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A defense of public education against ‘the wolves of Wall Street’

Charter Schools, Outcomes, Quality


Washington Post

As a lifelong educator who has worked 10 years in a Catholic high school and now 11 years as a public middle school librarian, I am highly invested in the current conversation surrounding public education and reform. Some of you have stopped reading, assuming I’m a union teacher with tenure. Disclaimer: I work in Texas, a right to work state, where we have no tenure or unions with collective bargaining rights. Still, my experience demands that I defend public education, which is often under assault.

I am disturbed when high-flying charter schools, such as Harlem Success Academy, brag about their student standardized test scores, not because I begrudge them but because they seem blithely unaware of selection bias. Just the very fact that a parent takes the initiative to apply to one of these schools makes a huge difference. In addition, both students and their parents have to sign contracts and agree to longer hours and high performance standards. If students do not live up to these standards, they are no longer able to attend. A fair comparison between test scores of high-profile charter students and regular public school children must include only the public school students who attend regularly, do their homework, and, along with their parents, are committed to school. Or compare them to magnet schools, which is what they essentially are.

Editorial pages of many newspapers often bemoan the expense of public schools. Yes, since the 1970s, we are spending more per student. Part of this is due to inflation (try comparing house values in the 1970′s to now), but part is also due to the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law has enabled so many children to access services, including, when necessary, one-on-one aides, who guide them throughout the school day. These services are absolutely the right thing to do, but they are expensive.

Charter schools have fewer children with disabilities as well as fewer English Language Learners. Studies cite a 3-4 percent gap in special education students at charter vs. regular public schools. But as someone who works in a public school with a Life Skills unit, I wondered: where are the Life Skills units at high profile charter schools? They may have special education students, but do they have middle school students with a mental age of 1 1/2 years old, colostomy bags and diapers, students with multiple and severe disabilities who are served in their own classrooms? No. For example, North Star Academy Charter schools in Newark have 36 percent fewer students with severe (high cost) disabilities than the Newark public schools in general. While in New York City, 41 percent of public school students speak a language other than English at home, only 5 percent do so at Harlem Success Academy.

Furthermore, the greatest expense for public schools is personnel. It seems that some of the recent animosity toward teachers is due to the simple fact that our salaries are paid from tax revenue. As Rupert Murdoch has remarked, public education is a $500 billion business, and some see that public money as a private business opportunity.

People ask: what’s wrong with “choice” and vouchers? First of all, vouchers transfer public money to private institutions. Public schools lose the annual, per dollar amount for each child who leaves and takes the money with her. If choice in the form of charters and vouchers continues to siphon involved families and students from public schools, then public schools will become dumping grounds for our children with the greatest material, physical, language, and emotional needs. We become a nation in which some children win while others lose. While that may be the way of the wolves on Wall Street, we public school teachers will not abandon the lambs in our charge. Rather than working to improve schools for all, market practices make it acceptable to continue leaving children behind.

In closing, great schools have these things in common: a strong principal who is an instructional leader, committed and involved families, adequate funding, and committed, prepared, well-compensated teachers. According to the latest Texas Tribune poll, even 65 percent of Republicans believe teachers should be paid more. Colleges and universities need to make teacher programs more competitive. We must raise the bar on getting a teaching certificate, and we must get rid of fly-by-night, six-week training programs.

We must partner with parents. The secret to success in high-achieving charter schools and private schools is parental commitment to the shared goal of educating children. Amanda Ripley, in her excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, cites research demonstrating that if parents do two things, their children will most likely succeed academically: 1) Read to them from a young age. 2) Model reading themselves.

We need to follow the common sense wisdom of Stephen Krashen’s “The Power of Reading.” Give students time to read in school, allow them to self-select their books, and provide them access to these books, and children will read. By reading, they practice and improve their literacy. Not only do readers do well on standardized tests, but according to research cited in “Reading in the Wild” by teacher Donalyn Miller, readers vote more, volunteer more, and are better informed citizens. Sadly, instead, many school districts are cutting librarians and library programs in order to spend more on testing.

We need to better support our children in the United States. Too many children live in poverty: 23 percent. In Texas, 60 percent of our public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Teachers will tell you of students living in cars, moving every other month because parents can’t pay the rent, coming to kindergarten not knowing their colors. Universal Pre-K will absolutely make a difference.

