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U.S. House Republicans Tour Two Rivers Public Charter School

GOP Leader Eric Cantor, House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, Representative Todd Rokita, Representative Martha Roby, and Representative Luke Messer toured Two Rivers Public Charter School on Tuesday, July 16th. The members participated in a tour of the school, a roundtable with parents and charter school leaders, and held a press conference to highlight the Student Success Act (H.R. 5) and its charter school legislation. GOP tour 1                           U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor visits with students The roundtable was full of lively discussion on school choice, waiting lists, accountability, and student achievement. The parents were thrilled that they had the opportunity to send their child to such an impactful school; many exclaimed that they had “won the lottery” by being able to attend Two Rivers! GOP tour 2                       Congressman Cantor, Congressman Kline, Scott Pearson (D.C. Public Charter School Board Executive Director), Congressman Messer, and Jessica Wodatch (Two Rivers Public Charter School Executive Director) Two Rivers is a tier-one charter school in the District of Columbia that has outstanding outcomes, with 73 percent proficiency in math and 74 percent proficiency in reading on the state test. Two Rivers proves that public charter schools are having a huge impact on this community. In fact, Two Rivers has been so successful that it has a student waiting list of 1,776 names. Unfortunately, in D.C. alone there are 22,000 names on charter school waiting lists, and in the United States there are 920,000 names. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools commends the House Republicans for visiting Two Rivers Public Charter School, a D.C. success story of how school choice, flexibility and accountability generate innovation in charter schools. The National Alliance looks forward to the ESEA reauthorization momentum in the House and continues to support legislation that further develops the charter school movement and reduces the number of names on charter school waiting lists nationwide.

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U.S. Rep. Kline Recognizes National Charter Schools Week

U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN) released the following statement in recognition of National Charter Schools Week (May 1st – May 7th): “Charter schools epitomize innovation and flexibility – not only do they raise the bar for student achievement, they also encourage parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Best of all, the success of any given charter school hinges on results – in this performance-based education system, teachers and officials are held accountable for the achievements of every student. “Washington leaders on both sides of the aisle recognize high-performing charter schools as a valuable subset of the public school system that should receive our unwavering support. As we forge a new path for education in America, we must learn from the accomplishments of these schools and promote federal policies and initiatives that encourage choice, innovation, and excellence.”

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UK Free Schools and Academies Draw on U.S. Public Charter School Model

NAPCS is pleased to launch a guest blog series which will feature contributions by leading international education experts. The goal of this series is to expose our readers to the challenges and successes of establishing charter schools in different parts of the world. The USA is not the only country where charter type reforms are taking place. CfBT Education Trust—the non-profit organisation that I work for—is heavily involved in similar reforms in England. For over ten years, the government in England has been encouraging the establishment of ‘academies,’ which are public schools, but they are not controlled by the local education authority. I say ‘England’ and not ‘the UK’ because there is a degree of federalism in the UK, which means that England, Scotland and Wales have different education policy. Tony Blair was a great fan of academies. He encouraged them particularly in high poverty urban areas where some public schools had a long history of failing to deliver acceptable outcomes. By 2010 there were 200 academies, and they were beginning to deliver better outcomes as measured by the national tests that English students do at age 16. They were nearly all ‘secondary schools’ for students aged 11-18. While the academies were making a difference, they still represented a small fraction of the public school system in England which has over 20,000 public schools. (Of course, I am using the term ‘public school’ in the American sense; as you may know, we English quirkily use ‘public schools’ as the phrase to describe our elite private schools!) Everything changed in 2010. There was a change of national government. The Labour Party lost power and the new government was dominated by the Conservative party. Conservative politicians were great fans of the charter school movement and the Swedish ‘free schools.’ Prime Minister David Cameron and his education secretary Michael Gove set about a massive expansion of the academies programme. Gove has visited the States many times to find out about how charters work. Shortly after the 2010 election, the leading UK newspaper The Guardian ran story headlined: ‘Can Gove’s American dream work here?’ Michael Gove is particularly enthusiastic about the KIPP schools, and he often describes their impact on life chances in his public speeches. Michael Gove has encouraged a massive expansion of the academies. Two years on, the number has gone from 200 to 2000. He has also introduced a new category of academy known as a ‘free school.’ Most of the Blair academies were ‘new start’ versions of failed existing schools. The free schools are different; they are brand new schools set up in response to parental pressure for change at local level. The first 24 free schools were opened in September 2011. A further 52 free schools opened in September 2012. There is huge controversy around these changes. The teaching unions are very unhappy about the academies and free schools. Some of the free schools have a religious affiliation and in the press there is some criticism of this religious dimension. There is also a big debate about whether or not ‘for profit’ companies should be allowed to operate free schools and academies. At the moment they cannot. Only non-profit organisations can get involved but this might change. Tony UK Blog         Image: Author Tony McAleavy, Education Director of CfBT Education Trust Tony is CfBT’s Education Director, with corporate oversight of the educational impact of all our activities. Tony also has responsibility for corporate business development and advises the Trustees on CfBT’s public domain research programme. He has played a major part in the development of our international consultancy practice, and he has worked extensively on our growing portfolio of education reform projects in the Middle East. Prior to joining CfBT, Tony held senior school and local authority posts in England. He has published extensively on the subject of school history teaching and has an MA in Modern History from St John’s College, University of Oxford.
Todd Ziebarth

