The Charter Blog



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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.


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Money can’t buy success. Or explain failure.

I recently suggested to a group of education researchers they should develop some kind of algorithm to inflate charter school test scores according to each state’s gap in public funding between charters and district-run schools. I was kidding, but trying to acknowledge an elephant in the room. Whatever charter schools are accomplishing, they’re doing it on far less than district schools. Yet, because we believe all public school students should be funded equitably, we don’t argue that “we can do more for less” and we avoid blaming  chronic underfunding for performance problems.

Not so in the other sector, it seems.  For a new Fordham/NSBA study, Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks surveyed school board members and found this: “More than two-thirds of boards report that the budget and funding situation is extremely urgent, and nearly 90 percent think it is extremely or very urgent…By far, board members in this study report that the most significant barrier to improving student achievement is a lack of funding. Over 74 percent indicate that finance/funding is at least a strong barrier to improvement, with 30.2 percent going so far as to label it a total barrier.”

Wow. How long do you think the charter movement would last if nearly a third of our leaders just said nope, no can do, not without more money?


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Are You Walking Away from a Chance for Funds?

It’s well-established charter schools get less public funding than their district counterparts. But charters may also be ignoring some competitive-funding opportunities.


So said the Government Accountability Office in a report issued last December. GAO identified 47 federal discretionary grant programs for which charter schools are eligible, but found a lot of confusion among charter operators and advocates about who could apply for what. Very few charter schools that are part of district-LEAs have stepped up, apparently believing the district itself had to apply. Yet two-thirds of the federal programs explicitly specify public schools or non-profit organizations are eligible.

Adding to that confusion is a real catch-22: Among the charter respondents, 44 percent said they didn’t apply for federal grants because they lacked the resources. Translation: They’re too poorly-funded to hire grant writers. The good news is at least one-quarter of the charters that applied during the 2008-2009 school year received an award, which the Department of Education noted is a higher win-rate than that of average applicants.

In fact, the Department said it’s been working to make sure charter operators know their rights. In a formal response to GAO, Jim Shelton of the US Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement pointed out the Department has already put language making charter-eligibility explicit in most of the grant competitions they run, and is working with other agencies like the Justice Department and Housing and Urban Development Department to make sure they do the same. (We forget too often it’s not just “Education” that makes funding available for schools!). Also, the National Charter School Resource Center will post notices like this one on its site and is developing a direct e-capacity to get word directly to schools.


Discretionary grants won’t make up for the full gap charters experience, but let’s not make it worse by leaving available dollars on the table.


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David Kearns

We lost a giant last weekend. David Kearns blazed a trail of innovation as CEO of Xerox and then answered a plea from former President George H.W. Bush to serve as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education. There, among many other accomplishments, he created New American Schools, the non-profit that fostered “whole-school” models such as Expeditionary Learning and Modern Red Schoolhouse – and in doing so, served as a seedbed for the charter movement.  Here is yesterday’s eloquent floor statement by his former boss, now U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander. Note the history he traces, as well as his testimony to the respect and fondness Kearns inspired in everyone who knew him.


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Dr. Tell? Don’t Ask!

One of the advantages of reading the news online is that you get reader comments too. That helps when a curious piece appears – as in the case of one Shawgi Tell, Ph.D., who reminded Rochester readers of some “overlooked facts” about charter schools in a Saturday op-ed. Facts such as “Many principals at charter schools lack the same credentials as their counterparts in traditional public schools” and “Charter schools siphon away millions of dollars from school systems in segregated and impoverished urban communities.” (And so on…)

Hold your cards and letters, folks; readers have already done a job on Dr. Tell’s thesis. (Was it below the belt to include students’ reviews of the good Dr.’s classes from You decide.)

Jed Wallace


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California’s Portrait of the Movement – A Closer Look At Charter School Academic Performance

Education reform has taken center stage in many debates around the nation over the past couple of years, as parents, students and communities demand better educational outcomes for all students from public schools.

Generating those better outcomes while closing the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students is a daunting challenge but not an impossible one. Members of the California Charter Schools Association believe, like I do, that we must be relentless in our pursuit of ever-higher academic performance if charter schools are to contribute even more significantly to making high-performing schools a reality for every student in California.

For almost two decades, charter schools in California have offered parents, students and communities options for a better education.  Our state now has the largest concentration of charters in the country.  At 912 schools, we saw our most significant growth ever this school year, with 115 charters opening across the state.  But growth alone isn’t enough.

While we know the state has some of the best charter schools in the country, we are also aware that there are weaknesses within the movement.  That is why the California Charter Schools Association is taking unprecedented and proactive steps to ensure that all students attending charter schools are getting an education that will help them succeed as adults.

This week our first annual Portrait of the Movement report, which details the academic performance of charter schools, provides a framework to press for higher accountability for low-performing charters.  The report reveals reasons for great optimism in the areas where charter schools are excelling and for greater resolve in the areas where charter schools need to improve.