There are many things we, as a society, can do to improve our schools, but the current “reform” policies — which stress punitive testing, demonizing teachers as lazy leeches, advocating performance pay, and privatizing public schools — are taking us further from the noble traditions which made us great. Our nation was the first in the world to provide free, compulsory education. This mission is inscribed in most of our state constitutions. Our public schools are the centers of our neighborhoods and communities. They are run by democratically elected school board members. Public education as an institution needs to be nurtured and cherished for the common good.


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[Excerpts] Chester Finn on Charter Schools

Charter Schools, School Choice

Manasi Bose

Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B Fordham Foundation in the US and a renowned expert on charter schools was at the CCS office this Thursday to discuss the charter school movement in the US. Following are some excerpts from his talk.

“Charter schools are public schools. They are paid for with public funds and do not charge fees at all to students. They are open to anyone who wants to come to them, there are no pre-requisites for admission or entrance. These schools are accountable for their academic results as measured on the same standards and tests as traditional government schools. They are therefore public in three ways: publically financedopen to the public and publically accountable

“Charter schools are like an outsourcing – instead of building fifty identical schools for the children of the community and having the government run them, you contract with private operators to create and run schools for 300 children between the ages of 6-12 and you give them public dollars to pay for these schools. They are seen as vehicles for creating diversity, choices and competition; also efficiency and accountability.”

“Charter schools are different from private schools. Private schooling must be approved to exist by the state and must follow certain basic rules of safety, fireproofing and so on in order to be licensed to operate. However, with very few exceptions, these schools do not get public money and they do not have to follow the state curriculum or give the state tests. They don’t have to employ certified teachers; they can employ anyone who they want to teach.

Historically, the revenue of private schools has been either parents pay or wealthy individuals (or alumni who previously attended schools) make gifts. There is quite a lot of freedom attached to the private financial support and very few obligations to the government The big shift over the last 20 years has been the beginning of voucher programs and similar initiatives that provide financial subsidies/scholarships to children to attend private schools, who wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.”

“Charter schools faced resistance, and still do to a degree, from the educational establishment – those that benefit from the current hierarchical bureaucratic structure. This includes teacher unions, the school board association, the administrator’s association, even textbook publishers, the bus drivers – anybody that currently has their job, their status or their income based on the current system.”

“This was all part of the aftermath of the 1983 report ‘A Nation at Risk’, a National Commission study on the performance of American primary and secondary education, which said it was not doing a good job. We spent most of the 1960s and 70s working on issues of equity and access for black children, disabled children, girls, foreign language speaking immigrants etc. We did a good job of providing access to everybody but in 1983 this committee looked at the performance of American schools and said children are not learning enough and we need to do something different. This led to a whole variety of reforms in the US, many of them having to do with academic standards and tests and accountability structures, some of them relating to personnel, teachers in schools, some of them having to do with governance and control and some having to do with new kinds of schools.”

To hear his talk, click here.

This blog was originally published on Spontaneous Order.

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Education Dept. allows public charter schools to hold weighted lottery

Charter Schools

The Washington Post


The Education Department on Wednesday reversed a long-standing policy and will now allow public charter schools that receive federal grants to give ­admissions preference to low-income children, minorities and other disadvantaged students.

The move is designed to try to preserve racial diversity in schools that are attractive to wealthier families. Schools will be able to conduct a “weighted lottery” that gives preference to certain groups.

“We’ve heard from states, school operators and other stakeholders across the country that weighted lotteries can be an effective tool that can complement public charter schools’ efforts to serve more educationally dis­advantaged students,” said Dorie Nolt, a department spokes­woman.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools had been asking for the change for nearly three years, said Nina Rees, the group’s president.

“At the core, this brings the federal statute in line with what a lot of states have put into place to help attract more English-language learners, special-education students and low-income students to charter schools,” Rees said.

In cities such as Denver, New York and the District of Columbia, a handful of well-regarded charter schools have been attracting wealthier families, making it difficult to maintain a balance between rich and poor, white and minority, said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the right-leaning Fordham Institute and author of “The Diverse Schools Dilemma.”

