The Charter Blog



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Obama’s Challenge

Last night’s briskly-delivered State of the Union address capped a dizzying few months for President Obama. He was looking out at 84 new GOP House of Representatives members — 63 of whom were occupying seats previously held by Democrats.  However, he was enjoying a rebound in personal popularity, coming off a surprisingly productive lame-duck session, and hoping to sustain and leverage the shift in national mood following the Tucson tragedy.

It was  not the night to play the usual SOTU games – how many times did he mention “X” – and so the absence of the words “charter schools” didn’t bother me a bit. The key points on education weren’t drawn from a laundry list of programs; instead he tried to frame the challenge and leave the details for the upcoming budget message. Some of the key education passages:

The rules have changed.  In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business.  Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100.  Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers and sell their products wherever there’s an Internet connection.
Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.
Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.  And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school.  The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.  And so the question is whether all of us –- as citizens, and as parents –- are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

The task for charter folks is to show that our schools are part of the solution…that our kids leave 12th grade ready for college –and ready to succeed in college and beyond. Let’s show that we’re using our freedom not just to get rid of paperwork, but to equip kids with the knowledge and habits of mind to lead an international economy.

And if a charter school is part of the problem, we need to take action. Now.

Without saying exactly how, the President did also say that “Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”  I trust that means the Administration will continue pressing states for facilities aid, fiscal equity and an end to caps. It will be interesting to see how those proposals fare in a Congress that generally wants to expand state rather than federal authority.

By the way, today’s New York Times has a cool seating chart illustrating the “new civility,” with some odd couples listening to the speech: Schumer and Coburn; Patty Murray and John Cornyn; Louie Gohmert and Carolyn Maloney. Let’s hope the era of good feelings persists.


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It’s National School Choice Week!

Today, folks across the country are kicking off the first-ever National School Choice Week. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is proud to join more than 150 other organizations in acknowledging the need for greater educational options for America’s children.

I celebrated the start of the week by participating in a Town Hall meeting in Charlotte, N.C., today.  I was proud to join a group of community leaders, parents and elected officials who are committed to making sure all students have access to a high quality education.  I was even more proud to see that charter schools are recognized as a critical component of school choice.  North Carolina has had a cap of 100 charter schools since its charter law was enacted in 1996. That cap, which was reached more than a decade ago, has effectively halted charter school growth and replication in the state.  But after what I saw today, I am encouraged and I hope the cap is going to be lifted soon.

I was also encouraged to hear about some of the fantastic work happening in other states.  Here are just a couple of the events going on this week:

  • A bipartisan coalition of Missouri legislators called today for changes aimed to help failing urban schools and give parents more choices. Among the items on the agenda: Expanding charter schools, which are now permitted only in St. Louis and Kansas City, to the rest of the state.
  • Grandmas for Charter Schools will host Coffee House meetings daily during National School Choice Week.  These ladies will be giving out information on school choice options in Albany, N.Y., signing up folks for the Parent Army and registering parents to vote!
  • Grammy Award-winning recording artist Patti Austin will host an evening of entertainment at the “Get Real about Education Musical Town Hall,” an event to inspire a vision for the future of Dallas-area public schools.

There are tons of other great things happening, and if you’d like to tell us about yours…please post a comment below.  We’d love to hear about it!

Submitted by Ted Fujimoto (not verified) on Fri, 01/28/2011 – 4:08am.

For Dallas Event with Patti Austin, RSVP at

Enjoy an evening of entertainment and inspiration toward a vision for the future of Dallas area public schools with Grammy winner Patti Austin, local artist Matt Wilson, and inspirational speakers.

The event will also launch the Right to Succeed Dallas Chapter, an effort to transform public education in the Dallas area and cut the dropout rate in half over the next five years. This free family event is open to all ages.

Click to view the powerful video about the Right to Succeed and the National School Choice Week cause!

Nora Kern


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Holding Charter Schools to a Higher Standard Is a Good Thing!

New York City is drawing attention for its recent decision to close three underperforming schools that make up the Believe High School Network, as well as the ‘C’ graded Peninsula Preparatory Charter School. James Merriman, C.E.O. of the New York City Charter School Center, penned an eloquent explanation of why these closure decisions by the city’s Education Department are so critical to living up to the charter bargain of increased autonomy in exchange for greater accountability for student achievement. We’ve long stated the power of school choice when parental decision is based on academic quality and the importance of local enforcement of school quality. Through the NYC Education Department’s decisions, the city is one step closer to providing public charter schools that are truly high quality to its children and families.

