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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. Why? 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!
Jed Wallace

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California Charter School Growth Ushers in New Public Education Era

This is a historic time for charter schools in California.  Despite tough economic times, charter supporters continue to turn their commitment into opportunities for thousands of students and families seeking more options in public education. This school year, 115 new charter schools opened, marking the most significant growth since California approved its charter school Law in 1992.  This unparalleled growth pushed the state’s total number of charter schools to 912, the highest of any state in the nation.  Every major region, as well as both urban and rural areas, saw charter schools open. For charter school leaders, this growth is encouraging and exciting, and we believe it is proof that a new era of public education has taken hold. This new era is one  in which parents, teachers and communities haven’t more flexibility and local control of schools  making them better at serving individual student’s needs.  It also means that we at the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) must do more than ever to advocate on behalf of charter schools, and continue our efforts to ensure equitable access of funding and facilities for public charter schools.  Accountability is another top priority at CCSA, and this growth underlines the need for a system in which high performing charter schools in which high performing charter schools are replicated, while low-performing ones undergo a deep review to determine if they are serving their student’s needs. With this year’s newly opened schools, an even larger number of families in California will now have more options for high-quality education options for their students.

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Klein Moves On

Joel Klein is resigning as chancellor of the New York City school system. In eight years as leader of that mammoth organization, Joel Klein showed what decisiveness looks like. He closed chronically failing schools despite clamorous opposition; he invited top-performing charter operators to open up shop in the city’s toughest neighborhoods, and made them an example for their district counterparts; he provided unparalleled autonomy to traditional schools and overhauled the city’s accountability systems. And the results were recognized with a coveted Broad Prize. What propelled all this was his unapologetic determination that kids should come first. Not teachers, not principals, not systems, but kids. And he led with a fine sense of outrage about the way kids had been treated by public education. I will not soon forget the way this balding, bespectacled man raised the roof of a Harlem church a couple of years back as 1500 parents and activists responded to the passion and intensity of his call to do better by the city’s schoolchildren. The Alliance is honored to have him as a member of its board, and New York City is a better place for his service.

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Another Mid-Term Victory

Whatever your thoughts about the mid-term elections, it’s clear we will have many new faces in state capitols, governors’ mansions and at the U.S. Capitol. The vast majority of these newly-elected people were not voted in purely on an education platform. However, many of them ran in part as education reformers, and on a night where seemingly everyone was concerned about red and blue, it was the color purple that surprised me most.  Candidates from both parties who are supporters of substantive education reform in general, and charter schools in particular, were elected from every region of the country. Some notable examples include Janet Barresi, the new Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction who helped found two charter schools in Oklahoma City and Delaware’s new U.S. Senator, Chris Coons also knows his way around education reform issues. John Hickenlooper, governor-elect from my home state of Colorado, and Joe Walsh, a newly-elected U.S. Representative from Illinois are also friends of education reform. While it’s too early to say exactly how these new players will affect key education issues, it is another indication of the growing support for high-quality education from both parties.  Who can say whether we’ll see the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a third round of Race to the Top funding, or improvements to weak charter laws in several states?  It’s anyone’s guess. But, I do know that if there’s one issue everyone can agree to work on, it’s education. Voters had a lot on their minds this election season, and school reform was admittedly a few notches down from hot-button issues like jobs and the economy. Yet, buoyed by the release of “Waiting for Superman,” the attention of Oprah Winfrey and a solid two months of news coverage on the issue, education reform has dominated political discourse like never before.  While it still falls shy of being a deciding issue for voters, more and more people are holding their elected officials accountable for improving public education for all students.