Category Archives: Charter schools

Change the charter school law to give students more options: A lesson from Virginia

Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran an editorial about charter school legislation in the Commonwealth in Virginia. The situation sounds fairly similar to what’s going on in Kansas. The Post has it right: If you wish to see more options available to students, expand the number of authorizers.

Here’s an excerpt:

WITHIN HOURS of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s announcement that he wants the state to be more welcoming to charter schools, there was expected pushback from critics who say Virginia already has some of the best schools in the country. They’re right — but that’s no reason to limit school innovation or to deny parents options for their children. Mr. McDonnell’s ambitious goals make sense for Virginia students, and the General Assembly should support them.

Fulfilling a campaign promise, Mr. McDonnell (R) unveiled a proposal last week that would, as The Post’s Anita Kumar reported, expand the number of charter schools by reforming the way the publicly funded but privately run schools are authorized. Currently, the power resides solely with local school boards, and because they see charters as competition they generally oppose them. The result is that Virginia has only three charters, as compared, for instance, with 58 in the District of Columbia.

As far as I know, Gov. McDonnell has not yet gotten his wish. But give him credit for making a proposal.

A grand experiment in New Orleans

What might happen if a city started its school system over from scratch? That’s not entirely a hypothetical question. New Orleans has offered something of a natural experiment after hurricane Katrina wiped out its schools, and much of everything else. Now, 60 percent of students attend a charter school.

In fact, the whole landscape is changed:  “Even in traditional schools, principals have unusual autonomy over the hiring—and firing—of teachers, since the city’s teachers’ union lost its collective-bargaining rights.”

How has this turned out? Newsweek concludes, “So far, the experiment appears to be working.” The percentage of students attending “failing” schools has been cut in half (though it still remains at a horrific one-third).

Everybody loves a convert

No surprise here, I suppose: The NEA has given the “Friend of Education” award to Diane Ravitch, an historian and one-time official in the Bush Administration. Ravitch was at one time an advocate of school choice and school charters, but has recently recanted her views.

Admittedly, this is old news, but I just saw it today.

For a contrary position, see this short article from the New York Post.

Bill Gates on charter schools

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and school-reform advocate, called for more charter schools, and for the tighter use of standards to close ones that aren’t performing up to expectations. From an EdWeek blog:

“The fact is the majority of children in the country are attending schools that don’t work for them. So it’s imperative that we take the risk to make change,” Gates said to the audience at the National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago. “Not just small change at the margin, but dramatic changes that are centered around the student. I believe the seeds of that new approach are being sown at those [high-performing charter] schools.”

He called for the elimination of state caps on charter schools, more equitable public funding for charters and better partnerships with school districts. The foundation this fall will announce a series of compacts between charters and district partners, he said.

Gates challenged charter school authorizers and managers to make sure charters are high-performing and to close those that don’t meet the bar after giving them a chance to improve.

How many students actually attend  schools that “don’t work for them” is an empirical question, but Gates is right otherwise. Charter schools, if freed from some of the constraints that typically tie traditional schools, can seek out ways of operating that work for the diversity of students that we have.

High-achieving charter schools

Here’s a list of charter schools that made the Newsweek list of top public schools in the country. Click on this link to open a one-page PDF.  If you’re having computer troubles, here’s an alternate though less-complete listing.

In schools marked with an asterisk (*), more than half the students qualify for free or subsidized school lunches.

BASIS Charter

Sturgis Charter Public

Peak to Peak Charter

Raleigh Charter

MATCH Charter *

Harding Charter Prep *

Animo Venice Charter *

Woods Charter

Charter School of Wilmington

Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy

Mystic Valley Regional Charter

Chamblee Charter

Mater Academy Charter *

Animo Leadership Charter *

Palisades Charter

Oscar de la Hoya Animo Charter *

Pembroke Pines Charter

Animo Inglewood Charter *

Cesar Chavez Charter-Capitol Hill *

Doral Academy Charter *

Charter Oak

Coral Academy of Science Charter

Charter schools shine on Newsweek list of top schools

In a newsletter, the Center for Education Reform points out that charter schools are gettting recognition for excellence:

CHARTERS TOPPING THE CHARTS. Newsweek’s annual ranking of US high schools is out, and once again, charters are disproportionately represented — in a good way. Charter schools represent fewer than five percent of all US high schools, but they land a 22 percent share of the top 50 spaces alone onNewsweek’s list. Obviously, they’re doing something right…

…OR NOT? Joining the chorus of the uninformed, Newsweek editorializes about the alleged failures of charter schools, citing as evidence one, well-rebuked study by a group known as CREDO, whose Stanford affiliation seems to impress reporters enough that they keep repeating the results as dogma, when in reality, there is nothing truthful about it. Newsweek fails the test of sound journalism by telling a one sided story that masks the real achievement in charters. Check out CER’s Daily Data Point for more about charter achievement.

