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Christy Wolfe

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Accountability Standards for Teacher Prep Programs Overdue

The National Alliance joined a coalition of 23 leaders in the education reform movement in issuing a letter calling for the Obama Administration to seek public comments on its draft Higher Education Act (HEA) rules which would shine a spotlight on teacher preparation program quality, programs that receive approximately $4 billion each year from the federal government. These draft regulations were released in early 2012 but haven’t moved forward since then. In order to address concerns with the quality of teacher preparation programs and to identify high quality, as well as low-performing programs, the U.S. Department of Education proposed rules that would require states to: 1. Meaningfully assess teacher preparation program performance; and 2. Hold programs accountable for results. The rule-making panel didn’t agree on all points, but did agree that the quality of a teacher preparation program should be directly linked to the student outcomes of their graduates. The next step in the process is for the U.S. Department to issue the proposed rules for public comment, but they are apparently stuck in the Administration’s clearance process. Whether a school is a traditional or public charter school, teacher quality matters.  Teacher preparation programs play a critical role in preparing teachers for success in the classroom. Effective teachers are the single most important school-based factor in student learning and are critical to successful schools. Particularly in high-poverty schools, teachers can mean the difference between students meeting grade level expectations or falling farther behind. The stakes are too high for students; teacher preparation programs should be held accountable for not preparing teachers well. Despite requirements that have been in current law for more than 10 years, for states to assess teacher preparation programs and identify the lowest performers, less than 3 percent of all colleges and universities with teacher training programs have been identified as low-performing, and most states have never identified a single low-performing program. Now is the time to move forward with meaningful reporting and accountability to ensure that low-performing teacher preparation programs are improved. Christine Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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Achievement and Innovation as Mission Critical: Reflections from a Charter School Founder

During National Charter Schools Week, we celebrate achievements in the school house and the state house. These achievements could not have been possible without the commitment of teachers, leaders, parents and advocates from all parts of the country. We asked some of these individuals to tell us why they are a part of the charter schools movement. The future is uncertain.  Our world is rapidly changing.  What we do, what we know, and our general way of being is fantastically different today than it was ten years ago, and will be different ten years from now than it is today.  We, as a movement and profession, must operate innovatively to ensure our children can keep pace with our changing world.  With this message, I’ll depart Music City for our nation’s capital and meet with congressional leaders during National Charter Schools Week. Innovation has always been a key attribute of the charter school movement; however, now more than ever, we have the responsibility to progressively push education reform forward in ways that both advance the field but also, and more importantly, get results – significant results.  Innovation devoid of achievement is for naught. As a professional field, we know a great deal about what works in educating children.  For instance, we know direct, systematic, explicit instruction is the most effective practice in teaching basic skills and advancing the learning of struggling readers, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners.  We also know teachers who formatively measure performance are more effective in raising student achievement.  We know investing students in their education is critical.  At STEM Prep, we believe these and related practices are simply best practice.  We’ve implemented every scientifically researched-based practice that aligns to our mission and model.  However, we don’t believe these practices are innovative; we believe they’re responsible and simply what good schools do every day. While “innovation” can be defined and operationalized in numerous ways, we believe innovation is the development of more effective practices and processes that not only result in advancing student achievement, but also instill the habits of mindrequired for our children to access the college and career pathways of the 21st Century.  This is, in fact, our mission and the mindset undergirding the STEM Prep model. To this end, the principle questions since STEM Prep’s inception have been:  How do we educate children to keep pace with our rapidly changing environment?  What are the requisite habits of mind that must transcend time, discipline, and reform effort in ways that ensure our children can compete?  How do we move beyond mastery of very basic, rudimentary skills to more rigorous modes of thinking and problem solving? These are the discussions in which my charter school colleagues are engaged across the country.  As I prepare to meet with congressional leaders next week, I’m energized by the opportunity to dive deeply into these mission critical questions.  Achievement and innovation, after all, are the drivers of this movement and our country. Kristin McGraner, Ed.D., is the Founder & Executive Director of STEM Preparatory Academy in Nashville, TN. To learn more about STEM Prep Academy, please see their website and video. NCSW STEM Prep Blog
Todd Ziebarth