“Once the word gets out, many middle-class parents who want diverse schools end up flooding the lotteries, and then it’s not so diverse anymore,” Petrilli said. “If you can’t weight the lottery, the school ends up being predominantly white and middle class.”

Most of the nation’s charter schools are overwhelmingly low-income and high-poverty, and many aim to serve those students.

Charter schools are publicly financed but privately run, mostly with non-unionized teachers. About 5 percent of public school students attend charters; in the District, 44 percent of the city’s public school students attend charter schools.

Decades of research into school integration policies show that, on average, students learn more in schools that are economically and racially diverse than they do in segregated schools, said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation.

In 2010, Kahlenberg edited a study that tracked students living in low-income housing in Montgomery County and found those who attended integrated schools had stronger academic gains than those attending high-poverty schools.

“When charters become strong, desirable and oversubscribed, middle-class families with better access to information tend to be the ones who flood the lottery, and the composition of the school changes,” Kahlenberg said, noting that E.L. Haynes and Capital City charter schools have attracted a significant number of middle-class families.

Allowing a weighted lottery could bring some charter schools closer to the original vision conceived by Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Shanker proposed charter schools in 1988 as diverse laboratories of innovation that could transcend urban racial boundaries because they would draw from across a city, Kahlenberg said. But federal policy has stood in the way, Kahlenberg said, because it has required charter schools to hold blind lotteries in order to receive federal start-up funds.

To truly achieve a mix of students in charter schools, Kahlenberg said federal and state governments should allow schools to weight lotteries in favor of whatever subgroup of student is under­represented at the school. High-poverty schools could set aside seats for middle-income families, or all-black schools could make room for white, Latino and Asian students, he said.

In the past fiscal year, the ­Education Department gave $242 million in start-up funds to charter schools. The money is typically used to fund a new school during its first two years. About 1,200 schools were using the federal funds in fiscal 2013.

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The Charter Schools Debate

Charter Schools


2 Feb, 2013

Student learning outcomes achievement is arguably the toughest of development challenges. Experience from developing and developed world show that even when schools have good infrastructure, teachers are in place, teaching and learning materials are provided, and both teachers and students attend class regularly, teaching does not automatically translate into learning. Successful pilot experiments of the transactions in the black-box called classroom has proved near impossible to replicate on scale.

Charter Schools had gained prominence in the US over the past two decades on the belief that independently run, publicly financed schools, unleashed from regulatory fetters, and facing the threat of closure if they fail, would improve learning outcomes. But a recent Times editorial sums up the evidence so far,

The charter advocates promised that unlike traditional schools, which were allowed to fail without consequence, charter schools would be rigorously reviewed and shut down when they failed to perform. With thousands of charter schools now operating in 40 states, and more coming online every day, neither of these promises has been kept. Despite a growing number of studies showing that charter schools are generally no better — and often are worse — than their traditional counterparts, the state and local agencies and organizations that grant the charters have been increasingly hesitant to shut down schools, even those that continue to perform abysmally for years on end.

study of student performance in Charter Schools across 25 states in 2009 finds that  only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education. Anotherstudy finds that the standards used by the charter authorizers to judge school performance are terribly weak.
I not one bit surprised. Cynical as it may sound, I do not think that there is any one single strategy, however broad, to dramatically improve student learning outcomes. Such quality reform strategies may work or appear to work for sometime in smaller jurisdictions. But when scaled up, and systemically forced to generate positive outcomes, they are more or less certain to be exposed. Instead, I believe that sustainable improvements in learning outcomes are intimately linked with strong demand-side pressures and underpinned by cultural and social factors.

Charter schools raise educational standards for vulnerable children

Charter Schools, Global news, US

CHICAGO: “EVERYONE’S pencil should be on the apple in the tally-mark chart!” shouts a teacher to a class of pupils at Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis. Papers and feet are shuffled; a test is coming. Each class is examined every six or seven weeks. The teachers are monitored too. As a result, Harvest Prep outperformed every city school district in Minnesota in maths last year. It is also a “charter” school; and all the children are black.

