DFER's Blog - Public Charter Schools
An Important Day for Public Schools in WA State
November 25, 2013
By Lisa Macfarlane, DFER-WA State Director
Last Friday marked an important milestone for Washington parents who want high-quality public school options for their children and for the Evergreen State’s public charter school movement. When the bell rang for the first round of charter school proposals at 5:00 PST, a total of 22 charter school applications from deeply committed educators, parents, and community leaders had been submitted to the Washington State Charter School Commission and the Spokane School District.
It is so exciting to read the plans of some of our state and country’s most visionary school and community leaders who want more than anything else to give underserved kids a quality public school education. I am incredibly optimistic about what this could mean for many of our students: more opportunities to succeed.
Coincidentally, last Friday was also the day of oral arguments in WEA’s case challenging the constitutionality of public charter schools in our state. It is a telling juxtaposition. On one side were the educators and parents submitting hundred-plus-page applications on the heels of thousands of advocates working tirelessly to improve our education system through the passage of I-1240. On the other side were a few detractors of positive social change recycling the same arguments against public charter schools that courts around the country have already rejected.
We are confident that our public charter school law (ranked third strongest in the country) will pass constitutional muster at the trial court level and at the Supreme Court level, where the case will be ultimately decided.
Although Washington State has many excellent schools, thousands of low-income and minority children are not getting the high quality educational opportunities they need and deserve. For example, roughly a third of all Hispanic students in Washington state scored “below basic” - the lowest possible level - in eighth grade math on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress; only 13% of white, non-Hispanic students scored below basic. The gaps are similar for other groups of high-risk students in other grades and subjects; moreover, gaps remain about the same size as those fifteen years ago. The establishment of first-rate public charter schools in our state will offer new, high-quality public school options for those kids struggling in traditional public schools.
The approval process for the first batch of public charters in the state will be highly competitive, with 22 applications for only eight slots. Now it is up to the Washington State Charter School Commission and the Spokane School District to fulfill their enormous responsibility to determine which eight schools will best serve our underserved kids.
I am confident that the nine charter school commissioners and five Spokane school board members will take their charge of approving strong applications and denying weak or incomplete ones very seriously. In the weeks ahead, they will be evaluating the merits of each application carefully. At the same time, the judge in the case will be weighing the arguments on the constitutionality of our charter school law and could issue a ruling before the end of the year.
We are confident that the parties involved in both the administrative and judicial decision-making process will do so in service of the best interests of Washington’s schoolchildren.
Lisa Macfarlane is the Washington State Director for Democrats for Education Reform, a co-founder of the League of Education Voters, a past President of Schools First (Seattle's levy and bond committee), the sponsor of two statewide education funding initiatives, and a PCO in the 46th District. Read Lisa's full bio here.
How well (or poorly) are Milwaukee's charter schools doing?
October 2, 2013
By Jarett Fields, DFER-WI State Director
“Improvement is necessary in many of Milwaukee’s independent charter schools,” announces a recent Education Week article on the release of state report card data. The article makes an argument—echoed elsewhere—that the school report cards show that the independent charter schools, also known as 2r charters, are failing to live up to expectations.
Wisconsin’s report cards offer parents a snapshot of school performance through student achievement on the two Wisconsin standardized assessments, the WKCE and the WAA. On the surface, the claim in Education Week is right: as measured by the state accountability system, several 2r charters do not meet expectations. But this hasty argument neglects some important information about the context surrounding Milwaukee’s independent charter sector.
In contrast to the average school in Wisconsin, the average 2r charter school in Milwaukee serves considerably more black and low-income students. In making its claim, Education Week is comparing apples and oranges by measuring 2r charters against state norms. If we look more closely at the data, a very different story emerges.
Yes, compared to the average performance across Wisconsin, Milwaukee’s independent charter schools do struggle—but compared to their peer schools, they exceed the average and often by considerable margins. In fact, the number of 2r charters meeting expectations, according to the DPI report card, is 50% higher than Milwaukee’s traditional public schools.
The success of many 2r charters in Milwaukee is encouraging but it is much too soon to celebrate. Though gains in proficiency have outpaced district schools, they can still continue to improve a great deal. Few 2r charters have been able to get more than 80 percent of their students proficient in math and reading which is critical to future college success. Moreover, Milwaukee’s independent charter schools serve lower percentages of English language learners and students with disabilities.It’s not clear whether this occurs because of better instruction (students are removed from the English language learner list if they become proficient) or because of selection and expulsion pressures.
