Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Aren't There More Management Companies Operating Charter Schools in Colorado?

Colorado has bucked the national trend for education management organization-operated charter schools since the law was first adopted. According to "The State of Charter Schools in Colorado" report,
"Only 12 schools, about 9% of the total, were operated by national nonprofit or for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs). By comparison, a quarter of charter schools natioinwide are managed by EMOs. In Michigan, nearly three out of four charter schools are so managed."

The National Association of Public Charter Schools says 22.5% of the nation's public charter schools are operated by an EMO or CMO (Charter Management Organization).

Colorado has been known to have more "grassroots" or "freestanding" than other states because that's how the movement started. Further, authorizers (local boards of education) were more influenced by their constituents (voters) than by a management company. It wasn't until the 2004 Charter School Institute law passed that management companies made an impact in Colorado.

In Colorado, charter schools are operated by a company include:
Edison: 4
Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation: 1
Mosaica: 4
National Heritage Acadmies: 1
White Hat Management: 3

The McREL blog states that the top 10 charter or education management companies are:
Edison Schools (97 schools)
KIPP (82 schools)
Imagine Schools (73 schools)
Big Picture Learning (68 schools)
National Heritage Academies (57 schools)
White Hat Management (51 schools)
EdVisions (40 schools)
Aspire (21 schools)
(tie) Green Dot (19 schools), Charter Schools USA (19 schools)

Due to some problems in the past with certain management companies, many authorizers in Colorado tend to shy away from approving management company-operated charter school applications. Most authorizers require evidence of community support as evidenced by a governing board of people from the local community. Moreover, charter contracts are made between the authorizer and the governing board, specifically excluding the management company as a party to the contract.

Oftentimes laws evolve over time based on a series of events. When the number of new charter schools approved dipped to a low of six in 2002 and five in 2003 lawmakers looked for ways to create more opportunities for charter school applicants to gain approval. Prior to the adoption of the CSI law in 2004 several attempts were made to create an alternative authorizer including institutions of higher ed and municipalities. Both of these models are used in other states, but Colorado ultimately settled on a state authorizing board (CSI).

Now an emerging trend in the state is for replication of existing, successful charter schools. These include the Cesar Chavez Network, W Denver Prep, Denver School of Science and Technology, and KIPP. These replication networks are commonly referred to as charter management organizations. Authorizers are more attracted to approving new charters with people they've already worked with and seen evidence of the school model's success rather than taking a chance on an unproven model or working with an EMO with established practices that may not easily conform to the district's expectations.

While Colorado may have bucked the national trend to use EMOs, it is at the front of the nation in replicating successful models. It's now encumbent upon charter school authorizers to employ best practices in establishing replication schools with true autonomy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Alaska Charter Schools

I just returned from ten days in Alaska where I saw the word "charter" on hundreds of signs throughout the state. Sure, the word was on signs for charter fishing boats, but the state also has 26 charter schools in operation. Alaska's charter school law is weak, receiving a "D" rating from the Center for Education Reform.

Alaska's charter school law passed in 1995 and permits up to sixty charter schools. Some of the provisions that make the law weak are less autonomy than other states (i.e. an "academic policy committee" instead of a governing board) and the charter school is bound by the authorizing school district's collective bargaining agreement with teachers.

Several of Alaska's charter schools focus on the Alaska Native heritage and culture. The Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Charter School in Bethel uses the immersion method of teaching Yup'ik to elementary school-aged students. In fact, note this list of spelling words for 2nd and 3rd grade students. Other charter schools use Spanish immersion, the Spalding method and a handful are homeschool programs.