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Actual Autonomy

In advance of the release of our 2012 rankings of state charter school laws against our model law, we are going to chronicle some of the most critical aspects of the model law currently playing across the country.  The second installment focuses on charter school autonomy. To truly be an “independent” public charter school, there are three key components of autonomy measured in the NAPCS Model Public Charter Law:
  1. Charter schools must be fiscally and legally independent entities, with independent governing boards that have most powers granted to other traditional public school district boards.
  2. Charter schools must receive automatic exemptions from many state and district laws and regulations, except for those covering health, safety, civil rights, student accountability, employee criminal history checks, open meetings, freedom of information requirements, and generally accepted accounting principles.
  3. Charter schools must be exempted from any outside collective bargaining agreements, while not interfering with laws and other applicable rules protecting the rights of employees to organize and be free from discrimination.
When state law does not explicitly grant these autonomies to charter schools, it fails to set up public charter schools for success.  In fact, it is likely setting them up for hardship, if not failure. An example from Virginia brings this issue to head. As the Virginia law currently stands, charter school personnel are considered employees of the local school board granting the charter and are granted the same employment benefits in accordance with the district’s personnel policies.  In other words, a charter school has little control over one of the key factors that will determine whether it is successful or not:  its employees.  These provisions help make Virginia’s law among the weakest in the nation for creating public charter schools with a high level of autonomy to set their own policies. In a positive sign, the Richmond Public Schools (RPS) has joined the chorus of charter school advocates (including us) that are calling on the state legislature to change the law to allow people who work in a charter school to be employed by the school instead of the district.  RPS has taken this step because of confusion over who oversees the employees at the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, a charter school authorized by RPS.  Patrick Henry’s principal Pamela L. Boyd has taken three months of paid administrative leave as well as numerous personal days off amid questions about her leadership. Yet Patrick Henry is unable to take meaningful action to resolve the issue because Boyd is an employee of RPS, not the school. When a school is not afforded the autonomy to make its personnel decisions, accountability for its performance is also compromised.  Among several changes that need to be made to Virginia’s weak charter school law, NAPCS urges the state to amend its law in 2012 to strengthen charter school autonomy.  These changes will not only help existing schools like Patrick Henry succeed.  They will also lay a strong foundation for the growth of high-quality public charter schools in Virginia in the future.
Renita Thukral

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Advocacy Update: Protecting Charter School Teacher Retirement Funds

Over the past few months, we’ve been working diligently on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issue, and want to share a few key highlights: First, in early May, attorneys at the IRS and U.S. Department of Treasury invited the National Alliance and several state-level charter support organizations to sit down and talk through our concerns.  We had an open, engaging discussion.  It felt incredibly productive, and afterwards the attorneys at the IRS and Treasury asked us to continue working with them to provide additional information about the charter sector.  We have already begun to do so – and will continue to collaborate with the IRS in the coming months. Second, we reviewed and indexed all the public comments filed by June 18th, 2012, the close of the public comment period.  In all, 2,312 comments were filed – more than 95% from the charter sector across the country (that totals nearly 2,200 individual comments from members of the public charter school community!).  Not only did we have the opportunity to spotlight this accomplishment when we testified at the public hearing (details below), but several reporters also noted this tremendous show of force (again, see below). Third, the IRS hosted a public hearing here in D.C. on July 9th.  I testified on behalf of the National Alliance and public charter school communities across the country.  Plus, I was lucky and thankful to be joined by David Dunn, Executive Director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, and Jill Gottfred, Policy Manager at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.  Our individual and collective testimony was very well received.  The IRS panelists engaged each of us in a robust question and answer period, inviting each of us to provide supplemental information going forward. Lastly, there was strong media coverage of the event, including a number of print articles.  Please see here and here for well-rounded summaries of the hearing and next steps. Perhaps the most important information, though, is not new information.  Rather, it’s a reminder – and one the IRS panelists made special effort to note during the July 9th public hearing – that the process of finalizing these draft proposed regulations is a long one.  The currently released regulations will be reviewed; input from the public comment process will be incorporated; and, a new document will be released as the official “Notice of Proposed Regulations.”  Upon the release of this document, a new public comment period will open, and the input and review process will begin again.  Once this process culminates, the IRS will revisit the regulations one more time before issuing the final regulations.  In all, it could be – and likely will be – a long process, one which will take many, many months (possibly years) to finalize.  All to say, we’ve come a long way and we will continue to work with the IRS over the months ahead to make sure public charter school employees, both current and future, are protected.  But, the regulations will not be finalized in the short-term; as such, the eligibility of charter school employees to enroll in their respective state plans also will not change in the short-term.

