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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

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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.

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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.

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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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Another Take on Michigan Administration Costs

Point in time snapshots may not provide an accurate portrayal of the financial life of a public school. Equally important, averages sometimes can mask wide fluctuations in costs across a state. Both of these thoughts came to mind as I read The Huffington Post’s recent article on a new study that indicates charter schools in Michigan spend more on administrative costs than traditional public schools. The study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and released by the National Center for the Study of Privatization of Education, reviewed financial data from the FY08 school year and examined expenditure patterns for districts and charters statewide. The funding landscape for public education has changed significantly since FY08 due to the economic downturn, and I wondered if the Center’s findings would hold true in our new economic reality.

Additionally, the Center’s research did not include a separate analysis on the charters in Detroit, in which a significant number of the state’s charter schools are located.[i]  In my previous work examining charter school revenue patterns, I have found that the financial dynamics of major metropolitan areas often differ from the state as a whole.  For example, in Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists, a project I worked on for Ball State University, we found that when all funding streams are analyzed, Detroit charters received 28.7 percent less funding than the district, while the state variance was 19.7 percent. (Across the country, the average per-pupil charter funding compared to the district school funding is 80.2% in statewide data and 72.2% in urban districts).

detroit chart 1So, over the course of several days, I reviewed data for Detroit Public Schools and the charter schools located within its boundaries to see if the Center’s research from FY08 applied to Detroit in FY11, the most recent year available.[ii] Interestingly, a different pattern emerges from the one depicted in the Center’s study in revenue provided to the district and the charters.  The Center’s analysis from FY08 showed the district and charters statewide at near parity in funding with a difference of only $293, or 3.3 percent.  That is not the case for Detroit in FY11, where Detroit Public Schools averaged $9,937 per pupil in revenue, while the charters received $8,591 per pupil, a variance of 14 percent.

A second departure from the results of the Center’s study appeared in the comparisons for spending on Instruction, where the Center indicated that districts statewide spent $5,629 on basic instruction in FY08, while charters spent only $4,942.  For Detroit, both the district and the charters spent considerably less per pupil on Instruction than the averages presented by the Center, but the Detroit charters spent more than Detroit Public Schools.[iii]  In FY11, Detroit Public Schools dedicated $3,081 per pupil for basic instruction, while the charters spent $3,217 per pupil.  Also of note is that the charters spent a higher percentage of their available dollars on basic instruction – 40.1 percent compared to 31.3 percent for the district.  And this is consistent with research in other cities – charters dedicate a higher percentage of their available funding to instruction than school districts.

detroit chart 2The Center’s study also indicated that Michigan charter schools spent more than traditional public schools for administration.  In FY11, it is true that the charters spent more than traditional public schools for school administration – $722 versus $641 per pupil.  My work in other major metropolitan areas has led to similar results – charter schools must pay a competitive wage to attract talented school leaders, but if a school has fewer pupils over which to spread that cost, the per pupil analysis will show a higher cost.  The percent dedicated to school administration will be even higher for new charter schools that have not reached full enrollment.  For the two other administrative categories, however, general administration and business administration, Detroit charter schools logged a lower per pupil cost when compared to the district.  In FY11, Detroit Public Schools recorded $121 per pupil for general administration, while the charters recorded $73 per pupil.  Business administration costs also were lower for the charter schools – $379 per pupil versus $602 per pupil for the district.

detroit chart 3When all the administration categories are combined, Detroit charters recorded lower administrative costs across all categories – $1,174 per pupil versus $1,364 for the district.

It is interesting to note that charter schools have taken measures to maintain their administrative costs – 86 percent of Detroit charters have no salaried business manager as of FY11, relying instead on consultants and contractors to fill the business needs of their schools.

The Center’s research provides another indicator of the financial conditions of Michigan’s schools.  But, it is a point in time indicator alone.  As the data from FY11 indicate, rapidly changing financial conditions can result in charter schools adjusting the way they spend their money.  Equally important, research efforts such as the one undertaken by the Center need to consider that funding and expenditure patterns will vary within a state’s largest cities where many charters provide services.

Larry Maloney is President of Aspire Consulting, LLC and worked as part of the research team on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s study, “Charter School Funding, Inequity’s Next Frontier,” and Ball State University’s 2010 follow-up, “Charter School Funding, Inequity Persists.”

Updated citation on May 1, 2012


 

[i] “Charter Schools Spend More On Administration, Less On Instruction Than Traditional Public Schools: Study,” The Huffington Post, 10 April, 2012.
[ii] Michigan Department of Education 1011 report and Michigan Department of Education enrollment data.  To align this research to the Center’s report as closely as possible, revenue and expenditures were included only from the  General Fund and the Special Revenue fund.  Revenues were included from Local, State sources, as well as Other Public Schools in Michigan, and Other Schools Outside of State.  Federal revenue from the Special Revenue fund also was included; General Fund federal compensatory revenue was excluded to match as closely as possible the analysis from the Center.
[iii] Expenditure analysis conducted on General Fund and Special Revenue funds only.  For comparability, expenditures for Added Needs Programs and for Adult Education Programs were excluded.