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Vote for a Hero

People magazine is in the midst of its Readers’ Choice Hero Campaign. The campaign identifies nine inspirational stories that were featured in People this year, and gives the public a chance to vote for their favorite. If you’ve got a minute, check it out; the campaign ends Friday, Oct. 8. These are some awe-inspiring stories about some pretty amazing folks. Many of their stories  involve helping children and young people, and one even features an outstanding charter school leader…our very own Tim King of Urban Prep Charter Academy in Chicago.

Of course, we can’t tell you how to vote (we would NEVER do that at the CharterBlog, since we’re non-partisan!), but we do hope you’ll vote for someone.  Their causes are all very compelling and worthy, and the cash award will help the winner further his or her work.  We’ve got our favorite, and we sure hope he wins.

Gina Mahony

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Vote “YES” on the following H.R. 5 Amendments

As the U.S. House Committee on Education & the Workforce begins floor consideration of H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools encourages a “YES” vote on the following amendments to the Student Success Act:

Cantor #30—This amendment allows States, at their discretion, to allow Title I funds to follow a child to their public school of choice, including public charter schools.

  • The National Alliance supports providing States with the flexibility to allocate Title I funds in a manner that allows funds to follow an eligible child to a public school of choice. This is particularly important for states and districts that allow funds to “follow the child” and allocate their state and local dollars using what is known as a “weighted student formula.” Allowing Title I funds to follow low-income students to their public school, including public charter schools, can help to improve the allocation of Title I funds to public charter schools.

Polis-Petri #25—This amendment would specify that CSP funds can be used for paying costs associated with teacher preparation; purchasing instructional materials and implementing teacher and principal professional development programs; and providing the necessary renovations and minor facilities repairs, excluding construction, to ensure a strong school opening or to meet the needs of increased student enrollment.

  • The National Alliance supports providing charter school leaders and principals more flexibility in how they can use their funds at the school level. Under this amendment, funds could be used for teacher preparation, professional development for teachers and principals, and limited facilities repair—costs that are critical for ensuring a strong school opening.

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Walking the Talk: An Ed Reformer Reflects on Choosing a Public Charter School

In 2011, my husband, an Episcopal priest, was called to a church in Atlanta, GA.  The two biggest decisions facing us were – where should we live and where will we send our son, Charles to school?  My husband and I had lived in Atlanta from 2001-2006 before coming to D.C., so we knew a good deal about the different neighborhoods in Atlanta, but so much had changed while we were gone. And while I knew a little about the charter sector in Atlanta through my work at NAPCS, we didn’t have a strong grasp on all of the educational options in Atlanta.  We had a lot of research to do, and had to do it quickly as we needed to move in the next couple of months.

Of course, there were lots of options before us.  Charles was turning 4 on September 7, 2011, missing the cut-off for Georgia Pre-K by 6 days, so we needed to find a preschool for him for the coming year, while at the same time thinking through a longer term strategy for elementary school.  Some friends encouraged us to go the private school route, while others suggested moving to neighborhoods known for high-quality traditional public schools.  However, we talked to one close friend (whose son is a month younger than Charles), and she was planning to send her son to the new East Lake Early Learning Academy (ELEA) for Pre-K through 3, and then to Drew for elementary school.  We thought this might be a good option for Charles and gave it a closer look.

Because of its academic success and role as the cornerstone in a major neighborhood revitalization, Drew was well-known in the national charter sector.  I had a chance to visit Drew during the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference in Atlanta, was able to see first-hand what great work they were doing, and was immediately impressed.   Ultimately, we decided to move to the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta so that we could send Charles to ELEA, which would allow him to matriculate to Drew beginning in Pre-K.  We were drawn to Kirkwood because of its in-town location, incredible diversity, and convenience to both ELEA and Drew – only 5 minutes away!  But more than that, Drew met some very important criteria for my husband and me – diverse student body (racial and socio-economic status), high academic performance, and strong parental commitment.

Our experience with the East Lake Early Academy was great, and Drew has been an excellent choice for Charles so far.  His team of three teachers is phenomenal, and the emphasis on language and literacy development in the early years is impressive.  But I expected as much coming to a school so widely acclaimed and with such a strong reputation for academic performance.  What I have been most impressed by, however, is the level of parental involvement and commitment.  Parents assume tremendous responsibility for the school’s success and partner with the teachers and administration to make things happen.  School started on July 30th, and shortly before then, I joined a Drew Charter Schools Parent group on Facebook.  Today, it has 183 members, is growing, and is THE source for information and dialogue about issues related to the school.

Is Drew perfect?  Of course not…but what school is?  I’m excited to be part of a community of parents for whom failure is not an option.  Though I left NAPCS earlier this year to go to graduate school, I feel blessed to still be connected to the movement and impact change, now in an even more personal way.

Charles and Mommy at Drew (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Photo: Author Rhonda Fischer and her son Charles, ready for his first day of school at Drew

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Washington Moves From Laggard to Leader

This week, The Charter Blog will feature guest posts from state charter support organizations capturing their reaction to their state’s ranking on the 20 essential components from the NAPCS model law (see Massachusetts).