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Alliance’s “Charter Law Rankings Report” Gets Nod From NACSA

Yesterday in Scottsdale AZ, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers announced that How State Charter Laws Rank Against The New Model Public Charter School Law, by Todd Ziebarth and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is the 2010 recipient of the NACSA Award for Excellence in Advancing Knowledge. NACSA drew particular attention to the rankings’ potential impact on the craft of authorizers, who were largely overlooked in the first generation of charter laws:  It is critical that state laws accelerate the movement of more authorizers toward the “best-in-class” practices exhibited by the nation’s best ones.  Aligning state laws with the model law’s “quality control” provisions will move us in that direction….These new rankings not only show which state laws are making the grade, but also show how they do it:  by paying attention to specific issues that are crucial to school and student success. We’re thrilled that the Alliance and Model Law pub (with its online database) have won this recognition. It has already helped move the national conversation toward fostering great charter schools, not just lots of them. But know something else: This is just the latest instance of Todd Ziebarth’s “Advancing Knowledge.”  He’s been doing that for a long time now, going back to his days envisioning the shape of all-charter districts for the Education Commission of the States; through all kinds of publications rooted solidly in fact;  and especially, doing what he does every day to advise movement leaders and policymakers around the country on how to ground decisions in real evidence about what works. Although aided by a blue-ribbon task force, supported by able consultants, and cheered on by Alliance staff, Todd was the driving force behind the 2009 model state charter law, and it was he who made the rankings themselves a wonderfully substantive tool for serious policy analysis. And he’s the best kind of colleague: He knows his stuff but lets you think you thought it up. The charter movement is awfully lucky to have him on our side. Comment Submitted by Macke Raymond on Fri, 10/22/2010 – 5:42pm. Congratulations, NAPCS and Todd! Recognition well-deserved!!
Christy Wolfe

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Alternative Charter Schools: Should Traditional Accountability Measures Apply?

Should there be “alternate” accountability systems for charter schools that intentionally serve students at risk of academic failure? The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) released a report last week that examines this question.Anecdotes Aren’t Enough: An Evidence-Based Approach to Accountability for Alternative Charter Schools offers a set of recommendations for authorizers wrestling with this issue to ensure that quality is appropriately measured at schools with a stated mission of serving high-risk students. Typical accountability measures such as grade-level proficiency and graduation rates may not offer the same barometers of quality in alternative settings. And trying to make current accountability measures “fit” these schools has too often been a matter of simply setting lower expectations. Parents and students should be confident that accountability measures are appropriate for their school and not simply a means to avoid real accountability for educational improvement. But what is an alternative charter school? The report provides an interesting window into how states have approached defining alternative charter schools. Colorado has set the highest bar, requiring that 95 percent of a school’s students be classified as “high risk” in order for the school to be moved into its alternate accountability system. Washington, D.C. determined that 60 percent is an appropriate threshold. Texas defines schools where more than 50 percent of its students are 17 or older as a dropout recovery school. California requires at least 70 percent of students at a school fall into one of seven at-risk categories before it is called “alternative.” California also has a specific definition for a dropout recovery school as schools with at least 50 percent of its students classified as dropouts or students who have transferred but not reenrolled in another school for 180 days. Other states have no threshold and only require that a school’s stated mission be to serve an alternative population. The report recommends setting a high bar when defining such schools. Schools should only be classified as alternative if they have a large percentage of students with extraordinary learning difficulties, acute risks to their ability to succeed, or a documented history of academic failure that leaves them significantly far behind their age group in high school credits. All public schools, including public charter schools, should receive credit for the progress that they make with high-risk students. But unless there are clear definitions of “alternative” public charter schools, however, there is a “high risk” of simply making excuses for schools and not evaluating them on the basis of clear performance measures. Christy Wolfe is a senior policy advisor at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
Renita Thukral

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Amani Public Charter School Wins in Court – and Gets Paid by the District for the First Time

Four lawsuits in two years. Three filed and lost by the Mount Vernon Board of Education in New York. One filed and won by the Amani Public Charter School. The Amani Public Charter School was approved to open by the NY Board of Regents in December 2010, but has never found a collaborative partner in its local school district. Rather, quite the opposite. The local school board, the Mount Vernon Board of Education, sued the public charter school three separate times between October 2011 and September 2012 – efforts designed to stop the school from operating. Adding insult to injury, the local district also refused to pay the public charter school the state and federal funds to which it is entitled by New York state law. This illegal withholding pushed Amani into a very precarious position. In order to serve the students enrolled in its school, 70 percent of whom are free-and-reduced-lunch eligible, the school had to wait for the state to make funds available, a lengthy process which often forced the school into debt and left its supporters wondering if it could weather the financial storm. In effect, the local school district was achieving through an unlawful practice what it could not through the courts. Even after losing its third-straight legal battle with the school, the local district still refused to make the legally required payments to the school, ultimately forcing the school to sue the school district for blatantly violating the law. Confronted with the lawsuit from the school, the district did not dispute the allegations. Instead, in early July they settled the lawsuit, which requires the district to pay the school all outstanding and future funds. On July 26, 2013, the school received direct payment from the district for the first time. Sadly, this type of district interference is not uncommon. Recently, Atlanta public charter schools were forced to sue their school district, Atlanta Public Schools, when it illegally withheld funds from charters to pay its own debts. The Atlanta charters scored a clear victory in trial court, and the case is now before the Georgia State Supreme Court. It would be easy for charter school leaders to just give up when facing such an uphill battle, and understandable if they did. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools applauds the unrelenting commitment by Amani Public Charter School to its students and community. Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Learn More: Reporter Newspapers: APS Superintendent recommends denial of Atlanta Classical charter Daily Voice: Mount Vernon Charter School Moves Closer to Being Financially Stable Lohud.com: Mount Vernon cuts first check to Amani charter school
Nina Rees

