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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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An Oasis of “We Can” and “What’s Next”

Four years ago, I found myself living in Kansas City, MO, pregnant, and teaching in a neighboring suburban school district. I felt an impending urgency to find a public elementary school where I would be pushed professionally and my future child would be given a high-quality education. And I didn’t want to move away from the city I had grown to love.

Reflecting on those days of urgent conversations surrounding the state of public education, my passion for providing a high quality public education that I desperately sought for my own child grew to include all of the children of my beloved Kansas City. In one of many conversations about where I would be sending my son/daughter to school, I heard about Crossroads Academy of Kansas City (CAKC), a charter school that was set to open the following school year.

Now as a kindergarten teacher at CAKC, I listen to incoming parents, many of whom had similar stories as mine. “Welcome to Crossroads Academy! How did you hear about us?” I ask. This simple question evokes passionate stories of how families have made the choice to send their scholar to start kindergarten in my classroom. Relief that they don’t have to move, or scramble to figure out how to pay for private school, or take a spot at a school where they do not have a belief that the school will provide the highest quality of education for their child. As I honestly respond, “Me too,” our bond to create a model of change in education is sparked. We are in this together, to show Kansas City that our children are scholars, can exceed any expectation that we set for them, will be raised to serve our community, and prove that the kids of Kansas City can!

We are three years into our mission at CAKC to become the premiere urban school serving Kansas City and as our waiting list grows, so does my passion and drive to serve the scholars who sit in my kindergarten class. My colleagues and I are given the professional freedom to create curriculum, assessments, and pacing guides that fit the needs of each individual class and child; we are encouraged to push forward with project based learning while partnering with the community; and to seek professional development to hone our craft.

To give you a brief look into the heart of what we are striving to accomplish, this spring our scholars were presented with information of an orphanage in Guatemala where one of the orphans had opened a bakery and was in need of many supplies to support his brothers and sisters. The kindergarten scholars decided they would hold a bake sale to raise money and set their goal at $800. When trying to give them an idea on how much that amount was, our Rosie the Riveter stood and passionately exclaimed with an arm raised, “WE CAN DO THIS!” They went on to raise over $1700.

In the age of naysayers concerning educational innovation, it’s refreshing to call a place like CAKC home. Crossroads is an oasis of reform. An oasis of “we can,” and “what’s next?”

Crossroads Academy of Kansas City

Kara Schumacher is a kindergarten teacher at Crossroads Academy of Kansas City.

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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.

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Are Charter School Students Worth Less?

In advance of the release of its 2012 Model Public Charter School Law rankings, NAPCS will chronicle some of the most critical—and contentious—aspects of the model law that played out in the past state legislative cycle. This guest blog by Eileen Sigmund, President and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, examines issues with funding equity (Model Law Component 18). Are some students worth less or worthless?  When it comes to Arizona’s antiquated school funding system, students are treated differently. Charter students are funded, on average, $1,500 less per student than their district peers. These funding disparities are unjust, and an Arizona lawsuit seeks a basic American principle: that all children in public schools receive an equally good education, backed by similar, adequate resources. A recent ruling by the Maricopa County Superior Court in the lawsuit Craven et al. v. State of Arizona et al. confirmed that Arizona’s public charter school students are Arizona public school students entitled to the Arizona Constitution’s educational privileges just like the state’s public district school students. This ruling came after the State and others argued that public district school students and public charter school students are not members of a similarly situated group of citizens. The State has maintained that Arizona’s pubic charter school students occupy an inferior, secondary supplemental level in Arizona’s public school hierarchy. The recent ruling rejects that argument. In light of the ruling, the remainder of this litigation will focus on the determination of whether Arizona’s K-12 student finance scheme is constitutional. To be upheld, the system must be rational, reasonable and not arbitrary, discriminatory or capricious. Trial is set for Fall 2012. We cannot treat some students as if they are worth less than others. For more information, visit www.studentequitynow.org.

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Are Newer Studies Finding Greater Charter School Performance Effects?

