Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Kentucky Should Consider Small, Nimble Charters

By Penney Sanders

The lazy days of summer have started early for me. I have been in vacation mode for several weeks-so now I am catching up and there are some surprises!

Last week I noted that some of KY’s political leaders had finally discovered Charter schools. After years of refusing to discuss charters and excoriating any person or group who dared suggest that such a discussion might be appropriate, Charters are now on the state’s education policy agenda. KY is coming to the party late and only because the Feds are probably going to require that any state receiving Stimulus or other federal funding must have, at the very least, charter legislation.

Once again, the motivation is the money, not that it might be the right thing to do or that it could be beneficial for students.

Charter Schools are neither a panacea for all educational ills nor the undoing of public schools. In fact, they are simply a public school operated under a different accountability structure. Some entity other than the school district holds the “Charter” and thus, the responsibility and accountability for the school’s performance. Think of them as a “hybrid.”

In most instances, employees in a Charter work without tenure. The Principal reports to the entity that holds the Charter as well as to the State and the school district. However, his/her ultimate accountability rests with the chartering authority.

Charters may adopt a longer school day or year. Some Charters offer a Saturday program as part of their regular curriculum. They may adopt discipline codes and academic expectations which could be more stringent than those of the school district.

Additionally, Charter schools select their students. As a result, significant and meaningful parent participation is generally a requirement.

My introduction to Charter Schools was several years ago when I did some consulting work in Indianapolis. At that time the Mayor of Indy, Bart Peterson, was very concerned about persistently low performing schools that served minority populations.

As a result of his concern and those of the business community, he created 10 Charter schools for the purpose of serving areas of the city that had low performing schools. Each of the Charter principals reported directly to the Mayor’s office.

Generally, the schools were staffed by relatively young teachers who were willing to forego their contractual guarantees to teach in these schools. For purposes of pension and other benefits, they remained “in the system”. Furthermore, the school received additional funding based on student achievement/improvement as measured by the ISTEP (Indiana’s annual assessment) and other indicators as identified by the Charter holder.

The major difference I noted between a “regular” public school and the Charter was in the annual accountability review. There were significant consequences for the school if students failed to make annual progress.

Operationally, I found the schools very lean and very focused. Generally, they were small, fewer than 300 students and designed to be responsive to the needs of the students. Because of their small size, they were quick to turn and make needed adjustments i.e. staff changes, moving a student to another grade, adding instructional materials or programs.

There are now 18 Charter schools in Indy including a KIPP school (Knowledge is Power Program) as well as a different mayor who has maintained and expanded city government’s involvement. Each school’s accountability report is on the City website.

Should KY decide to enable Charter schools. I doubt that we will see a Charter in every district. Nonetheless, a mayor, a civic group or a university could undertake creating a school and holding a Charter. This could be particularly effective in districts where there are persistently low performing schools.

Since KY will be one of the last states to adopt Charter legislation, we can benefit from the experience and mistakes of others. Model Charter programs exist in several cities. Perhaps we will choose to learn from the best.

Support for Charters is just one policy direction from the new administration.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, formerly Chancellor of the Chicago Schools, is a strong Charter advocate. The early indicators are that he will link funding to the availability of alternatives, specifically Charters and thus, KY’s sudden interest.

As the summer progresses, a clearer picture of President Obama’s education agenda will emerge. I will be most interested in the administration’s plans for persistently failing schools as well as the accountability measures for all schools and the consequences for leadership in schools that fail to meet standards(to be defined at some point).

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