The most significant finding in Portrait of the Movement is that California charter schools are accelerating the closure of the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students.  This finding is supported with ample evidence that charter schools serving low-income populations are generating better academic results than traditional public schools serving students with similar demographics.

These results are cause for celebration, proving that charters are breaking the link between poverty and under-performance. For far too long, too many within our traditional public school system have believed that poverty and underperformance are inexorably linked and there is little schools can do to help students overcome the various social barriers they face.  This paralyzing belief – undergirded by a self-perpetuating view that only some students, and not all students, are actually able to learn at high levels – has been used by many as justification for the various objections they raise to proposed reforms of our public education system.  The performance of California’s charter schools – from classrooms in South Los Angeles to Oakland and San Diego to Sacramento – demonstrates that the possibility of transformational change is within our grasp if we have the courage to embrace reforms which serve the interests of students.

Another important finding with Portrait of the Movement is more charter schools are over-performing than under-performing, and that, in terms of numbers of students served, more than two times as many students attend over-performing than under-performing schools.  We are also encouraged to see that the number and proportion of under-performing charters appears to be decreasing over time.

With that said, the Portrait of the Movement also clearly reveals that there are simply too many underperforming charter schools and we must as a movement act with commensurate courage to improve academic accountability systems.

While current state law calls on charter authorizers—school districts, county offices of education, and the State Board of Education—to close schools that have not met minimum academic requirements, the process has not been a consistent one, and under-performing charters have slipped through the cracks.  CCSA is proactively working to close these loopholes and has established minimum performance criteria for charter renewal to ensure that charters are delivering on the promise of a high-quality education for all students in California,

In tandem with the release of Portrait of the Movement, CCSA is activating a series of Web-enabled tools to help families and the public understand the picture of performance for every single charter in California that opened before fall of 2010. An interactive map provides the public access to the performance record of all charter schools as well as all traditional public schools in their surrounding areas, giving families for the first time a highly detailed look of the options available to them based on a measure that renders a picture of added value.

For more information, visit

Submitted by Jed Wallace, President and CEO, California Charter Schools Association


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Charter Schools as a Catalyst for Building Civic Capacity

Civic capacity—the notion of  multiple sectors of the community coming together in concerted action to address big issues—has been examined by education reformers and researchers who argue it is critical to making systemic and long lasting improvements in the public education system. It has been suggested that public charter schools do a great job of engaging parents, educators, community groups, and philanthropists in individual schools. But charter school critics raise the lingering question: is the charter school model serving the greater public good in terms of efforts to improve all public schools?

Sure, larger entities like traditional school districts or cities are positioned to engage with a wide array of public and private actors in collective commitments to reform school systems. However, despite a markedly smaller scale, charter schools are not isolated institutions with limited connections to the larger public education system. Rather, charter schools are public schools that open pathways for non-traditional groups to get involved in operating schools. And charter schools can be (and have been) used within school districts and cities to provide new opportunities to mobilize large-scale civic engagement.

In cities like New OrleansD.C., and Philadelphia, charter schools have served as catalysts for building civic capacity through strategically engaging community leaders to operate charter schools. In New York, authorizers are actively recruiting existing organizations that provide services to high-needs students to found charter schools.

Or take Indianapolis. A new study describes in detail the way in which government officials, business leaders, local philanthropists, university scholars, and local educators identified big problems—a declining economy and dismal education outcomes—and then coalesced around charter schools to meet the needs of the community. The strategy was not about any specific charter school, but about creating a new landscape for public education where community support for public education was put into practice. (Check out this report from Bryan Hassel that lists the community organizations that founded some of the early charter schools in Indianapolis.)

These cities show that charter schools can be used to mobilize civic engagement for the greater good of the public education system. And current trends show this work is being cultivated to expand mutual impact and quality of traditional and public charter schools.


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Thoughtless Pause

Elegant phraseology doesn’t conceal the fact that the “thoughtful pause” proposed by Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee is a moratorium on charter growth. Some actual thinking has been provided by RI-CAN, the state’s new ed-reform group, who looked at data and found that charters are pushing achievement upward. Think again, Governor.


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Harriett Ball, RIP

A great teacher died yesterday. Back in the ’90s, Harriett Ball took two rookie Houston teachers under her wing and showed them how to make a classroom a joyous place to learn … and then travelled with Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg through the amazing journey of KIPP, while continuing to teach and consult. We were proud to induct this great lady into the Charter School Hall of Fame along with her KIPP colleagues in 2009. She succumbed to a sudden heart attack on Tuesday. What a legacy she leaves!


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Delivering on the Promise in Missouri

The Land of Truman has a unique charter environment. State law restricts chartering to St. Louis and Kansas City, but charter schools account for major market share in both places. Where 90 percent of charter authorizers around the country are local school districts, it’s universities that oversee nearly all the charters in the Show-Me state. There are some stars but, alas, way too many charters that keep scraping the bottom year after year. Policymakers (and the state’s charter movement leaders)  have grown  impatient. We’ve just taken a thorough look at this situation and are calling for some tough love….