All the same, many of these charters are exceeding the unfortunate level of performance that Milwaukee’s parents have come to expect of the city’s schools. It is a critical component of education reform to ensure that quality options for families - schools that meet or exceed expectations - remain open and expand to serve more kids.
Painting schools with a broad brush, as many articles are doing about the outcomes of Milwaukee’s independent charters right now, only serves to distort the charter image. There are many excellent 2r charters in Wisconsin, and there are others that fall below expectations. When compared to the surrounding schools in Milwaukee, these schools are posting above average gains. They meet and exceed the expectations of their students and families. For schools that fail to meet expectations, it is imperative that authorizers close those schools. This way, 2r charters can lead the way in innovation and accountability.
Jarett Fields is an education specialist with a passion for community engagement. For the past ten years, Jarett has worked to increase the number of college graduates by building sustainable programs at the higher education level. Professionally, he has worked to build pathways of success for students at UCLA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Read more about Jarett here.
When Being Consistent is Actually Pretty Inconsistent
September 25, 2013
By Domenic Giandomenico, Legislative Director
For-profits—whether in higher education or K-12—have long been one of the biggest flashpoints in the education policy debate. It’s tough to spend any significant amount of time working in education without encountering some pretty strong opinions on the topic.
There are many people on the reform side—even those without a direct financial interest—that tout the presence of for-profits as being either a good thing or, at a minimum, neutral. The argument goes that for-profits add an element of competition that should lift all boats and give students the chance to choose their own path (aka free market principles). They also argue that these companies work harder to find economic efficiencies or innovations that could be applied to all schools (aka profit motivation), and thus can be useful in finding ways to stretch the ever-shrinking education dollar even further.
The flip side of this position is that for-profits are inherently evil. The same profit motivation that one side touts is said by the other to do nothing more than vacuum out money that should be going back into schools. As such, they fail to serve their students’ interests in favor of serving their own.
To be sure, I’ve dumbed down the arguments for and against a great deal for the sake of brevity. But to be fair to myself, they’re both dumb arguments in the first place. Each of these opinions can be valid in certain circumstances, and likewise, they can both be downright idiotic in certain circumstances. That’s because the truth of the issue is that it can, and does in many instances, work both ways.
There are plenty of for-profits that do, in fact, serve their students very well. In Michigan, for example, a February 2013 study showed that public charter schools run by for-profits tended to perform better or equal to their non-profit peers. The opposite can be observed in New Jersey, where Education Commissioner Chris Cerf drew both praise and criticism for his decision to deny a charter to K12—a for-profit, online education provider—but questions have arisen nonetheless about the cost and quality of services that K12 provides to a charter school in Newark.
So what’s the real problem here? In a nutshell, it’s laziness. On one extreme, people scream bloody murder when traditional public schools are shut down for failing students while calling for a bloodletting of for-profits in education. On the other extreme, people cheer for the closure of failing traditional public schools while defending failing for-profits to the ends of the earth. Neither is a particularly clever policy position and each is utterly indefensible from any rational point of view. But it is really easy (and maybe even cathartic) to grunt “non-profit good, for-profit bad!” or “free markets forever!” without placing more than a second’s thought into it.
At least their consistency in message can be pretty admirable, if not intelligent. But their arguments are incredibly at odds with what is allegedly their bigger picture objective: doing what’s best for our kids. The only thing that should matter here is whether or not students are being provided an excellent education, regardless of the vehicle it takes to give it to them.
The only meaningful solution to the dilemma posed by for-profits—or any other kind of school—is accountability that is meaningful, objective, and applicable to ALL actors, regardless of where the money goes. No school that fails its students should operate with impunity. No school that does an admirable job of raising student achievement should be punished.
A well-structured accountability system—founded on rigorous standards and measured by adaptive assessments that reward actual learning rather than memorization—can do what’s necessary in identifying the good actors and the bad. We merely have to have the fortitude and the political will to act upon what it tells us, regardless of how the school is managed or where the money goes. If we’re consistent in doing that, the for-profit vs. non-profit battle would either quickly melt away or expose itself for what it is: a battle over money, not what’s best for students.
Domenic Giandomenico joined Democrats for Education Reform in 2013 after devoting more than a decade of his career to ensuring that every student of every age, background, and aspiration has access to the excellent education they deserve. Read his full bio here.