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Updates to Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law Desperately Needed

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

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Urban Prep Achieves 100% College Acceptance Rate

We write a lot about education reform and charter school policy on this blog. It’s our bread and butter at NAPCS; we advocate for better policy support at all levels of government. Why? So we’ll see more schools like Urban Prep. For the third straight year, Chicago-based Urban Prep is sending 100 percent of its kids to college. And, equally as important, it’s keeping them there. For the class of 2010, the first graduating class at Urban Prep, 83 percent of the students are still enrolled in 4-year schools. The Chicago Tribune gave Urban Prep some prime real estate on Friday’s editorial page, and we’re proud to showcase the their accomplishments on our blog too. Congratulations to Urban Prep, it’s teachers, leadership staff, and most importantly, its 2012 graduating class. You keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll keep fighting for you in Washington.

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US Congress Holds Hearing on Charter Schools: The Highlights

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

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Using Charter Schools to Strengthen Rural Education

Bellwether recently released a new report on the promise of charter schooling in rural America—and the very real challenges facing it. The paper is part the ROCI initiative, a two-year project on rural education reform funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. We went into this project knowing relatively little about rural charters. It turns out that this is partially because there are so few of them. There are a mere 785 rural charter schools, and only 111 of them are in the most remote rural areas. High-performing charter schools have accomplished great things for many inner-city kids, so we wondered whether they could do the same in rural areas. The need is great. There are 11 million students in rural public schools, and kids in rural America are more likely than their peers in any other geography to live in poverty. Only 27 percent of rural high school graduates go on to college, and just one in five rural adults has earned a bachelor’s degree. But bringing public charter schools to these communities is knottier than we imagined. First, “rural” defies a simple definition. As one scholar put it, the term includes “hollows in the Appalachian Mountains, former sharecroppers’ shacks in the Mississippi Delta, desolate Indian reservations on the Great Plains, and emerging colonia along the Rio Grande.”  What is good for one rural community may not be for another. Second, since many rural areas are isolated and sparsely populated, a new schools strategy faces numerous obstacles, such as enrolling enough students, acquiring facilities, and recruiting teachers and administrators. Third, it’s often the case that a rural district-run school is the largest employer in the area, the hub of local activities, and one of the few visible public investments for miles. As a result, the existing district school is woven tightly into the community’s fabric. New charter schools are often seen through narrowed eyes. But our research also gave us reason for encouragement. There are numerous examples of successful rural charters, from KIPP’s cluster in the Mississippi Delta to the Upper Carmen Charter School in Idaho. There have been heartening instances where charter schools enabled a community—threatened by a consolidation effort—to maintain a local school, preserving the community and its heritage. The paper is sprinkled with facts that we found fascinating, often surprising, and occasionally frustrating.
  • Very few charter management organizations (CMOs) operate in rural areas.
  • Of the nation’s 10 most rural states, 7 have no charter law.
  • States without one of the nation’s 50 largest cities are more likely to lack a charter school law, and, when they do have one, it’s more likely to be rated poorly by both the National Alliance and Center for Education Reform.
  • Some state charter schools laws have provisions that make starting a rural charter nearly impossible or prohibited.
  • Rural charter schools get substantially less funding than district-run schools and face high costs related to transportation and buildings. 
The report makes a number of recommendations related to teacher preparation and certification, technology, charter caps, funding, and transportation. There are clearly a number of policies that states ought to revisit. But a big takeaway from this project is that better policy alone won’t expand the public school options available to rural kids. Charter school advocates need to better understand rural communities, their strengths, and their challenges. And given the differences among rural communities, different approaches are going to be needed for deciding if, when, where, and how a new charter school should emerge. Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwhether Education Partners and author of A New Frontier, Using Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education.  Juliet Squire is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners. Click here to view the National Alliance’s recent video, The Story of Rural Charter Schools.