In its first year of competing in the race for best charter school law, Washington won a bronze medal! On behalf of the coalition that wrote the initiative and campaigned for its passage, we are proud and pleased that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has given our law a prestigious #3 ranking.

After four prior ballot box losses, Washington voters approved our first charter school law last November. Being 20 years late to the party gave us some clear advantages. We knew that strong authorizing, oversight and accountability would lead to better schools, so we looked to the Alliance’s model law for guidance.

Washington’s law creates a state commission, allows multiple authorizers, and is well aligned with the model law’s quality control components. It also provides operational autonomy to charter schools. The WA law specifically references the National Association of Charter School Authorizer’s principles and standards for quality authorizing. Washington started with a cap on the number of charter schools because we want to lead with quality.

Now the real work begins to ensure that we open 40 great charter schools over five years, serving the kids most in need of better educational opportunities.

Model law map-2

Renita Thukral

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Washington State Charter School Law Upheld in Court

On December 12, the King County Superior Court in Seattle ruled in League of Women Voters of Washington v. State of Washington, finding that public charter schools are legally permissible in Washington State. As detailed in this blog previously, the case challenged the state constitutionality of Washington’s recently-enacted Charter School Act with seven different claims. Many of the arguments echoed those raised in constitutional challenges filed against charter school laws in other states; other claims relied on unique provisions of Washington’s constitution.

The trial court upheld the act, with two exceptions. Judge Jean Rietschel held that the court was bound by a 1909 state supreme court decision (School District No. 20 v. Bryan) to find that charter schools are not “common schools” because they lack local school district-based voter control (a unique provision of the WA constitution). As a result, the court concluded charter schools are not eligible to receive construction funds reserved by the state for its “common schools.”  However, these two aspects of Washington’s Charter School Act are severable, meaning they can be struck down while the rest of the law remains intact.

We expect plaintiffs to file an appeal, and we anticipate the case will proceed to Washington State Supreme Court by next summer. However, even if the state supreme court agrees with Judge Reitschel and affirms the trial court’s decision, the immediate impact will be minimal. Most charter applicants seeking to open schools in 2014 have proposed leasing space in existing schools or community facilities; they are not intending to construct or remodel facilities before opening their doors and therefore do not qualify for the common school construction funds.

As this case winds its way through the legal process, charter school applicants are charging ahead. The Washington State Charter School Commission and Spokane Public Schools are continuing their consideration of 21 applications for eight spots. For the students and families looking to attend charter schools next year and the teachers, parents, and community leaders working to open them, last week’s ruling was a green light to proceed.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Renita Thukral

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Washington State Should Reject Charter School Opponents’ Failed Tactics

In November 2012, Washington state voters became the first in the country to approve a public charter school law by a ballot initiative. Initiative 1240 authorized the creation of 40 charter schools over five years beginning with the 2014 school year.  Just months after I-1240 passed, however, charter school opponents filed a lawsuit in state court to block the law from being implemented, arguing it violated the state constitution in several ways.

This is not the first time charter school opponents have taken their policy disputes to court when they haven’t been successful convincing legislators or voters to block charter schools. In fact, over the past 15 years, arguments similar to those made by Washington charter school opponents have been tried in other states, and they have failed every time. From California to Ohio to New Jersey, the same constitutional claims raised in the Washington case have been raised and rejected by state courts of appeal and state supreme courts.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently released a paper explaining when and where these constitutional claims have been made, what the respective outcomes were, and how the lessons learned from these cases can–and should–be applied to the Washington constitutional challenge.

Washington courts should follow the sound reasoning applied by other state courts that have considered and denied similar constitutional arguments.  Each of the arguments raised in the Washington suit have been presented, in one form or another, to other state courts with comparable constitutional provisions, and they have been uniformly rejected. The Washington courts should do the same.

This blog is excerpted from the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s publication,  We’ve Been Here Before:  Charter School Opponents Use Same Legal Arguments and Lose Every Time, by Chad A. Readler and Kenneth M. Grose.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Todd Ziebarth

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Washington State Voter Analysis Shows Support Among Minority Communities

One of the most interesting aspects of last fall’s ballot box victory for public charter schools in Georgia was the overwhelming support from African-American voters at the same time that too many of their political leaders were opposing the ballot measure. We are seeing a similar dynamic in Alabama and Kentucky, where a solid majority of voters support charters according to a recent survey released by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (link to our blog on this survey here) while their political leaders more often than not oppose them.

And now comes some interesting findings from Washington State, where voters enacted a public charter school law last fall via a ballot measure (I-1240). According to an analysis that we recently completed, voting precincts more populated with Hispanic, Native American, and African-American voters supported the measure by clear margins:

  • Precincts more populated with Hispanics were 15% more supportive of I-1240. Hispanics represent 8.9% of voters in Washington State.
  • Precincts more populated with Native Americans were 13% more supportive of I-1240. Native Americans represent 1.3% of voters in Washington State.
  • Precincts more populated with African-Americans were 8% more supportive of I-1240. African-Americans represent 3.3% of voters in Washington State.