Twenty years ago Minnesota became the first American state to pass charter-school laws. (Charter schools are publicly funded but independently managed.) The idea was born of frustration with traditional publicly funded schools and the persistent achievement gap between poor minority pupils and those from middle-income homes. Charters enroll more poor, black and Latino pupils, and more pupils who at first do less well at standardised tests, than their traditional counterparts.

Today there are 5,600 charter schools, and they serve more than 2m pupils in 41 of America’s 50 states. This number has grown annually by 7.5% since 2006 (see chart), but is still tiny: charters enroll less than 4% of the country’s public-school students. Some places have taken to charter schools particularly enthusiastically: in Washington, DC, 44% of public-school students attend a charter school.

That figure is dwarfed by New Orleans. There two-thirds of students are in charters, thanks to an overhaul of the city’s disastrous schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today half of charter schools in the city are improving reading or maths at a significantly faster rate than competing public schools; and across the state as a whole charters are performing better.

Parents like charter schools, and waiting-lists for them are growing faster than new places. Nina Rees, the new head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says more than 600,000 children are on waiting lists. Oversubscribed schools choose pupils by lottery, something poignantly illustrated in the documentary film “Waiting for Superman”.

Although charter schools have won support from across the political spectrum, they have always attracted controversy. Much of the unease has been stirred up by teachers’ unions; charter schools do not usually employ unionised teachers. As recounted in a new book, “Zero Chance of Passage”, by Ember Reichgott Junge, a former Minnesota legislator who wrote the original charter legislation, unions have from the outset pushed the misleading idea that charters drain resources from traditional schools. They also maintain that politicians who support them are against public education.

That is not true.

Critics of charter schools derive more ammunition from the fact that their performance varies widely. For example, earlier this year the University of Minnesota found that charters in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul lagged behind public elementary schools, ranking 7.5% lower for maths and 4.4% lower for reading.

Hundreds of other studies have been done on charters; but most are of dubious quality. One recent analysis had to discard 75% of its research because it had failed to account for differences between the backgrounds and academic histories of pupils attending the schools. Much political capital has been made of a 2009 study of 16 states that found that only 17% of charter schools were better than public schools, 37% were worse and the rest were about the same. The work was done by the Centre for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University.

The Credo study has been criticised for not comparing the results of children who have won charter-school lotteries with those who have not—a natural experiment in which the only difference between winners and losers should be the schooling they receive. Such studies suggest that charters are better. For example, a lottery study in New York City found that by eighth grade (around 13), charter-school pupils were 30 points ahead in maths.

However, recent work by Mathematica, an independent policy group, suggests that the Credo study is sound. The bigger problem is that its findings have been misinterpreted. First, the children who most need charters have been served well. Credo finds that students in poverty and English language learners fare better in charters. And a national “meta-analysis” of research, done last year for the Centre on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle, found charters were better at teaching elementary-school reading and mathematics, and middle-school mathematics. High-school charters, though, fared worse. Another recent study in Massachusetts for the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that urban charter schools are shown to be effective for minorities, poor students and low achievers.

Second, charter school performance is not so “mixed” if you look at the data on a state-by-state basis, rather than across the country as a whole. States with reading and maths gains that were significantly higher for charter-school students than in traditional schools included Arkansas, Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana and Missouri.
Credo thinks that the variation in quality can be traced to the governing legislation behind the schools. Margaret Raymond, director of Credo, points to Arizona’s terrible results in 2009, which were the result of lax screening of those who were allowed to set up charter schools, and no serious reviews thereafter. Ohio, where most charters are worse than the traditional schools, gained a reputation as the “Wild West” of charter schools because it exercised almost no oversight.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, has had excellent results and is strict about the schools it allows to operate; the state will step in and close an underperforming school at short notice. Caps on the number of charters in a state drag down performance as much as lax oversight, because they cramp the diversification of the market and discourage investment.

Bad laws make bad charter schools.

Ms Raymond says traditional public schools no longer have the excuse that they cannot be blamed for the poor performance of children because of their background; so competition from charters may improve standards in non-charters, too.

Moreover, if charter schools go downhill they can usually be closed more easily than traditional schools. Even so, most of those attending a big schools conference in Minneapolis in June agreed that more bad charters should close. Since 1993 15% of charter schools have shut their gates, most because of low enrolment, a sign that the market is working.