Why Failing Charters Must Be Closed

At their core, public charter schools are about one simple trade-off: a charter school receives more autonomy to operate in the way its staff thinks will provide the best results for students.

In return, it accepts greater accountability for the results it achieves academically and operationally — with the understanding that if a school fails, it will be closed. That is why charters get a license to operate for five years at a time — and have to make the case that they should be renewed.

Because accountability and autonomy are what charters are about, the decisions this week to close one poorly performing charter school, only conditionally renew another and provide notice to three others that they will be closed shortly unless they clean up their acts, is exactly the right move to ensure charters fulfill their promise to students and their role in the larger public education system.

The decisions also show not just what chartering is at its heart, but also how complex, and even difficult, chartering actually is. …To read the full editorial, click here.


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Perfection First, Change Last

Over the holidays the NY Times ran a piece about NYC’s use of student data in teacher rankings, and the tug of war that’s emerging over so-called “value-added” evaluations. Among a slew of letters it generated was one from Deputy Chancellor John White, concluding with this biting comment: “Shame on unions and school districts charged with improving antiquated evaluation systems if they hide behind sideline critics advocating perfection first and change last. No system is perfect, but the status quo is not fair to children.”

Researcher Dan Goldhaber, subbing for Rick Hess over at Straight Up, makes a similar point:  “I am continually struck by the fact that policy debates over a whole variety of issues focus almost entirely on the downside risks of reform, while massively ignoring the costs or downsides of business as usual.” Citing work he and co-authors contributed to a recent Brookings report, he says “much of the debate about using value-added for teacher evaluation is framed around the potential consequences for teachers rather than focusing on the known or potential consequences for students,” and adds: “The counterfactual matters and we are not comparing reform to an existing nirvana.”

White and Goldhaber aren’t talking about charter schools, but we need to keep their argument handy. Sure there are imperfections in charter schools – we worry more about them than anyone else does. But parents who choose them know the “counterfactual” all too well.

Here’s a suggestion for the new year.  When you hear someone railing about the dangers of public charter schools, hit them with the question a parent asks: “Compared to what?”


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Let’s Hear it for the LA All Stars!

We think charter schools are among the best public schools in Los Angeles.  Of course, we might be a little biased.  But, guess what?  The California Department of Education (CDE) thinks so, too.  The CharterBlog just learned that five of the seven middle and high schools in Los Angeles invited by the CDE to apply for the 2011 California Distinguished Schools Award are charter schools.

In order to be invited to apply for Distinguished School honors, schools must meet a variety of eligibility criteria including designated federal and state accountability measures based on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and the Academic Performance Index (API) requirements.

Of the 27 middle and high schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District, only seven made the cut.  Of those seven schools, five are charters and the other two are highly selective magnet schools. Congratulations to  Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy, Granada Hills Charter High School, ICEF Vista Middle Academy, KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory and Port of Los Angeles High.  These outstanding charter schools have done a great job of serving a diverse student population, especially those student groups who statewide have historically underperformed like Hispanic, socioeconomically disadvantaged, English Language Learners and students with disabilities.  Way to go!


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Debunker Debunked

You may have caught a recent column on the Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money site, “10 Things Charter Schools Won’t Tell You.”  It’s a recurring feature and they’ve applied the same approach to landlords, gas stations and school districts.  I get that it’s supposed to be snarky and provocative – but really, this one was pretty egregious. Fortunately, Chalkboard’s Peter Murphy is on the case, providing point-by-point deconstruction in a series of blogs (the lastest posted today; the priors linked). Well worth checking out…


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Charter School Graduates Ready to Serve in Uniform Face Obstacles Even Before Boot Camp

Did you know all high-school diplomas awarded to public school students are not equal in the eyes of the military? Unfortunately, students attending many of our nation’s public charter schools are learning this the hard way.


Well for enlistment purposes, the military classifies education in three overall categories: Tier I, Tier II and Tier III:

  • Tier I - High-school graduate
  • Tier II - Alternative high-school credentials including test-based equivalency diplomas (GED), occupational program certificate of attendance, correspondence school diplomas, home-study diplomas, online/virtual public school diplomas or high school certificate of attendance.
  • Tier III - Non high-school graduate

The vast majority (more than 90 percent) of all enlistments are from the Tier I category. However at times, graduates from traditional and virtual public charter schools are labeled as Tier II candidates when they attempt to enlist in the armed services, making it a bit more difficult to enlist. It seems charter school graduates are being penalized for choosing a different public school option.

To correct this unjust policy, the U.S. Senate included language in the National Defense Authorization Act that requires the Secretary of Defense to develop a new policy guiding the recruitment and enlistment of charter school graduates in the Armed Forces. Unfortunately, that legislation has yet to pass and faces significant hurdles due to other social policies.

