold charters accountable for results, and ensure equitable operational, categorical, transportation, and facilities funding for public charter school students. Let’s hope the third time is the charm. Wisconsin students who need a better public school option need it to be. Todd Ziebarth is the senior vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

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US Congress Holds Hearing on Charter Schools: The Highlights

Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education held a hearing titled “Education Reforms: Exploring the Vital Role of Charter Schools.” Expert witnesses discussed a range of topics and answered questions from Members of the committee about how charter schools serve the local communities and special populations; the importance of options (and knowledge of those options) for parents; and ideas for collaboration with traditional public schools. DeAnna Rowe, executive director of the AZ State Board for Charter Schools, positioned charters as an “integral part of a complex system.” The proof is in the pudding: Arizona has recently adopted new growth models that will be used to evaluate all public schools, which grew out of the charter sector in the state. With 1/3 of its student population English language learners (mostly recent Iraqi immigrants), Literacy First Charter Schools in El Cajon, CA focus on what works to serve the community of learners. And if it doesn’t work, Debbie Byer, executive director, says, “We change!”  When pushed by Congresswoman Woolsey (CA) as to what Literacy First is doing that is different from public schools in the area, Byer noted the flexibility of the curriculum and school calendar as well as the control she has on every single dollar that is being spent in her school. Dr. Beth Purvis, executive director of the Chicago International Charter Schools, is squarely focused on serving the communities that need the most help and hope: 86% of CICS students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 95% are African American or Latino, and 6 of the 14 Chicago campuses are located in the 10 highest violent crime neighborhoods in the city.  She told a story about opening a high school in one of the most blighted areas; a desire that was raised by the Chicago Public Schools so students would not have to travel across gang lines to get to school.  A community that long felt ignored by the city, now speaks of having a “school just for them” as Dr. Purvis remarked. Quite possibly the highlight of the hearing was listening to Dr. Purvis and Congresswoman Roby (AL) talk to a group of sharp students from Democracy Prep –and outstanding charter school in New York City.  When asked how their school was different from the traditional public schools that most of them had previously attended, we couldn’t have scripted better answers ourselves! Some children noted the feeling of safety within the school, others mentioned the afterschool activities, and while others simply said they like knowing that the teachers expect a lot from students. Of course there are always areas ripe for improvement, and Dr. Gary Miron, professor at Western Michigan University, addressed a few of these in his testimony: access to IDEA funds and incentives for charters to expand special education services; transportation for all students to and from charter schools; innovative outreach to parents and families to attract a diverse student body; and full participation in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. And these improvements take commitment from federal, state and local policymakers and from district and charter school leaders to put kids first. Read our statement on the hearing from President & CEO Peter Groff.

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In the Area of Nutrition, Charters Are Getting It Done

A few weeks ago, the Education and Workforce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was signed into law in November by President Obama. Outspoken district food service leaders decried the USDA’s proposed rule that the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs align nutrition standards with national dietary guidelines saying it puts an undue burden on cash-strapped schools. Second to the money argument was an appeal that the nutrition guidelines might be so restrictive that kids simply won’t like the food. Change is hard; we certainly get it. The charter movement has continually met change head-on time and time again—changed structures of governance, changed ideas of teaching and learning, and changed minds on what a 21st century school can and should look like in today’s public system. Often receiving far less than their fair shares of the pot, charter schools find ways to be innovative and still provide necessary supports. There’s plenty of evidence that more often than not charter school students are experiencing similar or greater achievement gains than students in comparable traditional public schools. But charters are not only getting it done in academics; they are also working to make schools a place where children learn about healthy eating habits. Family Life Academy Charter School in the Bronx created a five-year food revolution to get its students to not only like the food being served up, but to understand its nutritional benefits. Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Washington, DC, has put cost-effective fresh cooking atop its list of priorities, no matter how tough the job. The school recognizes“when children are properly nourished and their bodies are healthier, they can learn, think and play better, and are ultimately better equipped to reach their potential.” Despite the barriers that district leaders espoused at the hearing—fear of change, pushback from students, the high costs of healthy food—many charter schools are unwilling to sacrifice their mission and goals because of apparent obstacles. We reinvent. We make tough decisions. We learn to change in order to provide what’s best for our students. It’s critical that charter schools continue to have full access to the federal school meals programs as well as the flexibility in choosing partners who care about nutrition. Do you have a healthy food service program? Tell us about it: http://www.publiccharters.org/Additional-Pages/HealthyLunch.aspx

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Detroit Public Schools Buildings: Are They a Go or No Go for Public Charter Schools?