Charter schools have been successful because they offer freedom to shape the school to the pupils, rather than the other way round. Schools can change the length of the school day, fire bad teachers and spend their money as they wish. At Harvest Prep the school year is continuous, with short and relatively frequent bursts of holiday, because that keeps learning on track and kids out of trouble.

The charter-school concept has also attracted new institutions into early education, says Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute, which is part of the University of Chicago. The university operates four charters for (mostly) poor black children up to ninth grade (14-15), and college-acceptance rates for children going through them have been above 98% in each of the past three years. This compares with a city average of 35%.

Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney favour charter schools, but at a time of probable cuts in federal education spending their growth may slow. Despite huge demand, and even though the ingredients for success are clear after two decades of experiment, extending charters’ successes to the other 96% will take a long time.

The Economist, 07 July 2012


Obama and Romney Right to Agree on Charters

Charter Schools, Global news, US

As a veteran education reporter, I have some advice for parents listening to Mitt Romney and Barack Obama debate this issue: Tune out the phony disagreements such as school vouchers (which are unlikely to make a difference) and instead focus on where the two agree: Launch more great charter schools.

Even four years ago a push to ramp up approval for charters, which are publicly funded but independently run schools, would have been somewhat rash. Even the high-flying charters, where inner city kids showed impressive academic growth, had weaknesses: teacher burnout, a shortage of great school leaders and an addiction to foundation funding that impeded rapid expansion.

But recent developments give charter schools a promise that warrants the twinned blessings from Romney and Obama.
For those who believe that quality teaching trumps all other factors — and these days it is hard to stir up a disagreement about that — my book research visit to the True North Troy Preparatory in Troy, N.Y., was revelatory. Ever wonder what a school would look like that was staffed entirely by best-in-the-nation teachers, all working together with rhythm, collaboration and purpose? That’s True North, a teaching design drawn up by the school’s founder, Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion.

At True North, all the teachers use Lemov-documented teaching techniques, which accounts for the early academic success seen at that school. The point here is not True North’s success, but rather the rapid spread of successful teaching techniques pioneered by charter teachers. At last count, roughly 400,000 copies of Lemov’s book have been sold, which means “the word” is spreading far beyond charter teachers.

In San Jose, I visited several Rocketship elementary schools. Nearly all their students are low-income Hispanic students, many of them arriving in kindergarten with limited English-speaking skills and no preschool experience. And yet, the academic outcomes for Rocketship students approach those of several white, middle-class elementary schools in Silicon Valley.

Running academically successful schools for poor students, however, is not Rocketship’s most important contribution. What matters more is that Rocketship has figured out a way to run great schools on a modest budget, keep its teachers from burning out at high rates and build a leadership cadre for rapid expansion.

At the heart of Rocketship’s innovation is its “blended learning” model where students pick up many of their basic academic skills in digital learning labs. True, blending learning, now endorsed by many schools, threatens to become the latest education fad. Inevitably, that will unleash ill-advised practices. (Sticking a roomful of students into a classroom with computers loaded with education software does not blended learning make.)

But that’s where Rocketship promises to make a major contribution. Education researchers and reporters can visit Rocketship to learn how blended learning is done at a state-of-the-art level. All schools, charters and traditional, will benefit.

New York’s Relay Graduate School of Education is another place where the charter-generated teaching techniques that have proven effective with high poverty minority students get passed along. Traditional teacher colleges that fail to learn from Relay risk irrelevance.

Obviously, Romney and Obama have no shortage of differences, some of them stark. But the shared desire to expand quality charter schools places both Romney and Obama on the right side of the same issue.
How often does that happen?

Huffington Post, 21 June 2012


Charter school performance in Indiana

Charter Schools, Research

Research Paper
CREDO, Stanford

Expanding on the 2009 CREDO National Charter School Study Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, this report examines the performance of Indiana charter schools for the period 2004 – 2008.

Compared to the educational gains the charter students would have had in their traditional public schools, the analysis shows that students in Indiana charter schools make dramatically larger learning gains. While there are a small number of schools with inferior performance in reading, nearly half the charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their traditional public school counterparts. In math, none of the charter schools studied performs worse than the traditional public schools and nearly one quarter out-perform them.

This analysis builds on the methodology used for the 2009 study.2 The approach uses a quasiexperimental design of matched pairs that are followed over time. Learning gains as measured on state standardized achievement tests are the outcome used to gauge the contributions of charter schools compared to the learning gains that would have occurred for those students in traditional public school settings.

Read the research paper here


England’s first free schools open their doors to pupils

Charter Schools, Edupreneurship, Global news, UK

Twenty-four are due to open in the next few weeks – the majority next week.

On Thursday, lessons will begin at two schools – Aldborough E-ACT primary in Redbridge, London, and the Hindu Krishna-Avanti primary in Leicester.

The government says the state-funded but semi-independent schools will improve standards but critics say they will take pupils and money from other schools at a time of cut-backs.

Free schools are very similar to academies in that they do not have to follow the national curriculum, can vary the pay and conditions of teachers, are directly funded by central government and are outside of local authority control.

Summer holiday

The Aldborough free school is being set up by the E-ACT charity which already sponsors 11 academies.

It is opening with a reception class and a Year 1 class in a refurbished school building. E-ACT said that there was a shortage of school places in the area and approached the council to run a school.

It is one of the new free schools to change the school year by having a shorter summer holiday (one month) with longer half-term breaks in the autumn and spring (two weeks each).

Mark Greatrex, from the group, said: “We are taking a week off each side of the summer holidays. The holidays are too long. They were made that long so children could help with the harvest.”

The Redbridge free school will offer an extended day and different school year
There will be an optional extended day – with an educational slant – says Mr Greatrex, who will be the leader of the school’s governing body.

Children could be at school from 08:00 to 18:00 – and could find themselves in extra lessons after school if they are not making enough progress.

“Teachers’ focus will be on high attainment and they will track pupils’ progress in every lesson. If a child does not make enough progress in a lesson, they will be asked to stay later that day,” said Mr Greatrex.

He says the after-school activities will be “fun, with an educational slant”. For example, children playing cricket or rounders will have to do some mental arithmetic.

In Leicester, more than 30 four and five-year-olds will have their first full day at the Krishna-Avanti school on Thursday. They had a taster session at the school with their parents earlier in the week.

The school has been set up by the I-Foundation, which promotes state-funded Hindu education in the UK, in a grade II listed building, bought by the Department for Education.

There will be an emphasis on getting children to read “reasonably well” by the end of Year 1 (age six) and children will practise yoga and meditation and eat vegetarian meals.

Finishing touches

The new principal is a Christian, Christopher Spall, who says the aim is for the school eventually to be half Hindu and half other faiths.

“I think there are an enormous number of parallels between Christians and Hindus,” he said.

“We don’t want to convert anyone but to create an understanding, so that people get on better and respect each other.”

This year’s applications were mainly from Hindu families, Mr Spall says, but he thinks that will change.

Teaching unions oppose the policy of creating free schools, which they say will break up the state education system.

Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “The free school policy is completely undemocratic and a huge waste of public money, established regardless of need, with contempt for the local community while privileging small sectional interests.

“[Education Secretary] Michael Gove… cannot know whether this disparate group of sponsors, including many minor faith groups, is capable of providing a good balanced education.”

BBC, September 1, 2011


Montgomery approves its first charter school

Charter Schools

The Montgomery County Board of Education approved its first charter school Monday night, sending a cheer through the crowded board room and signaling a breakthrough for a movement that is pushing to expand beyond struggling inner-city districts.

In a 6 to 2 vote, the board authorized a new Montessori-based elementary school and officially handed over the keys to Crossway Community, a nonprofit organization, to run it.

School board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said she was proud to help shepherd in a “historic moment in Montgomery County” by voting for the school.

“I believe strongly that Montessori education has a proven track record, Crossway has a proven track record, and that they have dotted all their I’s and crossed all their T’s and met all the challenges that we threw to them,” O’Neill said in an interview before the vote.

The school will open in 2012 in Kensington, and it will serve as many as 188 students in preschool through third grade. Crossway already runs a Montessori-based preschool program at the same site.

“We are just excited and thrilled and really looking forward to . . . this partnership,” said Kathleen Guinan, the organization’s executive director. More than 50 parents and neighbors came to speak or show support at the meeting.