Many of the state's charter schools are only accessible by plane, boat or dog sled since there isn't a road system in rural Alaska. About eight rural charter schools operate in Colorado, but at least they have a road to the school!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

No Blogging Until Next Week

I'm in Alaska volunteering at a college/counseling center and won't be blogging until midway through next week. My initial plan was to write my blog in the evenings, but between salmon fishing, being tired and sore from manual labor, and squeezing in some sightseeing when there's a break from work there hasn't been any time. My computer addiction has been replaced with time spent doing construction work. See you next week!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Colorado's Common Application and Review Rubric

Earlier this year, the Colorado League of Charter Schools, the Colorado Charter School Institute and CDE collaborated in the development of a common charter school application, checklist for completeness and review rubric. For the first time, a charter school applicant, CSI and a school district authorizer all can use the same document to fairly measure what is a good charter school application.

Over the years, very weak charter school applications have been approved and very strong applications denied. Likewise, it's gone both ways when an applicant appeals to the State Board of Education. This "common app" document allows the applicant to see precisely what should be included in each section of the application, the same information available to their potential authorizer. It can be a transparent process now.

The checklist for completeness section allows an authorizer, receiving a charter school application, to quickly evaluate whether or not the application is "complete" before sending it to their board or accountability committee for review. State law doesn't require authorizers to review incomplete applications, a standard which has been unevenly applied across the state.

The final section of each required element is the rubric for evaluating an application. This rubric-based system allows authorizers to use a uniform standard rather than relying on varying opinions. Ideally, this new resource will take the guess work out of the charter application review process and provide more information to the State Board of Education should a denied applicant bring an appeal to the board.

School district authorizers were looking for some method to determine if they were being "fair" to applicants and not doomed for failure at an appeal hearing before the State Board. Charter school leaders were looking for standardization and clarity for charter applicants.

After the "three C's" (CLCS, CSI and CDE) developed the original document, it was circulated for statewide review through CDE's weekly newsletter. The document is now final and available for use.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Looming Questions

Some days my brain gets stretched with really big questions. Many of these I cannot answer. Today I had to consider the following:

* What is the proper role for an authorizer in regard to charter school governance beyond approving the bylaws and getting an annual report of who is on the board and their contact information? Should the authorizer require the charter board to meet certain goals? What if they don't meet the goals, but the school is still doing well academically? Would their ever be a situation where a charter school is doing well academically, but doesn't measure up in regard to finances or governance and would warrant revocation?

* Will parents of students who don't make it in to a Core Knowledge charter school still be willing to have their children tested annually for about an hour in order to participate in the control group used in the Core Knowledge charter school study CDE and partners will be conducting in the next five years? What would be enough of an incentive? A book for their child? Test results?

* What should be included in a pre-opening checklist for a new charter school to use after approval, but before the first day of school? Should items that are optional in a charter school application (i.e. board bylaws, governing board policies, etc.) be included even though they may have already been provided to the authorizer in the application? When should a new charter school be told they must delay a year because they're not meeting pre-opening requirements?

* How many individual charter schools can one governing board effectively govern before the quality diminishes? Should each of the charter schools have individual charters or one charter contract with the board to operate multiple sites? What criteria evaluates autonomy for each of the different sites?

I love discussing issues such as these with individuals who know the detailed pros and cons. Today was one of those days where I spent time with top-quality people engaged in meaty discussions relevant to charter schools. Not that we figured out the answers, but we definitely figured out the questions!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

For the Nerdy English Majors...

Running across this article about the most misspelled word, "definately" instead of "definitely" gives me the opportunity to plug one of my favorite podcasts: Grammar Girl. Finally, a group of people (some of the podcasts are responses to call-in questions) who care about whether I tweeted or Twittered. Oh, and in case you Twitter, follow me at: cocharters on Twitter.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is the New Mantra: "Open good charter schools; close bad ones"?

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the new mantra is "Open good charter schools; close bad ones." Citing support from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and the Missouri Charter Public School Association, authorizers of two underperforming charter schools have stated they won't renew the two schools' charters.

These two charter schools have failed to perform on a variety of measures including governance, finance and enrollment, not to mention failing miserably at academic achievement. The percentage of students passing state exams were in the single digits or low teens. Just reading the facts cited in the newspaper article, it appears there is ample evidence to close the two charter schools. Further, it appears that everyone gave them multiple opportunities to recitfy problems. It's time to pull the plug!