I’ll pass on commenting on CREDO for now, other to say that poorly run schools ought to be closed, whether they are charter or traditional public schools. Unfortunately, traditional (non-charter) public schools rarely closed for poor management or performance.

The Newsweek list of high schools is based on “how hard school staffs work to challenge students with advanced placement college-level courses and tests.” That’s not necessarily the whole scope of a high school (not all students can or should go to college). But it’s noteworthy that charter schools get such a good representation on the list, since (a) they usually spend less money than traditional schools and (b) many of them explicitly focus on student populations (low-income, minority, single-parent families) that are not known for sending children to college.

Minnesota Redoes Charter School Law

Minnesota was the first state in the country to establish a charter-school law, and the state continues to be a leader in developing this supplemental approach to education.

Recently, Minnesota redid the way it regulates authorizers / sponsors, which are the organizations that are, in addition to the parents, responsible for ensuring the proper functioning of charter schools.

The tighter rules for authorizers mean that many organizations have dropped out of the authorization business.  According to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, “Only 13 organizations have applied to be authorizers under the new rules, down from 47 that currently oversee Minnesota’s 152 charter schools. Of those 13, the state has approved six. There are expected to be additional application rounds, but as it stands now, 118 charter schools need to find new authorizers by June 30, 2011.”

The first organization to charter a school is the Saint Paul Public Schools, which is now thinking of no longer being an authorizer. At least five other districts are thinking of doing the same. Right now, 18 districts also serve as authorizers, as do 14 colleges or universities, and various foundations.

The Saint Paul schools may invite its sponsored schools to become “self-governed schools,” a new designation under state law that gives schools more autonomy than a district school but less than a charter school.

A new list of charter schools in Kansas

I’ve compiled a list of charter schools in Kansas, based on what I can dig up on the web. As such, it’s a preliminary list that needs some more details. One thing that is striking is how “charter schools” in Kansas are a heterogeneous bunch. Some focus on students who are at risk of dropping out. Others might appeal to high achievers. Some are academic only, others use a career orientation. Some are face-to-face, others make use of virtual schooling technology. All of this diversity is good, but I fear that Kansas is not making sufficient use of the options made available by the idea of charter schools.

All schools should be like charter schools. But can they?

Hugoton Learning Academy, a school of USD 210, reprints an essay called “Public schools should experiment like charter schools.” Leave aside the fact that charter schools ARE public schools, the point is valid:

Nearly two decades of experience with charter schools have yielded some lessons in what works for improving student performance. There are easily perceptible patterns among the few charter school networks — KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Democracy Prep, Achievement First, and DC Prep among others — that have systematically yielded impressive (even miraculous) results with the most challenging students. Attributes of these schools include: exceptionally high goals, rigorous standards, frequent analysis of performance data, longer school days and years, firm discipline, willingness and ability to remove ineffective teachers, and uniform adherence among students, staff, and faculty to the school’s mission and community standards.

Marcus Winters, author of the piece, says “There is nothing inherent in the concept of ‘public’ that keeps public schools from adopting successful charter-school strategies.” One would hope, but I’m not sure. Non-charter public schools can easily get caught in the crossfire of political debates, which means that everything about the schools, from curriculum to personnel policies, is affected (if not driven) by what is best for adults, not students.

1.6 million students in charter schools

How many students are in charter schools across the country? 1.6 million, according to the National Association of Public Charter Schools.

Here’s the recent trend: UP.

The following table gives more details.