The recent CREDO study of New Jersey charter schools showed positive results for charter schools across the state, and really quite remarkable results for charter schools in Newark (read more about the study herehere, and here). The findings come on the heels of a couple of additional reports from CREDO since the large study in 2009 that showed positive results for charter schools in Indiana/Indianapolis and New York City. Here’s our prediction: studies that show positive results for charter schools may be foreshadowing positive results to come. And we make this prediction based on evidence from studies over the past decade. Take a look at the figure below. NAPCS charter school effect sizes over time 2                               The figure plots out the impact from charter school studies released, by year, that qualified for the Betts & Tang meta-analysis, with the addition of significant studies released in 2011 and 2012. All of the studies used student-level, longitudinal data to compare the performance of students enrolled in charter schools with their counterparts in traditional public schools. The large circles indicate results from studies that used randomized field trial lottery designs and the smaller circles are results from studies that used other quasi-experimental research designs (e.g., student fixed-effects, student matching). The triangles represent results that were not statistically significant, but are included to demonstrate the direction of results. The dotted lines represent the overall effect sizes (ES) from the meta-analysis, by grade level and subject area. The distribution of effect sizes indicates that findings from high-quality studies on charter school performance are trending positive, and getting bigger in more recent years. The dotted lines, which show the overall effect sizes from the meta-analysis, confirm this trend. In general, the meta-analysis found positive and statistically significant results from charter school studies for elementary and middle school grades. So it would not be a surprise if future studies show a similar pattern. What could explain the upward trajectory in charter school performance effects in newer studies? There are a lot of possible explanations—here are just a few:
  • The charter school sector is maturing. While making sure that low-performing charter schools are closed is a priority (seeNACSA’s One Million Lives Campaign), authorizers, charter support organizations, up-and-coming school leaders, and charter schools that want to replicate are getting better at identifying the charter schools that will result in high quality learning environments. In other words, the charter sector is learning how to replicate success and take it to scale.
Other explanations are aligned with the research itself:
  • Newer studies are using better data. The data in the more recent studies include longer spans of academic years, as well as data from more recent years. And the studies include data from more states. Up to early 2009 when NAPCS released this charter school research synthesis, the years covered in studies only went through 2006-07 and 14 states out of 40 with charter schools had been examined. Now, the newer studies are examining charter schools through the most recent year of available data (2010-11) and including more states (up to 23 states at last count). The possible implication of this is twofold: 1) studies that use more years of data are able to capture charter schools operating longer, and as charter schools are around longer, they get better; 2) the inclusion of more states (with newer data) means that the early results from just a handful of states don’t outweigh the impact of charter schools in more locations.
  • Studies have become more sophisticated, using research designs that control for selection bias and student demographics.

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Are You Walking Away from a Chance for Funds?

It’s well-established charter schools get less public funding than their district counterparts. But charters may also be ignoring some competitive-funding opportunities.   So said the Government Accountability Office in a report issued last December. GAO identified 47 federal discretionary grant programs for which charter schools are eligible, but found a lot of confusion among charter operators and advocates about who could apply for what. Very few charter schools that are part of district-LEAs have stepped up, apparently believing the district itself had to apply. Yet two-thirds of the federal programs explicitly specify public schools or non-profit organizations are eligible. Adding to that confusion is a real catch-22: Among the charter respondents, 44 percent said they didn’t apply for federal grants because they lacked the resources. Translation: They’re too poorly-funded to hire grant writers. The good news is at least one-quarter of the charters that applied during the 2008-2009 school year received an award, which the Department of Education noted is a higher win-rate than that of average applicants. In fact, the Department said it’s been working to make sure charter operators know their rights. In a formal response to GAO, Jim Shelton of the US Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement pointed out the Department has already put language making charter-eligibility explicit in most of the grant competitions they run, and is working with other agencies like the Justice Department and Housing and Urban Development Department to make sure they do the same. (We forget too often it’s not just “Education” that makes funding available for schools!). Also, the National Charter School Resource Center will post notices like this one on its site and is developing a direct e-capacity to get word directly to schools.   Discretionary grants won’t make up for the full gap charters experience, but let’s not make it worse by leaving available dollars on the table.