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Using Technology to Improve Student Achievement

Village Charter School (VCS), a K-8 school of 360 students in Trenton, NJ, with 80 percent of the student body receiving free or reduced-price meals, is the epitome of an urban charter school that can go from a school not meeting state standards to one that does—in two years’ time! In the 2009-2010 school year, only 33 percent of the school was proficient in mathematics and 37 percent was proficient in language arts on the NJ Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (the state’s standardized test for NCLB ratings). VCS had to significantly improve its standardized test scores to meet the high academic standards demanded by the NJ DOE Office of Charter Schools. Beginning September 2010, VCS transformed itself in a few ways, mainly through two technology initiatives. You might have read about one of them in Tech & Learning Magazine during the 2010-11 school year, when the VCS SuccessMaker-Dell Project was covered monthly in The Long Review section of the magazine. For this project, Pearson (publisher of SuccessMaker, a dynamic software program) and Dell computer donated a site license and two, twenty-station computer labs, respectively, believing that the fidelity to a data-driven approach in a first rate software-hardware environment would yield significant benefits. SuccessMaker is interactive and diagnostic. Teachers used the wealth of data provided by the software to differentiate the instruction, student-by-student, standard-by-standard, skill-by-skill in real time. Administrators reviewed student progress on a weekly basis, met with teachers to discuss the results, and visited classrooms to see the differentiated instructional approaches. Students accessed the software in in two formats: in three weekly thirty-minute sessions in the labs and at various times in class. Students are accustomed to immediate feedback when engaged in technology, and this activity helped them become more successful and more aware of their progress in real time. They, as do all people, enjoy being successful. This practice set the trajectory to incorporate more technology into the day-to-day curriculum, which made the other major technology initiative a natural one. That other initiative was the 1:1 netbook project. VCS started with grades one and five, then expanded to grades one, two, five, and six, then to grades one through seven, with eighth graders receiving netbooks in September. Kindergartners will receive netbooks sometime soon as well. Having a 1:1 changed the teaching-and-learning environment. Teachers and students thought differently; they acted differently; they approached teaching and learning from a more sophisticated perspective. The students became self-starters and took ownership for their own learning. The netbooks became “primary learning resources,” for students, and soon they might be replaced with other technologically appropriate devices. It’s very cool to watch first-graders get a netbook from the charging station, go to their desks, and start working independently in the same way many students get a book off the shelf. The environment mirrors one usually found in private schools. VCS continued expanding its technological bandwidth. This year, it is piloting the Discovery Education Techbook, a digital textbook, in middle school science, and is looking at corresponding techbooks in social studies for next year. VCS is not saying that all you need are the two technology initiatives referenced herein and your school will have the same dramatic and rapid increase in student achievement. The staff has a deep commitment to the school and community, creating a nurturing environment fostering connections with the students. In 2012, one-half of the VCS students were proficient or advanced proficient in math and almost the same number were proficient in language arts—which placed VCS in the “meets standard” category relevant to academic performance. The technology initiatives created sparks of excitement, and a heightened awareness to what is possible for all students. VCS             Students at Village Charter School in Trenton, New Jersey, use their individual netbook computers in class. Image by Michael Mancuso/The Times.

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Utah Provides Meaningful Support for Charter School Facilities