Charter school enrollment

Year States Students % of all public school enrollment
1999-2000 30 349,642 0.7%
2000-2001 34 458,664 1.0%
2001-2002 34 580,029 1.2%
2002-2003 36 666,038 1.4%
2003-2004 38 789,479 1.6%
2004-2005 40 897,643 1.8%
2005-2006 40 1,021,251 2.1%
2006-2007 40 1,163,414 2.4%
2007-2008 40 1,290,058 2.6%
2008-2009 40 1,439,749 2.9%
2009-2010 39 1,603,484 Not yet available

Now a few observations:

  • The first charter school in the country opened in 1992.
  • In the four school years between (and including) 1999-2000 and 2002-2003, the number of charter school students had nearly doubled.
  • Charter schools far outstrip tax credits or vouchers as the most common form of school choice.
  • Which state stopped having a charter school law in the 2009-2010 school year? Mississippi, which had regularly scored last or almost last in rankings of charter school laws.

Charter schools: Not all the same

The New York Times offers a take-down of charter public schools, saying, ”

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research. Last year one of the most comprehensive studies, by researchers from Stanford University, found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education and more than a third, 37 percent, were “significantly worse.”

Nearly two-thirds of charter schools do at least as well as comparable traditional schools. Considering that they typically do so with less money than traditional schools, that’s a pretty good record.

I have a empirical question that isn’t answered in the article. It says that 37 percent of charter schools performed “significantly worse,” while 20 percent “offered a better education.” How much better did that 20 percent offer, at what cost, and to how many students? If the successful schools enrolled more than 20 percent of charter school students, they’re doing more than we expect them to.

While charter schools share a few similarities–in the words of the Times, they are “publicly financed schools that are independently run and free to experiment in classrooms”–they’re remarkably dissimilar in dissimilar ways, as the Times acknowledges. Traditional public schools show wide variation, too.

EduWonk offers some quick reactions to the article. The Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group, reacts to the report that is the hook for the article in the Times. I may update this list as I come across more reactions.

The most serious challenge that I saw in the NYT piece is this: Can the record of successful charter schools be widely replicated, or are there natural limits to how large the idea can scale up?

Meanwhile, it’s not as if the schools that enroll the 97 percent of non-charter public schools are uniformly doing such a great job that we need to strangle charter schools.

Inner-city charter school sends all graduates to college

All of the members of a school’s graduating class have been accepted to four-year colleges.

What school is this? An expensive, elite, country-club private school in an exclusive suburb? No. It’s Urban Prep Charter School, in some of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods–a school where 4 percent of the members of the  graduating class read at grade level in their freshman year.

Amanda Paulson wrote a story about this school for the Christian Science Monitor, seeking to offer some clues to the schools success.

One clue is in the name of the school: Urban Prep is a charter school. Not all charter schools are excellent–some should be shut down, in keeping with the concept of charter schools–but the charter status grants some advantages.

Urban Prep students spend more time in school, though seat time alone isn’t enough. Paulson says that many more elements of the school’s success “seem embedded in a culture based on … ritual, respect, responsibility, and relationships.”

  • Ritual: Students–all men–must wear ties and jackets.
  • Respect: Students are called by their last names.
  • Responsibility: Students have public service requirements.
  • Relationships: Teachers are accessible to students by phone on evening and weekends.

There’s a key structural element, too: “It operates outside union rules.”

There are some questions of whether Urban Prep’s success can be replicated on a large scale–it requires a lot of teachers, for one thing–but it’s worthy of commendation. Can we see a thousand Urban Preps blossom?

The record on charter schools

Paul E. Peterson lays out the record of charter schools in a recent op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal.

They respond to popular interest:

As compared to district schools, they have numerous advantages. They are funded by governments, but they operate independently. This means that charters must persuade parents to select them instead of a neighborhood district school. That has happened with such regularity that today there are 350,000 families on charter-school waiting lists, enough to fill over 1,000 additional charter schools.

According to a 2009 Education Next survey, the public approves of steady charter growth. Though a sizeable portion of Americans remain undecided, charter supporters outnumber opponents two to one. Among African Americans, those who favor charters outnumber opponents four to one. Even among public-school teachers, the percentage who favor charters is 37%, while the percentage who oppose them is 31%.

Are these parents simply being hoodwinked? What about performance?

Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University’s Thomas Kane have conducted randomized experiments that compare students who win a charter lottery with those who applied but were not given a seat. Winners and losers can be assumed to be equally motivated because they both tried to go to a charter school. Ms. Hoxby and Mr. Kane have found that lottery winners subsequently scored considerably higher on math and reading tests than did applicants who remained in district schools.

In another good study, the RAND Corp. found that charter high school graduation rates and college attendance rates were better than regular district school rates by 15 percentage points and eight percentage points respectively.

He also mentions two studies that have less than stellar reviews of charter schools:

Instead of taking seriously these high quality studies, charter critics rely heavily on a report released in 2004 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT is hardly a disinterested investigator, and its report makes inappropriate comparisons and pays insufficient attention to the fact that charters are serving an educationally deprived segment of the population. Others base their criticism of charters on a report from an ongoing study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo), which found that there are more weak charter schools than strong ones. Though this report is superior to AFT’s study, its results are dominated by a large number of students who are in their first year at a charter school and a large number of charter schools that are in their first year of operation.

In other words, the report looks at schools that aren’t representative of charters as an ongoing phenomenon. Kansas, on the other hand, has charter schools in name only. It’s time for the state to give these schools true freedom so that they’re more than the red-headed stepchildren of school districts.

Charter Schools: Guilt by Association in Alabama

To its credit, the Obama Administration is encouraging states to make more use of charter schools, through its Race to the Top initiative, which awards grants to states on a competitive basis.

Kansas, with its stunted laws on charter schools that inhibit their use, was not one of the recent finalists.

I have some friends in Alabama who are trying to get that state to enact a charter-school law. Currently, it has none.

They tell me of a remarkable commercial that is currently running on television these days. I tried to find a copy of it on YouTube, but was unsuccessful, so I’ll have to describe it.

Simply put, it’s an anti-charter law that repeats the standard talking points that charter schools “don’t work” [they do for some students, not others–just like traditional public schools] and that they “drain money from public schools” [note that charter schools ARE public schools].

But the Race to the Top fund puts charter school opponents a new angle. It portrays the push for charter schools as the work of “Chicago-style politics” practiced by the Obama Administration.

Now, I’m not a fan of the president or of most of his policies, or even of the federal government having a large role in education. But if we do have a federal department, let’s put it to good use, and encouraging states to have charter schools is a good use.

Portraying charter schools as a tool of the Obama Administration is doubtless smart politics in Alabama, a state that is staunchly Republican.  But it’s also inaccurate, and wildly so. Some charter school supporters are Republicans, others are Democrats. Some are free-marketers, others are skeptics of the market. And in any case, the first charter school was launched (in Minnesota) in 1992, so the idea of charter schools–public schools with more freedom to move than the traditional public school–predate the current administration.

But no matter. The decision on whether to allow charter schools, like many things involving schooling, is a political beast, and politics is a nasty sport.

Improved Performance Leads to Increased Parental Demand for Charter Schools

If parents are given school choice, will they select the schools with the best sports teams and snazziest physical plants–or will they focus on academics?

James VanderHoff looked at charter schools in New Jersey to answer that question. Charter schools are public schools that supplement the traditional public school. For a variety of reasons, VanderHoff looked at not merely the attitudes of parents who have children in a charter school, but parents who want to get their children into a charter school, but can’t.

As it turns out, New Jersey is a good test case, since it is the only state to report on the wait lists at each charter school. Yes, there’s such a demand for charter schools–free, public schools–that many parents put their children on a waiting list.

“The value parents place on charter schools,” VanderHoff writes, which is “measured by the number of students on an admission wait lists, depends primarily on their academic effectiveness, measured by test scores.”

If a charter school increases its test scores by 10 percent, its waiting list will increase by 60 to 100 percent.

VanderHoff makes clear that not all charter schools are equal. Some do well, and others do not. Not surprisingly, “the research results on the effectiveness of such schools has been mixed.” So too has been the research on whether charter schools improve (through the force of competition for students) the performance of nearby traditional public schools.

You can read VanderHoff’s report (PDF) in the Fall 2008 issue of the Cato Journal.

New Resource on Charter Schools

We’ve created a new page–charter school law.  It has the most relevant Kansas statutes relating to charter schools. Charter schools exist in Kansas, but in name only.

New Evidence that Charter Schools Boost Achievement

Jay P. Greene has assembled some evidence that charter schools improve student performance.