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An Education in Building Local Support

(Originally published by U.S. News & World Report)

Last week, the 46th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of public attitudes toward public schools was released, and the headline was the deteriorating support for Common Core standards, to which 60 percent of Americans are now opposed. A similar poll, conducted by Education Next, confirms many of the first poll’s findings. This is not all that surprising, given the onslaught of negative publicity surrounding Common Core, but what caught my attention is the subtext of this opposition, which is centered around Americans’ dissatisfaction with federal involvement in schools.

What to make of this?

Americans dislike one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to how their children are educated. While the Common Core State Standards are simple standards that a curriculum can be built around, and the standards are already in place in many states, the public seems uneasy with a national (or as they see it, a “federally driven”) approach. Whether this is because anti-Common Core forces have done an effective job of vilifying the standards or because Americans have a libertarian streak in our DNA, the brand “Common Core” is now as disliked as “No Child Left Behind.” Education Next found that 68 percent of Americans would favor their state using “standards for reading and math that are the same across the states.” But when standards are labeled “Common Core,” supports drops to 54 percent…read more here.

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An Historic Day for Massachusetts Charter Schools: Two Charter Advocates Win Spot in Boston Mayoral Final

This morning the Massachusetts charter school community awoke to a dream come true: two finalists for Boston mayor, John Connolly and Marty Walsh, who are both strong advocates for charter schools and the elimination of the charter school cap. For 18 years Boston charter schools have persevered and, against great odds, created one of the best groups of public schools to be found anywhere in the country. With this election Boston charter schools will no longer be outsiders. Our place at the table is secure. Even before the vote yesterday, the mayoral race had already proven to be the historic breakthrough that the Massachusetts charter school movement has been working towards for so many years.
  • The charter school cap became one of the two major issues in the campaign
  • An NPR poll found a Boston voter margin of 61-22 percent in favor of lifting the cap
  • 7 out of 12 candidates endorsed a cap lift
  • 5 of those 7 endorsed the elimination of the cap
Because there were so many charter supporters running in the race, charter advocates were supporting a number of candidates. And while everyone worked for their own candidate, we all prayed that we would end up with two final candidates who supported charters. And it happened. These two candidates rose to the top because education has been the number one issue in the campaign and these two candidates were rewarded for their courage to advocate for families and children having access to high quality public school options. It’s hard to overstate the impact yesterday’s election has on Massachusetts charter schools. Not only do both candidates support eliminating the cap, they also support leasing underutilized district buildings to charters; both support equal funding for charter and district students; both support deepening the work of the Boston Compact collaboration between charter and district schools. Typically, as so goes Boston, so goes Massachusetts. This election will reverberate across the state, creating space for other city officials and candidates to embrace charters. We also can’t overlook the fact that these results further legitimize support for charter schools within the Massachusetts Democratic Party. There were 11 candidates running in the open primary for Mayor of Boston, 10 Democrats and 1 Republican. The two top vote winners are both Democrats and will face-off in a November 5 general election. The future looks brighter than ever for schoolchildren and their families in Boston and across Massachusetts. Marc Kenen is the executive director at the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association Learn more: Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University: Charter School Performance in Massachusetts National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities

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Analysis of the Washington State Public Charter School Ballot Measure

Education Week’s Charters & Choice blog featured analysis of voting patterns on Washington state’s narrowly approved public charter schools measure. Central to the analysis was a county-by-county breakdown of the presidential race (below)… WA Pres Votes             …compared to the tallies for the ballot measure (below). WA Charter Votes             The results of the ballot measure defied some traditional partisan, geographic splits within the state. Check out the original Charters & Choice blog for the full analysis and commentary.