The Utah Legislative Session has ended. That’s right, for all of those that are still in the trenches, we are done and grateful for an efficient 45 day session. The Utah Association of Public Charter Schools is even happier because this was the greatest session in Utah for charter schools since our original authorizing legislation. After not receiving any federal start up grants, we worked with the Legislature, Governor’s office and State Board of Education to replace them. We also partnered on a bill to strengthen the ability of our higher education institutions to authorize charter schools. However, the most important legislation was SB 152 sponsored by Senator John Valentine and Representative Derek Brown that creates a moral obligation pledge for qualified charter schools buildings. The recent LISC study made the following observation that all charter school people will fully understand: “Because charter schools finance their facilities with per pupil operating revenue rather than a general obligation pledge tied to taxing authority, they pay significantly higher interest rates on facility debt than their school district counterparts. Yet, charter schools pay these higher rates with public dollars. Many charter school proponents, taxpayers and school districts have pointed out the inefficient use of tax dollars, which results from this two-tiered system. With the mounting public mandate to improve the quality of the nation’s public education system and the need to use scarce public resources more efficiently in a difficult fiscal environment, this is the ideal time for the public sector to address this inequitable and inefficient system. Short of publicly financing charter school facilities directly with tax-backed structures, expansion of state, municipal or federal credit enhancement programs that use balance sheet pledges rather than appropriated funds to reduce interest expense for charter schools would be an extremely efficient use of a superior governmental credit in a tight fiscal environment. The resulting savings would not only be invaluable to charter schools, enabling them to spend more operating dollars in the classroom, it would reduce aggregate public outlays for public school facilities.” This sums up the public policy argument that we made, and it was fully embraced by our State Treasurer, Legislature and Governor. We are forcing non-traditional public schools, charter schools to spend money on high interest rates and financing costs rather than spending that money in the school and ultimately in our State. SB 152 – Charter School Financing – not only created the moral obligation for qualified charter schools, it also laid out the criteria for a school to qualify as well as risk mitigation mechanisms to protect the State of Utah. Like Colorado and Texas, the State of Utah’s credit enhancement will require schools to be independently investment grade rated. This is a high financial bar, but we agreed that it was critical that our schools be able to reach that level before receiving the State’s moral obligation pledge. (I might note that Utah is very focused on it’s credit rating. It is one of only a handful of States that are AAA rated by all 3 credit rating agencies and is a constant discussion item in public policy debates). In addition, we created a State level debt reserve fund that was seeded with three million dollars. This fund, which schools will pay into as part of their financing, will serve as the ultimate backstop in case the moral obligation pledge is ever called upon. Although there are other important features to this legislation that will greatly aid charter schools and allow them to better utilize their “income,” the miracle of this legislation is the preparation and earnest way in which all parties involved approached this legislation. After the 2011 legislative session ended, I began discussions with a few key charter school people about our next big initiative. We all agreed that facilities financing was a significant issue, but we also saw the benefit that could come out of passing this legislation. I believe strongly in allowing charter schools to be independent and have the ability to carry out their unique charter as they see fit. However, charter schools that understand governance and wise financial management almost always seem to be successful in academically. I wanted to offer a significant carrot to those that were strong financial stewards of our taxpayer dollars. The Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, in conjunction with the State Treasurer’s office, convened a group to begin working on this legislation. The group included the State’s financial advisor (Zions Public Finance), bond attorneys from Ballard Spahr and Chapman and Cutler, a charter school financial advisor, the Governor’s office, our legislative sponsors and a few charter school board members. (I might also add that some key charter underwriters, specifically DA Davidson and Piper Jaffray, provided invaluable support). This working group spent countless hours over a number of months preparing the legislation. We talked openly and candidly about issues, but every participant came to the meeting willing to embrace the final goal. I was lucky; it’s not easy to get a bunch of people with different agendas to get together and work towards the common goal. However, I believe that positive working environment came as a result of having enough time to work on the issue and fully vet all concerns within the group. That group has already started meeting after the session to begin discussing the rules and process by which the moral obligation program will work. We have outlined the steps that we will take to make this program a reality and hopefully make a significant change in the cost of how our charter schools are financed.

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Va. Governor Calls for Better Climate for Public Charter Schools in State of Commonwealth Speech

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell called for an expansion of public charter schools in his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday. In his speech, Governor McDonnell stated:
    “We still have one of the weakest public charter schools laws in the country. The best public charter school operators in the nation will not come here because we make it nearly impossible for them. We need new charter school laws that demand excellence, set clear standards, and welcome the best charter schools into our communities.”
McDonnell asked lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment to allow the state Board of Education to authorize charter applicants. He also asked that lawmakers eliminate the requirement that local school boards apply for authorization from the state Board of Education before opening a charter school. “These ideas will make it much easier for proven charter schools to open up,” he said. Only four public charter schools currently operate in in Virginia, and the Commonwealth ranks 37th out of 42 states and the District of Columbia on our 2012 Model Law report. On the plus side, Virginia’s law is cap-free. However, aside from an absence of formal restrictions on growth, Virginia’s law needs improvement across the board. Most notably, the Virginia charter law could improve by providing additional authorizing options for charter applicants, ensuring authorizer accountability, providing adequate authorizer funding, beefing up the law in relation to the model law’s four quality control components (components six through nine), increasing operational autonomy, and ensuring equitable operational funding and equitable access to capital funding and facilities. McDonnell             Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell delivers the State of the Commonwealth address before the General Assembly at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va. on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013. (Bob Brown | AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch)