The Charter Blog


Nora Kern


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From Vision to Reality: How CSP Funds Enabled Harding Fine Arts Academy to Open

Harding Fine Arts Academy (HFAA) is a college preparatory high school in Oklahoma City that focuses on the integration of arts and academics. HFAA opened in 2005 with a 9th grade class, and grew by a grade level each subsequent year. The school opened with $25,000 raised from the community and founders. Once the school opened its doors, a grant from the state legislature and per-pupil funding kicked in. “It’s disconcerting to start out with no buffer,” Principal Barry Schmelzenbach said about HFAA’s initial shoestring budget.

HFAA received a $174,000 startup grant in 2007 through the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). Mr. Schmelzenbach remarked that, “by the time we reached our third year—where we had freshman, sophomores and juniors—our student population had grown dramatically. Being able to access those federal funds made a major impact on our ability to meet the needs of our students.”

Mr. Schmelzenbach further commented that, “as a charter school, we receive no facilities funding. All of our allocations for anything that we do, whether that’s hiring a teacher or for building a new library, all of that comes directly out of our per-pupil funding. The federal CSP grant that we received enabled us to do everything from build and grow our programs, to being able to purchase appropriately sized furniture for our students. We began with desks that were really meant for middle school students.”

The impact of the CSP funding was profound. As Mr. Schmelzenbach stated, “without the CSP funding, we would be years behind where we are right now. In the ten years we’ve operated, we have been able to provide an opportunity for students where we are now ranked as one of the top ten high schools in the state. We would not have been able to reach that level this quickly without the CSP funding.”

To learn more about Harding Fine Arts Academy, click here. You can help advocate for charter schools access CSP funding by taking action here.


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The Aftermath Series: The Power of KIPP

Towana Pierre-Floyd, KIPP New OrleansTowana Pierre-Floyd beat the odds. A former student of New Orleans public schools, she excelled in a subpar academic environment and gained access to opportunities many students could only dream of. Knowing that her educational experience was much different from the experiences of her family members and peers, Towana has made it her mission to provide an exceptional education for all students. KIPP is helping her achieve that mission.

KIPP, or the Knowledge is Power Program, is a nationally recognized network of public charter schools serving primarily low-income or underserved communities in 20 states. Today, KIPP operates 10 schools in New Orleans, contributing to the educational rebirth the city has undergone since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina ten years ago.

Towana is now the assistant principal and instructional coach at KIPP Renaissance High School. She believes in the school’s strategy for success: blending academics with character education. KIPP works tirelessly to instill in its students the character traits that lead to lifelong success. Some of these traits – grit (or resilience), self-control, optimism, and zest – are “codes” that the students and staff at KIPP Renaissance “live and breathe by.”

Students are also challenged and motivated by the KIPP Renaissance college prep program, which counsels students through the college selection and application process. All of the students at KIPP Renaissance are eligible to receive free lunch, and 97 percent of the school’s population is African American. It is, therefore, important to Towana and KIPP’s counselors to find schools that have a “high-minority graduation rate and supports so that minority graduation is consistently happening.” It’s not just about getting to college, but graduating from college, and the KIPP Renaissance team continues to counsel KIPP graduates throughout their college experience.

Towana and her fellow staff members believe that KIPP’s power is rooted in its commitment to character development. KIPP Renaissance works hard to make sure that students grow up to be both well-educated and great people. The school wants its students, nearly all of whom are from areas of high poverty, to break the mold, be advocates of change, and make the world a better place. Or, as Towana, puts it: “Our job is not just to make them smart and wealthy; our job is to ideally make them even better than the generations before them.”

To learn more about KIPP’s impact on New Orleans, click here.


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“Challenge Index” High School Rankings Show Charter Schools as a Growing Force

The Washington Post recently released its annual Challenge Index rankings, and public charter schools hold 36 places among the top 100 schools ranked—an all-time high. This year’s Challenge Index results show that charter schools are quickly becoming a strong force in high-quality education. Charter schools make up half of the top ten places, including #1, BASIS Oro Valley (Oro Valley, AZ); #2, BASIS Chandler (Chandler, AZ); #5, Accelerated Elementary and Secondary (Tucson, AZ); #6, BASIS Tucson North (Tucson, AZ); and #10, Signature (Evansville, IN).

Public charter schools have consistently grown among the top 100 high schools of the Challenge Index. Over the past four years, charter schools have consisted of:

  • 2014-2015: 36 of the top 100
  • 2013-2014: 31 of the top 100
  • 2012-2013: 28 of the top 100
  • 2011-2012: 25 of the top 100

Although charter high schools only make up about six percent of the nation’s public high schools, charter high schools account for more than one-third of the top 100 Challenge Index rankings proving their ability to provide a recognizable and rigorous academic experience for their students.

The Challenge Index is calculated by dividing the number of college-level tests of the previous year (2014-2015) by the number of graduates in the same year. The Index also mentions the percentage of students who qualify for subsidized lunch and the percentage of high school graduates that passed at least one college-level test during the course of their high school career. Washington Post Education Columnist Jay Matthews further explains the details of the Challenge Index. To find out more, read here.

Washington Post Challenge Index charter schools

Jed Wallace


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California Charter Schools Association Responds to LA Times Oped on Public Education

Following the publication of an opinion editorial in the Los Angeles Times that directs a series of unfounded criticisms at public charter schools, Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association wrote the following response:

Today the Los Angeles Times posted an op-ed written by Diane Ravitch in which she espouses the same incendiary messages we’ve heard from her before. Repeating the same messages over and over again doesn’t make them true. Ravitch accuses charter schools of excluding students, but the data here in Los Angeles says otherwise. Independent charters in LAUSD serve 1 percent more English learners and 2 percent fewer students with special needs than traditional schools do. In other words, there’s basically no difference in the students being served. It’s also worth noting that both English learners and students with special needs perform better in local independent charters than in traditional schools.

Ravitch laments charter schools’ lack of accountability, but charter schools are held to greater accountability standards than other public schools. How? Each charter school has to petition for renewal every five years; if it has failed to perform, it gets shut down. No other type of public school has to prove that it is actually helping students learn.

Ravitch also complains that charter schools have influence in Sacramento. Meanwhile, the California Teachers Association has long been the single most powerful and well-funded lobby in the Capitol by any measure. Ravitch’s rhetoric is forceful, but it’s not grounded in fact.

Even worse, Ravitch demonizes parents who exercise their right to choose the best education for their children. Ravitch seems to suggest that charter school students are traitors or second class citizens, and she seems intent on punishing them for seeking out learning environments that meet their needs.

Does LAUSD need a superintendent who shares Ravitch’s polarizing, politicized views? No. LAUSD needs a superintendent who will advocate for all students, regardless of the type of public school they choose to attend. 

Nora Kern


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What the Data Actually Say About Teacher Turnover

There is a persistent criticism that charter schools have dramatically high rates of teacher turnover due to burnout or dissatisfaction. However, national data paint a different picture.

Education Week’s Charters & Choice blog recently revisited the only national representative data on the rates at which teachers in charter and traditional public schools stay, move, or leave their teaching positions. The Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), administered by the U.S. Department of Education, acknowledged that the rate of teacher turnover has declined over the last three survey administrations.

According to the SASS Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS), between 2011-12 and 2012-13, about 84 percent of all teachers stayed in their job at the same school, eight percent continued to teach but moved to a different school, and eight percent left teaching. The overall teacher turnover rate has remained steady at around 15 percent for nearly 25 years.

However, the turnover rate for charter school teachers has declined over the past three rounds of the TFS, from about 24 percent to 18 percent. The most recent data (2012-13) show no statistically significant difference in the turnover rates between traditional public schools and charter schools for either movers or leavers.

map_teacher turnover

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS), “Current and Former Teacher Data Files,” 2012–13.

Additional EdWeek coverage does a good job a good job of noting complications with the data (see here and here), especially the difficulty in capturing variations at the school- and district-level. However, the national-level data do not indicate that on the whole charter schools have a problem with teacher retention.

Nora Kern is the Senior Manager for Research and Analysis and Susan Aud Pendergrass is the Senior Director for Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

David Dunn


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Texas Charters Closing the Gap

The continued hard work and improvements in student achievement of Texas’ public charter schools was recognized in a recently-released report that shows the state’s charter movement closed the gap in reading and continues to make strides in math.

Texas public charter schools serve more economically disadvantaged, more English language learners and more minority students than traditional public schools, based on data from the Texas Education Agency. Also, more than 20 percent of public charters are alternative education accountability (AEA), serving our students in the most need in residential treatment centers, juvenile detention facilities and dropout recovery schools.

The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford report on Charter School Performance in Texas confirms the hard work from 2009 to 2013 of all Texas charter schools, which operate on about $1,000 less per-student funding than traditional public schools.

Texas charter schools acknowledge the need for even more improvement, especially those with the mission of serving the students most in need of educational support. Which is why the Texas Charter Schools Association (TCSA) has developed the first-in-the-nation Quality Framework, a research-based continuous improvement tool and process designed to help public charter schools assess quality and improve academic performance. TCSA also served more than 1,000 charter leaders, board members and educators in the past year through in-person and online trainings and its annual conference. TCSA staff and its member schools are proud of their work with students in need and committed to accelerating student achievement by addressing any areas of weakness.

The CREDO report highlights three major accomplishments of Texas charter schools:

  • The gap in performance in reading between public charter school students and traditional public school students has been completely eliminated.
  • ELL students in charter schools outperform their traditional public school peers.
  • Students in poverty in charter schools outperform their traditional public school peers.

The CREDO report also highlights three areas of improvement needed in Texas charter schools:

  • The gap in performance in math has significantly improved since 2009, but must be eliminated.
  • Black and Hispanic students in charter schools perform below their traditional public school peers.
  • The expansion of high performing charter schools and the closure of consistently poor performing charter schools should be accelerated.

TCSA continues to call on CREDO to disaggregate the data and separate AEA schools from standard accountability charter schools. Including AEA student performance in the report skews the data, making it difficult to isolate the areas of need. A separate report would result in better policy decisions and a clear comparison between student performance in AEA schools, standard charter schools and traditional public schools.

We welcome another CREDO study that includes the effects of Texas’ Senate Bill 2, which in 2013 implemented strict accountability measurements with failure to achieve tied to school closure. Due to the new state law, 19 charters have been closed ̶ six have been officially revoked and another 13 have received revocation notices to close at the end of the 2014-15 school year. The association continues to support Senate Bill 2 as it seeks to replicate high quality public charter schools and close charters that chronically fail to meet the needs of students.

While we are pleased with our improvement, we’re not satisfied with our progress, and TCSA stands committed to working with charter leaders in the state to continue to accelerate the achievement of all our charter students.

David Dunn is the executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association. 

Riya Anandwala


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New Report: Charter Schools and pre-K education

Last week, the National Alliance and Thomas B. Fordham Institute rolled out a new report that analyzes pre-K offerings in public charter schools. What did they find? Charter schools in 36 jurisdictions are significantly restricted from offering pre-K programs – mainly because of policymaking and financial limitations, excluding them from the pool of pre-K providers.

The report dove deep into each state’s political environment for starting pre-K programs and found astonishing results. In the map, you’ll see states that have hospitable, somewhat hospitable and not so hospital climates for charters to offer pre-K education.

Also important to note, in states that do allow charter schools to offer pre-K, the schools still face several roadblocks, ranging from limited pre-K funding to restrictions on new providers. Charter schools are also often barred from automatically enrolling pre-K students into kindergarten programs without first administering a lottery for enrollment.

Investing in early childhood development is important in shaping a child’s education and career ahead. Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance, explains three essential factors lawmakers need to keep in mind while formulating the next pre-K imitative in her latest U.S. News and World Report blog.


pre-k map


Gina Mahony


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Charter Schools Win with the Senate Passage of S.1177, the Every Child Achieves Act

Earlier today, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a vote of 81-17. The National Alliance issued a statement on the bill’s passage.

S.1177 makes significant improvements to the Charter Schools Program (CSP), including broadening the range of entities eligible to receive state grants, adding more flexibility in the use of funds, creating a dedicated funding source for the replication and expansion of high-quality charter schools, and improving current language on the use of lotteries for student enrollment. These provisions will support the opening of new high-quality public charter schools to serve the growing number of students on charter school wait lists.

An amendment introduced by Senators Murphy (D-CT) and Booker (D-NJ) received considerable debate and ultimately failed, with a vote of 43-54. The amendment improved the underlying bill by requiring that states identify their lowest performing schools, set goals to move all students to college and career readiness, and require state or local interventions if a school fails to make progress. Still, the amendment did not fully address our top priorities– to identify clear indicators of academic achievement and provide students in low-performing schools with access to high-quality schools, such as charters. Because of that, the National Alliance was silent on this amendment, a position consistent with several of our peer organization. We are hopeful that when the amendment surfaces again in conference negotiations, that House and Senate conferees will adopt stronger and clearer language.

We now move to conference! The process will likely take a few months and there are some significant areas of disagreement between the House and Senate bills. During the conference committee process, the Obama Administration will also have a more formal opportunity to engage.

Over the next few weeks, House and Senate staff will compare and contrast each and every provision in the bill. The federal team at the National Alliance will do the same, with a focus on the Charter Schools Program and the Title I program.

Indeed, this is progress.


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DFER’s Marianne Lombardo Gets It Right about Brown Amendment to ECAA

As I read the news clips today, I had to pause and applaud DFER’s Marianne Lombardo and her article she published today on DFER’s blog about Senator Sherrod Brown’s amendment that would have, in the words of Lombardo, “crush[ed] public charter schools.” The National Alliance had deep concerns about this amendment. We were glad to see that it didn’t make it far in consideration. Regardless, it’s important that it’s understood why this amendment was so harmful to the charter school movement nationwide. Read more below.

Sen. Sherrod Brown Wisely Withdraws Charter Amendment

JULY 16TH, 2015

Here, we would like to think, is why.

By Marianne Lombardo

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) offered an ESEA amendment to “improve accountability and transparency” of public charter schools. DFER, and other organizations, believed the amendment would crush public charter schools.

Although the amendment will not be voted on, it’s important that the implications be addressed.

Policy affects people’s lives, so let’s take the case of one particular wealthy suburban school district in Brown’s home State of Ohio.

Of the 84 fourth graders that went to school in the district in 2007, 18 kids didn’t graduate high school with their fourth grade peers.

What happened to them?

  • 7 moved
  • 1 died
  • 1 transferred to Catholic school
  • 9 transferred to public alternatives

In other words, other than the kids that moved, 10 percent of the original fourth grade class chose or was directed to another public school option. Even though they lived in one of the best school districts in the state, the district was not meeting their needs and they needed an alternative.

Even in “good” districts, some kids need something different.

This illustrates what was wrong with Brown’s amendment that was intended to bring greater accountability and transparency to public charter schools.

In Cleveland, 39 percent of students attend public charter schools. In urban areas, kids leave district schools not just for personal reasons, but for better academics. And to be clear, the majority of Cleveland’s public charter schools are not for-profit and do outperform comparative district schools on achievement and student growth – according to Stanford University’s gold-plated CREDO study.

Now to be fair, Brown, the NEA, and other critics were right that not all charters do well. Financial and operational mismanagement by some have sullied the reputation of all. Ohio’s long battle over charter reform, particularly with authorizer quality, is a frustrating example of politics at its worst.

Senator Brown’s ESEA Amendment, however, took the “nuclear option” approach to fixing charter school problems that are primarily in Ohio and a few other egregious states.  What exactly did it propose?

  1.  It put the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Brown would have had local school districts (the competitor to charters) draft impact statements assessing any newly proposed charter school’s impact on a district-wide multi-year school plan. Only after the statement was made public and after a public hearing was any determination to be made to approve or disapprove a new charter school application.


