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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.

Nina Rees


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Welcome to National Charter Schools Week 2013!

On behalf of the public charter schools movement, welcome to National Charter Schools Week 2013!

National Charter Schools Week – May 5-11, 2013 – celebrates the great work accomplished by public charter schools, which now serve more than 2.3 million students and provide parents with high-quality public education options. This week gives us, as a community, the opportunity to highlight and share in our successes, lessons learned and achievements, and raise awareness of what public charter schools can offer.

This week the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools will join together with representatives from Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas in our nation’s Capitol. We will be walking the halls of Congress to advocate on behalf of public charter schools everywhere, while meeting with many of our elected leaders and supporters.

We are also excited to announce the 2013 Charter Champions on Tuesday, May 7. Given annually during National Charter Schools Week, this year’s Charter Champion awards recognize five public officials for their outstanding service to the students, parents and families of the public charter school movement. Stay tuned to @Ninacharters on Twitter as we reveal this year’s champions.

How can you support National Charter Schools Week?

Check out our toolkit for ways you can participate, take part in one of the many events planned across the country or contact your state charter school association to see what events and activities are planned in your area. You could also write your local newspaper editor to help raise awareness that research shows public charter schools are improving student outcomes, or call your local elected officials and ask them to support more favorable policies and equitable funding for charter schools.

Most importantly, remember that this is a week to celebrate the fantastic accomplishments we have achieved during the last year. With more than 6,000 schools serving over 2.3 million students, there is a lot to be excited about this year!

Boston Collegiate

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What Can We Learn from the Best?

With the Olympics in full swing, perhaps you spend a little time each day checking in on the medal counts. The Olympics, without a doubt, inspire and entertain. It’s hard to not get swept up by the stories, the drama, the spectacle. The athletes are at peak performance, and there are regular displays of spectacular individual and team feats. The medals are a proxy for the tremendous amount of training, preparation, commitment, talent, and resources devoted to each sport.

While there aren’t many medals given out in the education reform field, we do regularly point out when public charter schools are honored for best practices and exceptional performance. While we like to highlight the rankings, there are also lessons that can be learned from exceptional schools. Here are resources that compile the experiences of high performing schools:









Photo:2012 London Olympic Medals, via Google Images



Nora Kern


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What do Special Education Enrollment Figures Really Tell Us?

Critics say that public charter schools do not serve students with disabilities. But simple comparisons of the relative number of students with special needs served do not tell the full story. The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) recently released a report that gives some context. It describes the distribution of students with disabilities in New York State charter and district-run schools. The analysis compares charter and district-run schools at the state level, and then conducts further break outs by school type, district, and authorizer.

The different comparison levels yield different results. Of particular note is that comparisons of state-level and other large data sets mask important information and variation. More specifically, the report finds:

  • The statewide comparison of the difference in charter and district enrollment is too simplistic—charter schools on average serve a smaller share of special education students than New York’s district-run schools, but the distribution and range of enrollment are not that different from the district-run schools’ composition
  • Charter middle and high school special education enrollments are indistinguishable from district enrollments, while charter elementary schools show underenrollment of students with disabilities.
  • There is variation among charter authorizers—some oversee schools with special education enrollments that closely track those of nearby district-run schools; others do not.

Given the variation of special education enrollment across charter and district schools, the report calls for nuanced policies. Rather than using sweeping measures such as enrollment targets, policymakers and authorizers should conduct further research to identify where special education underenrollment exists in charter schools and examine possible explanations. Then work should be done with the charter school community to develop innovative strategies to address specific problems.

The charter community is taking this work very seriously. Last summer, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a reportthat found that charter schools, on average, serve a smaller proportion of students with disabilities than district-run public schools. As a response to these concerns and to better serve their students and community, public charter schools, advocates in districts, states, and courts across the country have sought to improve access. The new analysis by CRPE helps the public charter community understand the problem and create appropriate responses.

Lisa Grover


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What do voters know that politicians don’t?

It is sometimes said that voters are ahead of politicians on cutting-edge issues. Last fall’s vote on a state constitutional amendment involving charter schools in Georgia is a prime example. While the African-American political leadership in Georgia was almost uniformly opposed to the amendment, a majority of African-American voters supported it. According to a recent multi-state survey released by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), the same dynamic exists in two of the remaining eight states without a charter school law: Alabama and Kentucky.

We’ve seen resistance from African-American politicians (and other politicians as well) first-hand in our work with BAEO and others to get strong charter school laws on the books in these states. These recent survey results are a powerful contrast to this resistance. In Alabama, 50 percent of African-Americans surveyed initially support charters. That number grows to 68 percent as those surveyed learn more about charters. In Kentucky, the numbers are 64 percent and 82 percent, respectively.

These results confirm what we hear from people on the ground—especially parents. Once again, voters are ahead of politicians.

They also solidify our commitment to continuing to work with BAEO and others to get solid charter laws enacted in these states. Without these laws, the public school choices available to families are quite limited. It is time to fulfill the will of the voters and bring high-quality public charter schools to Alabama and Kentucky.

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

Learn more:

Black Alliance for Educational Options: A Survey Report on Education Reform, Charter Schools, and the Desire for Parental Choice in the Black Community