Nonetheless, given the Secretary of Education’s recent comments about many students being unable to successfully enlist, either because they didn’t graduate, have obtained a criminal record or are physically unfit, it seems counterintuitive to handicap a potential recruit who has graduated from a high-quality, state-accredited public school simply because it is a charter school.


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Did Michelle Rhee Plant this Story?

Rhee just launched Students First, her new outfit that will aim at getting school systems to put kids’ best interests ahead of politics and bureaucracy. I can’t imagine a better illustration of “Students Last” than this Catalyst article. The Illinois State Board of Education has raised the bar for college students hoping to get into teacher-ed programs. They used to get in with a score of 35 percent on the math section of the Basic Skills test (yes, you read that right); now they have to score at least 75 percent. It has cut the pass rate dramatically, particularly among minority candidates, raising the predictable howl.

But as one of the commenters in a related story put it: “Would you want a surgeon to cut you open if they only had a success rate of 35 percent on their operations?”

Maybe Rhee’s new group will help persuade policymakers to worry a little more about the low-income, black and Latino kids in urban school systems, and less about adults who view said systems as jobs programs.


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Charter School Bond Deals Are Big News!

Generally speaking, bonds are not the most interesting topic.  So, it’s understandable that charter school bond issues — which are only a small part of the municipal bond market –  might go under the radar. But, that changed this month when editors of The Bond Buyer (a very respected and influential media outlet for those of us working in the bond sector) announced the finalists for the newspaper’s Deal of the Year Awards.  The announcement recognized some of the most innovative municipal bond deals that closed between October 1, 2009 and September 30, 2010.  More than 70 nominations, big and small, from various municipal sectors were considered.  Among the finalists are two charter schools: KIPP Inc. in Houston, one of the two winners in the Southwest region; and High Tech High in Chula Vista, Calif., one of two winners in the Far West region.  All the regional finalists are in the running for the overall Deal of the Year Award.

This comes at a time when governments and all other tax-exempt borrowers fund their long-term plans while coping with tough budgetary times and a volatile financial market.  This has been especially difficult for small and generally low-investment grade issuers like charter schools.  In addition to the usual inherent risks of the sector, conventional or commercial credit enhancement providers i.e. bond insurers, are now completely gone resulting in a more challenging financing environment for charter schools.

The $70 million KIPP Inc. Houston transaction was structured and partially enhanced by a $9 million guaranty from the KIPP-related foundation, Philo Houston LLC, $1 million cash from Local Initiatives Support Corporation and a $10 million balance sheet guaranty from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  In the case of High Tech High, the $12 million deal was the first AAA-rated Qualified School Construction Bond.  The credit rating was due to the letter of credit provided by City National Bank, wrapped by AAA-rated Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco.  These are indeed first-of-its-kind innovative financing structures.  Both deals were underwritten by RBC Capital Markets.

Bringing these types of deals in the capital market is a tremendous accomplishment, and all parties involved deserve much credit.  This is the first time bonds issued by charter schools have received this type of national recognition from the financial press, a significant step towards making charter school financing mainstream.  The outcome should be better acceptance from institutional and other investors, increased market access and eventually, relatively lower cost of capital.  We still have a long way to go, but this is a big step forward.  The Deal of the Year Award will be announced in New York City on December 9th.


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Don’t Forget the Motor City!!

At a DC symposium on Wednesday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan once again called Detroit “arguably the worst” school system in the country, and “Ground Zero” for education reform. The good news is city leaders are finally putting money and muscle into turning the situation around. Here’s a specific date to watch: February 1, 2011. That’s when proposals to open new high schools in the fall of 2012 are due to Michigan Future Schools, the business/education/philanthropic nonprofit that’s spearheading the city’s turnaround effort.

Michigan Future Schools has a straightforward approach. They want more quality high schools (defined as “students graduating ready for college without remediation”). They support one active high school and are already incubating four more, two charter and two non. They’re basically agnostic about the governance question — but they’re hoping that some great charter EMO/CMO outfits apply.

We need this in other cities too. There are fewer charter high schools than elementary/middle schools, and as MFS says: “The absence of high-quality urban high schools is a national problem, not just here in Detroit. It needs fixing.” But not surprisingly, the need is particularly acute in Detroit. According to MFS, “There are no open-enrollment high schools (traditional public or charter) serving Detroit students with high graduation rates, high college attendance rates and high levels of academic achievement.”

Here’s information on the initiative and a link to the RFP. Message to top-notch charter outfits: Go for it!