Aother four charter schools closed at the end of the 2008-09 school year in Colorado. These are Denver Arts and Technology Academy (Denver); Challenges, Choices and Images (Denver); Shivers Academy (Harrison); and Cesar Chavez Academy-Central (CSI). This brings the total number of charter schools that have closed to 20 since the first one closed in 1998. Although most of the charter schools closed due to financial reasons, a handful have closed strictly for academic reasons.

Who determines when a charter school needs to be closed? It's authorizer. Charter school laws were established to offer greater freedom in exchange for greater accountability. If a charter school isn't performing, it should be closed.

The League of Charter Schools has developed much of their programming to support underperforming charter schools and hold a high standard for all charter schools. Across the state, leaders have discussed what warrants a charter school closure (revocation or nonrenewal). While some may debate a few middle-of-the-road schools, there are crystal clear situations where a charter school should close.

So the new mantra, cited by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is accurate: Open new charter schools; close bad ones.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Utah's Charter School Law Improves

The Center for Education Reform has moved up on the ranking of all charter school laws in the nation from 28th to 4th! This gives Utah a high B ranking, just above Colorado's own B. Other neighboring states didn't fare as well. New Mexico earned a B, but Wyoming earned a D and Kansas a F. Nebraska doesn't even have a charter school law.

Criteria for the ranking include autonomy, multiple authorizers in the state, the number of charter schools allowed, and equity. The Center for Education Reform compiles this analysis each year.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Greater Accountability in Charter Schools Results in Hot News Stories

The vast majority of Coloradans know about charter schools either from what they read in the newspaper or what they know about one operating in their neighborhood. In fact, many people still believe charter schools charge tuition, which they don't because they're public school like the traditional neighborhood schools.

Since the Charter Schools Act became law in 1993, charter schools have been quick to appear in news stories. The first school to open, Academy Charter School in Castle Rock, terminated their principal in September due to a moral issue. A few years later, Academy of Charter Schools in Westminster, came under scrutiny when it was revealed that their governing board members had "terms for life" and had purchased fax machines for themselves to communicate with each other. There was also the Cherry Creek Academy firing of a principal who cried "foul" and got air time on radio news stations and local TV outlets. Plus, most everyone can remember the Jeffco charter school, then called the Community Involved Charter School, which had students on a field trip up in the Buffalo Creek area who started a devastating fire.

I could continue with the many stories about charter schools that have been aired for public scrutiny. The point is that charter schools have a greater level of accountability because of the means by which they are established. In exchange for greater freedom, charter schools have greater accountability. That's why when school district Board of Education members or school district principals make the same mistakes, we don't hear about them as much or with as great of detail.

Greater accountability is a good thing. People making decisions for the use of public taxpayer money should be transparent about how the money is being used and be able to justify the validity of their decisions. Bringing unwise decisions to public scrutiny is a good thing! Maybe other education leaders will think twice before making their own bad decisions when they realize what the potential outcome could be.

When you read about another "scandal" within the charter school community, don't blame all the charter schools operating in Colorado and cast the blame widely. Instead, realize that the charter school philosophy is working. And hope that everyone in public education (not just charter schools) embraces the same level of accountability.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What Teacher's Unions Think About Charter Schools

Over at Ed is Watching, Eddie makes a great point about how teacher's unions really feel about charter schools. Probably the single greatest identifier of potential success in charter schools is the fact that they are not bound by the district's collective bargaining agreement and instead use at-will employees. A teacher who isn't effectively teaching students probably won't stay in a charter school for very long.