S. Carolina Principal Bars Charter School from Contacting Students

From the Cato Institute:

The people who work in and run our district school systems are just like you and me. They are guided to a great extent by their own and their families’ interests. If they think charter schools are better, and will lure away many of their prospective students, they fear that their own jobs will be put in jeopardy. So they work to protect those jobs by making it more difficult for their students to find out about the charter school alternative.

The commentary stems from the case of school district officials in South Carolina refusing charter school officials to have access to their students. One wonders if the same thing might happen in Kansas should charter schools actually gain the ability to become independent entities rather than captive programs of school districts.

An Interview with the Director of “Flunked”

Bob Weeks, editor of Wichita Liberty, has an interview with the director of “Flunked,” which was recently shown in Wichita. It’s a good review of the qualities that make charter schools work.

Among the points:

  • Charter schools do not “skim the cream;” instead, they accept students by lottery.
  • High expectations are key.
  • “We need to empower parents. And the one way you can really empower parents is to give them some choices. Charter schools do that. Charter schools are not the silver bullet. Let me say that right up front. There are some charter schools that don’t work. But here’s the important thing and the really good news: When charter schools fail, they go away! It’s great! When the regular traditional school fails, it just stays there.”

Innovation in Charter School Management

The U.S. Department of Education offers up a story about an innovative company that manages charter schools (PDF). Public charter schools, by virtue of being different from traditional public schools, are more likely to pursue new ways of doing things.

Charter School Facilities Grants

The U.S. Department of Education gives states money that they can in turn distribute to charter schools or their capital needs. Only a few of the schools get this money, but it can go to good use. The Education Innovator, a publication of the department, gave a profile of some schools in Minnesota that used such funds. You can read the story on the Department of Education web site (PDF).

A Charter School Story

While not every charter school is superior to every traditional school, a charter school is more free, both legally and in its internal culture, to find innovative ways to excel. The U.S. Department of Education tells the story [PDF]  of one charter school in Georgia. Originally a traditional public school, the International Studies Elementary Charter School became an award-winning charter school in the No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon Schools program.

A New Charter School for KCK

The Maurice R. Holman Academy of Excellence opened its doors recently. It’s the first charter school in Kansas City, Kansas.

Correct that. It’s the first charter school OF the KCK district.

Odd, yes. In most states, charter schools are independent public schools that have been authorized by the state board of education, a four-year college or a state board of education for charter schools. In other words, they stand as separate organizations, serving students with the same legal independence that traditional school districts have.

But in Kansas, charter schools aren’t independent. They’re legal and financial creatures of the school district that agrees to permit them to exist. In other words, they’re a gussied-up version of an alternative school.

Not exactly the model of what makes some charter schools work so well elsewhere.

As for the new school,

“According to a press release from the district, the mission of the school is “to provide self-paced, performance-based learning with an emphasis on core knowledge, civic responsibility and entrepreneurship.”

Source: Charter school up and running, Kansas City Kansan.


The Wichita Eagle takes note of Flunked the Movie, recently shown in Wichita. The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy was one of the sponsors. Contrary to what you might think from the title, the movie isn’t entirely about schools that fail and why they fail. It also shows some schools–unconventional schools–that are working and succeeding.

It has this interesting piece of information:

“But school board president Lynn Rogers said if people vote against the bond issue hoping to expand school choice, “it’d probably take a constitutional amendment” to accomplish it.

Kansas law has rules limiting the formation of charter schools and doesn’t provide money for school vouchers or tax credits.”

Kansas law on charter schools is very restrictive, as we have pointed out. Unlike charter schools in some other states, Kansas charter schools have no financial or legal independence from school districts. That dependence–something that not every school district would want–works counter to the independence that is inherent in the concept of charter schools. Kansans should develop a strong charter school sector, and one step towards that end is changing the law so that entities other than school districts–perhaps universities, perhaps an independent state board of education for charter schools–are authorized to grant and oversee charter schools. That step would require a change in law–but not a constitutional amendment.

As for whether a voucher or tax credit arrangement would require a change in the constitution, opinions differ. See, for example, this testimony (PDF) given before the Kansas Legislature.

A Key to Better Charter School Performance

When the laws governing charter schools allow for a diversity of authorizers, charter schools tend to have stronger academic performance. That’s the conclusion of the Center for Education Reform in this (PDF) report.