DFER-WA releases statement on applications for charter schools in WA
September 23, 2013
Lisa Macfarlane | 206.369.2171 | email@example.com
Devin Boyle | 202.445.0416 | firstname.lastname@example.org
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 23rd, 2013 - Democrats for Education Reform Washington (DFER-WA) released the following statement today:
“Today’s news that both the Washington State Charter School Commission and the Spokane School District have posted their respective public charter school application materials is great news for Washington’s children and families,” says Lisa Macfarlane, Washington State Director for Democrats for Education Reform.
Washington’s charter school law, ranked the third strongest in the country, emphasizes quality. Macfarlane notes, “This will be a competitive process. The bar was set high because we want to open great schools for at risk kids who need more public school options.”
Charter schools are a type of public school, and like all public schools, they do not charge tuition, they are open to all children, and they are publicly funded. In exchange for greater accountability for showing improved student achievement, teachers and principals in public charter schools are given more flexibility to customize their teaching methods and curriculum.
About Democrats for Education Reform
Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is a political action committee with 13 state offices whose mission is to encourage a more productive dialogue within the Democratic Party on the need to fundamentally reform American public education. DFER operates at all levels of government to educate elected officials and support reform-minded candidates for public office.
(For more information, read this AP article by Donna Gordon Blankinship)
If There's No Learning, There's No Teaching
August 8, 2013
By Mac LeBuhn, Policy Analyst
Originally posted on Teachers for Education Reform
During a professional development session I attended several years ago while teaching, someone offered me advice that I've carried with me throughout my career: "If there's no learning in a classroom, there's no teaching." And, if this is true, surely its correlate is true: if there is a lot of learning, there must be a lot of teaching.
There are few cities where more teaching is going on than in Washington, D.C. Over the past ten years, students have been on a roll at the District of Columbia Public Schools, with each class improving its average performance on the previous year's at a more rapid rate than any other state in the country. Last week, the DCPS website released a celebratory press release: "DCPS Students Achieve at Highest Levels Ever in Recent History."
But what changed in DC public schools to account for this improvement? To better understand what brought about these gains, let's start by reviewing the timeline in two five-year periods: from 2002 to 2007 and from 2008 to 2013.
2002 to 2007: If DC reform is viewed over a ten-year period, it starts with a low point. In 2003, student outcomes were so poor that Congress took action to offer students in the city a route out of its public schools through the DC School Choice Incentive Act of 2003. The Act provided vouchers to students who wanted to leave DCPS altogether for a private school of their choice in the District. Alongside abysmal student test scores and significant mismanagement, it would not be an overstatement to say the future of public schooling in DC at this time was in jeopardy.
As educators worked to improve DC classrooms, sweeping reforms of the system began with an education bill passed in 2007. Known as the Education Reform Act - no one said DC policymakers earned points for creativity during this process - the bill transferred control of DCPS to then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. Yet this shift in governance only became well-known after Mayor Fenty announced the woman who would control the District's schools: Michelle Rhee.
2008 to 2013: In 2008, her first year as chancellor, Rhee closed 21 schools, fired 36 principals and brought on a world of criticism. (She did not help matters either, posing in a classroom with a broom on the cover of Time magazine.) In spite of the controversy surrounding her management of DCPS, she pushed through reforms to the teacher evaluation, development and recruitment systems. After two years in her role, Rhee's tenure ended in 2010 when Fenty lost the election to DC's current mayor, Vincent Gray.
Vincent Gray named Kaya Henderson as Rhee's replacement. With a different management style and tone, Henderson has largely extended Rhee's changes: she's continued efforts to strengthen DCPS' teaching force while also leading the nation in implementing Common Core in DC's schools.
The announcement from DCPS earlier this week can be viewed, in part, as the dividends on the ten years of investments into improving DC's schools. Those gains are evident elsewhere: since 2003, students in DC public schools have made greater progress on the NAEP than any other region in the country. District students added nearly 50 points on their composite NAEP score, far outperforming the national average gain of 20 points.
In this case, more learning is clearly evidence of more teaching. Although many of the reforms in DC's schools were controversial at the time, today's evidence speaks for itself. District of Columbia Public Schools have never been so set up for teaching and success as they are today.
Mac LeBuhn is a policy analyst at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Before joining DFER, Mac was a fourth grade teacher at Rocketship Si Se Puede, a charter school in San Jose, CA. He became involved in education policy through internships at the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston. Read more about Mac here.