Charter Blog by Title

 

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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.

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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.

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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.

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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.

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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)

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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.

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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

Share 

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Googleplus Email

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.