First, how an interested party – the district – can objectively and legitimately represent the needs of students – particularly those that are in conflict with the district – and not their own needs, is hard to understand.

Second, districts use a variety of tactics to thwart charter schools, such as denying transportation and access to buildings and preventing payments. And, districts have had their own scandals involving attendance, grades, test scores, and use of funds (see OhioGeorgia, and Texas, for example).

In the Brown-NEA scenario, a district would have had an unfair advantage in determining the fate of a potential competitor. And of course it also would have had more capacity and communication channels to organize support around its interests. As a result, districts can easily out-muscle a nascent charter group, especially one without a management company.

  1.  It made transparency good for the goose, but not for the gander.

Brown’s amendment required charter schools to publically disclose:

  1.  Annual student attrition rates by grade level;
  2.  Staff qualifications and languages spoken;
  3.  Annual teacher attrition rates, disaggregated by grade level, subject, years of experience and credential;
  4.  Fees, and if they are waived for certain students;
  5.  Attendance and the number of suspensions and expulsions by school year, in total and disaggregated by category.

Never mind that bureaucratic paperwork is antithetical to the charter concept. What’s stunningly ironic and inequitable is that districts and the entities they do business with don’t have those same requirements.

Brown wanted charter school management companies to be audited annually because they receive public funds. But a fair extension of that would be to audit the use of public funds by all entities doing business in the public education sphere, including:

  1.  Public funds transferred to unions and other organizations.
  2.  Public funds paid to lobbying, membership, and other organizations.
  3.  Public funds paid to other organizations that contract services to schools, such as transportation and food services.

Senator Brown believed that districts could balance their own as well as community and student needs. But, how did the district cited above react when students chose other educational options?

Initially, they chose to limit parent options by not agreeing to send tuition to the early college high school parents wanted their child to attend. Only a legislative change made it possible for students to attend regardless of district cooperation. Also, the district banned students educated outside the district from participating in district extra-curricular activities. The clear message is that if you’re not educated in the district, you’re not part of the community.

Across settings – underperforming urban schools to well-resourced suburban schools – public charter schools are needed for kids that aren’t well-served by the district. Yet, Brown’s amendment put kids’ futures in the hands of the very same district that isn’t helping them. Good thing it’s withdrawn.



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The Aftermath Series: The New Orleans Recipe for Charter School Success

Prior to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was home to one of the worst education systems in the country. The city’s school system ranked second to last in the state and more than half of its students were attending failing schools. Most students scored below grade level on statewide standardized tests.

Finally fed up with failure, state officials launched a serious reform effort with the creation of the Recovery School District (RSD) in 2003. The RSD would take the city’s most chronically failing schools and put them under state control in order to better monitor practices and student performance. After Katrina, officials kicked their efforts into high gear. The RSD soon converted the majority of its schools into charter schools, combining autonomy and accountability to raise student achievement, reduce drop-out rates, and send more kids to college.

This educational renaissance took place in dire conditions. Deep-seated racial inequalities had spilled over into the education system. Corruption consumed the educational bureaucracy. Post-Katrina, some students showed signs of post-traumatic stress.

While there is still much more work to do, the rapid improvement of New Orleans’ schools in such conditions has been nothing short of wondrous. With nearly all of its schools operating as charter schools, New Orleans has taken a novel approach to reform – combining school-level autonomy with citywide policies in certain areas to raise academic achievement and ensure educational equity. Principals are empowered to make most key decisions about how their students are taught and the culture that prevails in the school, including choosing the staff that’s best suited to their school. This has allowed a wide variety of educational models to flourish. At the same time, the city centralized the application and enrollment process to give students from every neighborhood access to the best schools. Discipline policies are also centralized to make sure no student is marginalized for behavioral issues.

This level of success doesn’t go unnoticed, and cities and states across America are taking a close look to see what ingredients from the New Orleans turnaround can be incorporated into their own school systems. To read more about New Orleans, the city’s perseverance, and how the community made history by way of education reform, click here.