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

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.