Providing high quality educational options so that every child has an opportunity to learn is a core mission for the public charter school sector.  In cities like Detroit, the need for quality educational options is urgent.  For many years, state, local and community leaders have been sounding the alarm that public education in Motor City is in dire need of change.  Finally, this year, changes are occurring.  City leaders are turning the situation around by inviting national public charter school models to open schools in 2012 and beyond. To assist this transformation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies have partnered in an assessment study of the 50+ school buildings that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have listed for sale or for lease.  Both parties believe that this study can be a catalyst for moving forward, since securing adequate and affordable facilities is a major challenge, and often, an impediment to the growth and success of the charter school movement. Detroit Public Schools: Available Facilities Report is a high level viability study of the 54 available school buildings in DPS.  It is a resource for all public charter schools seeking facilities: those that are already operating in Detroit and national models looking to replicate in Detroit.  The report includes a profile of each building as well as a viability ranking on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most viable).  If a public charter school is interested in particular building, it can engage a more in-depth analysis of the building to determine the investment necessary to make it operational. Ideally, state laws should require school districts to share unused buildings with public charter schools at minimal or low cost. And, in the absence of such laws, school districts should provide public charter schools access to unused buildings.  To learn about the innovative school districts that have affirmative policies and practices in sharing available public facilities to public charter schools, click here.

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Charter School Bond Deals Are Big News!

Generally speaking, bonds are not the most interesting topic.  So, it’s understandable that charter school bond issues — which are only a small part of the municipal bond market —  might go under the radar. But, that changed this month when editors of The Bond Buyer (a very respected and influential media outlet for those of us working in the bond sector) announced the finalists for the newspaper’s Deal of the Year Awards.  The announcement recognized some of the most innovative municipal bond deals that closed between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010.  More than 70 nominations, big and small, from various municipal sectors were considered.  Among the finalists are two charter schools: KIPP Inc. in Houston, one of the two winners in the Southwest region; and High Tech High in Chula Vista, Calif., one of two winners in the Far West region.  All the regional finalists are in the running for the overall Deal of the Year Award. This comes at a time when governments and all other tax-exempt borrowers fund their long-term plans while coping with tough budgetary times and a volatile financial market.  This has been especially difficult for small and generally low-investment grade issuers like charter schools.  In addition to the usual inherent risks of the sector, conventional or commercial credit enhancement providers i.e. bond insurers, are now completely gone resulting in a more challenging financing environment for charter schools. The $70 million KIPP Inc. Houston transaction was structured and partially enhanced by a $9 million guaranty from the KIPP-related foundation, Philo Houston LLC, $1 million cash from Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a $10 million balance sheet guaranty from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  In the case of High Tech High, the $12 million deal was the first AAA-rated Qualified School Construction Bond.  The credit rating was due to the letter of credit provided by City National Bank, wrapped by AAA-rated Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco.  These are indeed first-of-its-kind innovative financing structures.  Both deals were underwritten by RBC Capital Markets. Bringing these types of deals in the capital market is a tremendous accomplishment, and all parties involved deserve much credit.  This is the first time bonds issued by charter schools have received this type of national recognition from the financial press, a significant step towards making charter school financing mainstream.  The outcome should be better acceptance from institutional and other investors, increased market access and eventually, relatively lower cost of capital.  We still have a long way to go, but this is a big step forward.  The Deal of the Year Award will be announced in New York City on December 9th.

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Another Big Thing Out Of Texas: Public Charter Schools Are Now Entitled to the Permanent School Fund (PSF) Guarantee!

On July 19, Governor Rick Perry signed into law Senate Bill 1, giving financially-sound public charter schools access to the state’s Permanent School Fund (PSF) bond guarantee. This will help schools construct and renovate school buildings.  PSF is the state’s $25 billion, AAA rated endowment. Bonds with the PSF-guarantee will be rated AAA—the highest possible credit rating—saving charter schools throughout the state millions of dollars in interest costs.  This legislation is an important and symbolic victory for charter schools in Texas and nationwide. The PSF enhancement is significant because charter schools will be able to finance growth at costs that are level with traditional public schools.  Savings from the PSF enhancement will be redirected to instruction and learning costs, putting taxpayer money to more efficient use.  To put these savings into perspective: the estimates of the cost-savings range from 200 to 300 basis points per bond issue.  In order to qualify for the PSF guarantee, charter schools must meet the investment grade credit rating and accreditation standards.  Putting up the state’s endowment to back charter school bonds, the same way it is for traditional public schools, speaks volumes about the direction of the public school choice and public education in Texas. Kudos to the Texas constituency: the bill’s sponsor, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, and supporters Governor Perry, the Legislature, the Texas grassroots base and charter school advocates.  Texas joins the only other state, Colorado, in providing state backing for charter school bonds.  The Colorado state moral obligation backing renders the subject bonds to A credit rating (by Standard and Poor’s).  The rating upgrade from low investment grade to AAA and A in Texas and Colorado, respectively, incites charter school bond issuance at cheaper borrowing rates. The state’s backing of charter school bonds is a step in the right direction and a critical piece of the public charter school facility financing model.  Charter schools throughout the country are way behind their traditional school district counterparts that have taxing power and bonding authority to finance their facility construction projects.  The NAPCS Model Charter School Law has a menu of options for consideration by state policymakers to narrow the facility funding gap between traditional public schools and public charter schools.