First Person

Establishing standards for charter school authorizers

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Alex Medler, vice president of research and evaluation at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).

Readers of Education News Colorado are accustomed to fights over charter schools.  The decisions to approve or close charter schools in Colorado are made by school districts and Colorado’s Charter School Institute. Their decisions are based on the work they do in their roles as authorizers.

Collectively, the practices of Colorado’s charter school authorizers may be less than compelling news.  But their work is crucial to shaping the degree of quality and innovation that families find in our charter schools.

For the last couple of years, Colorado has been engaged in serious discussions about the standards that ought to apply to charter schools and to charter school authorizers.  I had the privilege of chairing a statutorily-created commission that met for a year to discuss these standards. In August, the 1412 Commission, as it is known, forwarded recommendations to the legislature and the State Board of Education.  The Commission had recommendations for both charter schools and their authorizers, but I will focus my commentary today on the standards proposed for authorizers.

Part of the impetus for this commission’s work came from frustration over the appeals before the State Board of Education regarding charter denials and revocations.  Parties on both sides complained that when a school was closed or an applicant denied, it was hard for the board members to know if the district had given it a fair review.

Instead of arguing whether a school was succeeding or failing, or if a group of applicants were likely to succeed, people wondered whether the district had acted fairly and wisely.

Partially to help settle questions like that, the 1412 Commission recommended that the state adopt a set of industry standards for charter school authorizing that were created by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).  These Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing, which are currently in the proposed State Board rules, reflect a national consensus on best practices in authorizing. They were developed over the last ten years by NACSA, which created them by convening and working with entities all over the country trying to support a quality charter school movement.

The practices recommended in these standards balance the core principles required of all good authorizers.  Authorizers must maintain high standards, while protecting school autonomy as well as the public interest and students’ rights.

When authorizers do a good job of implementing practices that comply with these standards, they will have a much better sense of which applicants deserve to be approved, and which schools need to close.  They will also be much more convincing when they try to defend those decisions. And equally important, charter schools will have the space they need to focus on their own work.

Having chaired a year’s worth of hearty debates, I can assure you that the 1412 Commission included a diverse group of stakeholders representing charter schools, districts and traditional public schools, parents, teachers, and other people who care about these issues. It was jointly staffed by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

When Colorado officially adopts these standards, as I hope it will, our state will have made a solid step in the direction of de-politicizing the most important decisions around charter schools.  But there will be more work ahead of us.

 

As with any set of standards, establishing them is just the first part. Next we have to figure out how to act on them.  That will take work, time, political commitment, and resources.

NACSA recently released a study that grades the nation’s authorizers on a 12-point Index of Essential Practices.  The index is based on NACSA’s Principles & Standards.  Taking data from more than 120 authorizers who responded to our 2011 survey of authorizers, the study reports whether each authorizer implements each of the recommended practices.  Knowing that the work in Colorado was underway, we intentionally sampled all the authorizers in Colorado.  The specific answers of Colorado’s Charter School Institute and more than 20 school districts are included in the final report.

The authorizers that responded to our survey have joined this effort to strengthen authorizing by their first step of showing what they do.  They all deserve credit for sharing their current practices.

As you might expect, Colorado’s authorizers are all over the map. Some, like Denver Public Schools, do almost everything on the list.  Others do not fare so well.  It is NACSA’s hope that people will use that data constructively to begin or renew efforts at establishing quality authorizing programs across the state.

Some will look at the results and suggest that some authorizers have tried to get credit for practices they don’t do — or that they don’t really do very well.  It does matter how well people implement each of these practices.  So in the long-run, more important than the specific answers to the NACSA survey are the steps we take in the months ahead.

In the meantime, this report provides a starting point.   Authorizers and others should ask, which of these practices do we need to put in place?  And of those we already implement, how can we do them better?

NACSA has resources to help in this effort.  And Colorado is in many respects a national leader because of the collaborative efforts of the CDE, the charter school league and the Charter School Institute to create model materials that authorizers can use to improve their practices.  These model materials, as well as the state’s Charter School Support Initiative, were all recommended by the 1412 Commission as tools that authorizers should adopt for their own use.

Charter schools are an important part of Colorado’s public education system. These schools and some of the challenges they raise for districts are here to stay.  Hopefully, by clarifying how authorizers should operate, we can focus more of our efforts on creating high-quality schools and spend a little less time preparing for political drama.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.