Pressure to open charter schools has increased dramatically in recent years as national and state leaders have embraced the publicly funded, privately run alternatives as a stimulus for school reform.

Montgomery County and many other affluent or successful school systems have seen charter schools as a distraction from work already underway in traditional public schools.

The board rejected Crossway Community’s first application a year ago. But school officials worked with the organization in the spring to address concerns.

The revised application was backed by a review panel of educators and community leaders, as well as by Superintendent Joshua Starr and former superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

A nagging issue raised by board members was how a public charter would jibe with Crossway’s mission. The organization serves predominantly low-income families and wants to continue serving children in need. But charter-school regulations require that admissions be open to everyone in the school district.

Crossway had sought a state waiver to the law in its first application but rescinded the request in its second try. The school board delayed its final vote to explore the possibility of setting a geographical boundary for the school but could not find a legally sound solution.

So the charter school will admit students through a lottery system, though its operators will be allowed to market more aggressively to students from low-income families.

Several board members who voted for the new school said it met the letter of the law and the county’s high standards, but they were wary of signaling greater support for charter schools.

Judy Docca (Gaithersburg) and Michael Durso (District 5) opposed the school.

“We should invest in the many programs and services we already provide in this county,” Docca said in an interview.

The Montgomery County branch of the NAACP also weighed in during the final hours to oppose the application, saying in a written statement that the organization does “not support the current emphasis on charter schools as the vanguard approach’’ to education.

Maryland will have 43 charter schools this fall. Most are in Baltimore, but Frederick, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties also have them.

The Washington Post, July 26, 2011


Tom Vander Ark’s New York-Area Charter Schools Falter

Charter Schools

After years spent directing the distribution of more than $1 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into hundreds of schools across the nation, Tom Vander Ark set his sights on the New York area, with a plan to create a network of charter schools of his own.

Mr. Vander Ark, the foundation’s former executive director of education and a national leader in the online learning movement, was granted charters in 2010 to open a high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and two others in Newark. The New York school, Brooklyn City Prep, also got space in a public school building — a precious and controversial commodity — hired a principal, and welcomed applications from 150 eighth graders this spring.

But after spending more than $1.5 million of investors’ money on consultants and lawyers, Mr. Vander Ark, 52, has walked away from the project, and the schools will not open as planned this fall, leaving others involved stunned and frustrated.

“If we had plotted a worst-case scenario, no one could have constructed the current situation,” said Mr. Vander Ark, saying the weak economy and the difficulty of establishing charters in New York and New Jersey “led to less success than we had hoped for.”

In an e-mail to the board members he had recruited, Mr. Vander Ark added, “I have a lot more sympathy for nonprofit leaders now that I’m on this side of the table.”

Those he has been working with had a harsher assessment.

“He’s flying 30,000 feet on the air, but can’t do it on the ground,” said Joshua Morales, a former official with the New York City Education Department who was hired by Mr. Vander Ark to develop the schools.

James Wiley, an educational technology consultant who has been serving as chairman of Brooklyn City Prep’s board of directors, said: “I’m from the Bronx, so you can imagine what language I used when I found out he was having these problems and we didn’t know anything about it. We just assumed that he was ticking along and things were going O.K.”

Mr. Vander Ark said he had kept his colleagues informed.

“So it’s ridiculous for them to claim that they were unaware,” he said. “They created these ideas. They helped pitch these ideas.”

While many new charter schools are asked to take a year for planning, it is relatively rare to require two, and unusual for a founder — in this case, a well-known figure in education reform — to walk away.

A former businessman and superintendent of a Washington State school district, Mr. Vander Ark doled out more than $1.6 billion in Gates Foundation money from 1999 to 2006, much of it to create and support small high schools. In 2008, he founded City Prep Academies, a for-profit organization intended to create and operate charter schools that combined traditional classroom teaching and online learning. He said the group was financed by $1.5 million from Revolution Learning, a venture fund where he is a managing partner.

But City Prep Academies immediately ran into problems. Its first application for a New York charter, made in summer 2009 as a close copy of the NYC iSchool that opened in SoHo the year before, received a tepid response from the city’s Education Department. Like the iSchool, Brooklyn City Prep promised to blend traditional classroom teaching with online learning, but many who read the application found it lacking in details.