Given that Hispanic, Native American, and African-American students have been historically shortchanged by our public school system, it’s no surprise that these voters were most interested in having high-quality public school choices available to them via public charter schools. Let’s hope that the political leaders representing these precincts see these margins and decide to support public charter schools in line with the interests of their voters instead of opposing them to please more narrow special interests.

Whether they do or not, though, it’s now up to public charter schools that open in Washington State to deliver on their promise and deliver a high-quality public education to these students as they’ve done in so many other communities across the country.

Todd Ziebarth is the senior vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

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Washingtonian Disses Board, Misses Point

It’s good to see the GAO’s new report giving a high-five to my alma mater, the DC Public Charter School Board. The PCSB is a standard-setter in its field, recognized as such by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But Alyssa Rosenberg’s Washingtonian blog about the report includes an odd take on the PCSB’s tough accountability record: “Since the board began granting charters in 1996, it has closed down 24 of the 76 schools it’s opened. Of those 24, three gave up their charters voluntarily and four gave them up after they couldn’t attract enough students to stay financially viable….” Noting a higher closure rate than the national average, the piece concludes: “The problem, it seems, isn’t oversight after the fact—it’s picking the proposals for schools that have the best chance to succeed during the application process. And if the Public Charter School Board could find a way to weed out schools that were likely to fail, the organization might need fewer of those outside performance review consultants that are driving up its personnel costs.” (Homework needed here: The PCSB has actually been quite parsimonious in awarding charters, for example approving just four of thirteen applications in the 2010 cycle.)

But here’s the big, unmentioned factual gap: Of the 24 charters closed since 1996, 14 were chartered not by the PCSB but by the now-defunct DC Board of Education, commonly acknowledged as one of the nation’s worst authorizers (so bad that its charter officer went to the slammer for diverting school funds to a sham contract operation set up by her daughter). The old Board handed out charters at random and did no oversight; by imposing some serious standards and giving schools close scrutiny, the PCSB is thinning the herd. It’s closed six of the schools inherited when the DC Board was put out of its misery in 2007.

You wouldn’t know from the blog the report is actually titled “District of Columbia Charter Schools: Criteria for Awarding School Buildings to Charter Schools Needs Additional Transparency.” GAO’s major recommendations are aimed not at the PCSB but at the mayor and the city, faulting them for failing to fulfill the spirit of DC’s public education facilities laws, which give charters right of first refusal on excess school-district property. In a response included with the report, Mayor Vincent Gray commendably sets out new rules for accommodating charters in the decision process.

Renita Thukral

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Weighted Lotteries: Bringing Federal Rules in Line with State Charter School Laws

For years, charter schools across the country have been trying to give preferences to underserved students in their lotteries, only to find themselves barred from federal funding by the Department of Education. In an issue brief published in May 2012, titled “A Mission to Serve: How Public Charter Schools Are Designed to Meet the Diverse Demands of Our Communities,”the National Alliance identified this federal barrier as a major obstacle for the charter school community and urged the department to reconsider its position. Now, they have.

On January 29th, the department released new non-regulatory guidance permitting the targeted use of weighted lotteries. Randomized lotteries still will be used to enroll students on waitlists;, however, a slight preference may be given to certain groups of students – for instance, students with special needs, those who are low-income, homeless or neglected, or those who are learning English.  The updated guidance establishes that a charter school may give a slightly better chance of admission to these educationally disadvantaged students and still be eligible for federal dollars.

The department is not requiring, encouraging, or discouraging schools to use weighted lotteries; this new guidance simply offers charter schools an additional tool to better serve these students. The use of weighted lotteries remains completely voluntary.

So, what does this mean for a school interested in conducting weighted lotteries?  The impact of the new guidance will hinge on state law. Specifically, according to the revised language, a charter school may use a weighted lottery only if such lottery is permitted under state law.

The guidance details several ways in which state law may articulate such permission:  either expressly in statute, policy or regulation, or in a written opinion by the state attorney general. Moreover, if state law provides permission, additional criteria must be satisfied in order for the Department to sign off on a grantee’s eligibility to receive federal dollars. Such additional criteria include whether there is an oversight entity (such as an authorizer) monitoring the use of weighted lotteries, whether such lotteries serve the approved mission of the school, and whether the weights assigned through the lottery are reasonable.

This new guidance brings the federal government in line with existing state statutes and policies and offers another tool to charter schools to enroll a greater number of educationally disadvantaged students.

Renita Thukral is the vice president of legal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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Welcome to a New School Year!

We would like to wish all the members of the public charter school family a happy start to the new school year. As we begin a new year, we have much to reflect upon. Our movement celebrates the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first public charter school in Minnesota this week. We’ve grown from a single standalone school to now serving over 2 million students in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

However, the new school year also represents a pause point for some families. According to results of our 2012 national survey, the number of students on a waiting list to attend a public charter school has surpassed 600,000 students. This year marks the largest figure ever recorded of students waiting to attend a charter school–an increase of nearly 200,000 students since 2010.

To honor our current and hopeful charter school family, we’ll be featuring back to school stories on The Charter Blog this week. Checkout two accounts of launching a public charter school from leaders in Atlanta and St. Louis. And stay tuned for more details on waiting list figures and the first public charter school throughout the week.