It should be noted that Colorado had a charter school created by representatives of the teacher's union and they, too, applied for and received a waiver from teacher licensure and the district's collective bargaining agreement.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hernandez Welcomes Audit, but Calls it a "Waste of Money"

Dr. Lawrence Hernandez, Chief Executive Officer of the Cesar Chavez Academy Network, says he welcomes the state's audit of the Network's finances and CSAP administration practices, but also called it, "a waste of money." Commissioner of Education, Dwight Jones, responded to the letter from Dr. John Covington, out-going Superintendent of the Pueblo 60 School District and Network authorizer, by stating the state would conduct a third-party investigation of the Network schools' CSAP administration and conduct a forensic financial audit. The cost of these audits has been authorized for up to $80,000 and will be borne by Pueblo 60, the Charter School Institute and CDE.

In Covington's letter, he cited reports that students were permitted to change their answers on the CSAP test and other testing irregularities. Further, Covington raised concerns about a teacher licensure company operated by Hernandez. The state's review will examine the Network and any subsidiaries.

The Network operates Cesar Chavez Academy-Pueblo, Dolores Huerta High School and GOAL Academy in Pueblo and Cesar Chavez Academy-North in Colorado Springs. The Network surrendered their charter for a second school in Colorado Springs to the Charter School Institute after facility and enrollment concerns. A new school in Denver will open next month.

Connecting the Dots

Mike Petrilli, writing at Flypaper, has an interesting take on why Ed Sec Arne Duncan spoke last week to the National Charter School Conference attendees about turnaround schools. Duncan's remarks about working with teacher's unions, even unions that organize within charter schools, brought confusion to the audience of entrepeneurial charter school leaders. But spending the majority of his allotted time talking about turnaround schools was even more perplexing. Petrilli's assessment after connecting the dots makes sense.

I was there and heard Duncan's entire speech. It makes sense to me that he was trying to engage the charter school community in his turnaround work because he needs the shining example of high-performing charter schools to eliminate the excuses made in traditional public education for "certain" types of students that "can't achieve like other kids." Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of DC Public Schools, said high-performing charter schools in eastern portions of her district eliminated traditional public school leaders from making excuses.

It also makes sense that Duncan wants the charter school community to step up to the plate and offer more high-quality options, especially in urban areas that are in dire need of improvement. A more robust charter school community will take the pressure off districts failing to turn around underperforming neighborhood schools.

What doesn't make sense is to assume collaboration with any teacher's union will allow any education reform to be meaningful. When the conversation shifts from what's best for kids to what's best for the adults, the students lose.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

James Irwin

Recently I was at Arlington National Cemetery and looked up the grave of James Irwin, the Apollo 15 astronaut and eighth person to walk on the moon. I had spoken with Jim Irwin a few times before he died and have been friends with his daughter, Jill, for many years. I was excited to hear founders of a Colorado Springs charter school were going to name their school after Jim Irwin back in 1999. The vote before the Harrison 2 School District Board of Education was evenly split and the vote that eventually approved the school was because the board member knew James Irwin personally and couldn't vote against a man with such integrity. The charter school, James Irwin Charter Schools, has been an honor to Jim Irwin.

JICS started as a high school, but leaders quickly acknowledged students were coming in so low in math skills that they needed to open a junior high. The vision of creating students prepared to attend the best colleges and universities couldn't be accomplished when so much remediation was being done before students could take grade-level classes. Later, school leaders recognized the importance of having a K-12 student population and an elementary school was added. After the completion of a new elementary school wing last year, all students are one campus north of the airport in the southeast corner of Colorado Springs.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Colorado Awarded IES Grant to Study Literacy in Core Knowledge Schools

The Colorado Department of Education has been awarded an Institute of Education Sciences grant to study the efficacy of literacy in Core Knowledge schools. Due to the high number of Core Knowledge schools in Colorado, there is enough of a student population to compare student achievement in both CK schools and non-CK schools. Students enrolled via a lottery into a CK charter school will be compared to students who were awarded a spot via the lottery and then selected another educational option.

Two researchers from the University of Virginia are the Principal Consultants for the five-year research project. Dr. David Grissmer and Dr. Thomas White designed the project and both have extensive backgrounds in related study.