“There was definitely the sense that they were not immediately ready to open the school,” said Michael Duffy, who was the director of the city’s charter school office at the time.

Dirk Tillotson, a charter-school consultant who read the application, agreed. “It didn’t seem like there was enough of a ‘there’ there,” he said, adding, “You didn’t know what the school was going to look like.”

The city and state approved the charter the next year, on the condition that Brooklyn Prep take an extra year to ready itself, with the opening scheduled for September 2011. At the same time, the first of the Newark schools, Vailsburg Prep, had its opening postponed to 2011 from the requested 2010, and the second, Spirit Prep, applied in 2010 for a 2011 opening but was also delayed a year.

After the initial $1.5 million investment from his own venture fund, Mr. Vander Ark found himself unable to raise the money — up to $500,000 per school — that he said he needed to open them. He switched strategies and asked the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit investment fund based in Colorado, to help him start a charter management organization, City Prep Academies Northeast. He also changed the name of his for-profit organization to Open Education Solutions.

Known as OpenEd Solutions, the company is a consultancy that helps schools, districts and states “make the pivot to digital learning,” according to its Web site. In summer 2010, it hired Curtis Lawrence Jr., a principal in Newark, to be the principal of Brooklyn City Prep. The company also brought in Mr. Morales, who had worked with charters in New York, as vice president of schools. He was told he could eventually become chief executive of City Prep Academies Northeast.

By spring 2011, Mr. Morales had secured space for Brooklyn City Prep in a public school building on Marcy Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He and Mr. Lawrence were interviewing teachers and reviewing student applications, confident that the school would open in September.

All they needed was a management agreement with City Prep Academies Northeast, which Mr. Wiley, the school’s board chairman, said he was negotiating with Kathi Littmann, the president of OpenEd Solutions.

But in April, Mr. Wiley came to an unsettling realization: City Prep Academies Northeast existed in name only.

In a phone call on April 21 that Mr. Wiley characterized as “explosive,” Mr. Vander Ark and Ms. Littmann acknowledged that City Prep Academies Northeast had no money to pay for Brooklyn City Prep’s opening costs and would not sign a management agreement.

Mr. Vander Ark had been unable to get any money from the Charter School Growth Fund or other similar national organizations. He had basically abandoned the idea of beginning a charter management organization and left the three schools-in-progress to find outside help on their own.

Mr. Tillotson, the consultant, said: “It signals what’s wrong with the so-called charter school community. Somebody who doesn’t deserve a charter gets a charter. Somebody who doesn’t deserve a building gets a building. And then somebody who doesn’t care about the communities can turn their head and walk away.”

Incensed, Mr. Morales pushed City Prep Academies Northeast’s would-be board members to meet and officially establish the organization. He said he would lead the organization even if Mr. Vander Ark would not finance it. Mr. Morales said he did not need thousands of dollars to open the school, given that it had access to a free space and would receive operating money from the city on a per-pupil basis, as all charters do. He even paid a month of Mr. Lawrence’s salary, more than $7,000.

Mr. Vander Ark, for his part, said he did what he could to help the schools open, suggesting they sign contracts with Connections Academy, a nonprofit cyberschool network that enrolls students who study from their homes, as well as with OpenEd Solutions. But the boards were not interested: connections was unfamiliar to them, and it was unclear why they would need both organizations.

Now, Brooklyn City Prep has lost its claim on the Marcy Avenue space, and is applying for a second planning year, with the hope of opening in 2012. Mr. Lawrence is still the principal, though he is not being paid. The two Newark high schools are also looking to 2012. All three boards are seeking new management organizations, and their members are no longer in contact with Mr. Vander Ark, who as chief executive of OpenEd Solutions travels the country evangelizing about online education and writes for the EdReformer blog.

“Now it’s all about finding a good Samaritan or a management organization that will get us to the next steps,” said Patrick Byrne, a former principal of a Newark parochial school, who worked for years on the Newark applications and is still trying to open the schools. “It doesn’t turn out like ‘The Music Man,’ where the uniforms and instruments appear at the end.”

The New York Times, July 14, 2011

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