Some cuts, cash in budget deal

John Fensterwald co-authored Buy cialis pills this article.

Legislative leaders protected most student financial aid in the Cal Grants program and preserved status quo funding for charter schools in the budget deal announced yesterday between Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The agreement comes less than a week after legislators approved a $92 billion spending plan that eliminated some of the governor’s biggest education proposals, including his plan to switch the entire school finance system to a weighted student funding formula.

Few details were revealed from the agreement announced yesterday; Senate staff members said the specific language of the budget trailer bills would be written over the weekend and taken up in the budget committee on Monday. A floor vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

Staff confirmed that the bills would not raise the eligibility for Cal Grants, the $1.5 billion student aid program. Brown recommended raising the grade point average (GPA) required for the Cal Grant A program from 3.0 to 3.25, and increasing the GPA for Cal Grant B awards from 2.0 to 2.75.

Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity and a board member on the California Student Aid Commission, said taking the GPA increases off the table is “absolutely a great thing for students,” because the proposal threatened to shift the core value of Cal Grants from a need-based scholarship into a merit-based program.

The Campaign for College Opportunity sent a letter to the governor last week opposing that and two other recommendations: reducing the Cal Grant award by 40 percent for new and continuing students attending independent nonprofit colleges in California, and linking Cal Grant eligibility to federal standards for the Pell Grant program. The budget deal reportedly contains neither of those proposals.

However, students attending private, for-profit colleges may want to check their schools’ graduation and loan default rates. The Legislature did accept Brown’s bid to crack down on so-called diploma mills, private for-profit institutions, by withholding Cal Grants from these schools for one year if their graduation rate falls below 30 percent or their student loan default rate is 15 percent or higher. That could affect more than 80 postsecondary institutions, according to an analysis conducted for the Student Aid Commission.

“It says to colleges, especially if they’re going to charge a lot of money, that students should be getting a lot of value for that money,” said Siqueiros, adding that means getting a job that pays enough to pay back the loan.

Brown has charter schools’ backs

Brown has persuaded legislative leaders to restore an unexpected $50 million cut to charter schools that they approved in passing the state budget last week. The cut would have been $100 to $112 per charter student and would have widened a funding gap between charters and district schools.

But charter leaders will be holding their breath until the agreement  is written into the language of a trailer bill and it becomes a done deal.

The money is for the block grant that charters get in lieu of small, restricted amounts of money for special purposes known as categorical programs. In his budget, Brown flat-funded the block program but included an additional $50 million to accommodate what the Department of Finance is projecting to be a 15.5 percent increase in charter school attendance next year, compared with less than 1 percent more in district schools.

The surge in enrollment reflects not only additional schools but also schools adding grades and more students per class to cope with budget cuts, said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. Over the last four years, the average charter school has grown from 360 to 400 students.

Earlier this year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated that charter schools received 7 percent or $395 per student less than district schools, including $150 per student less in categorical funding. That difference would have increased to $260 per student without the $50 million growth factor.

“Our members were very vocal about this,” Wallace said. “It looks as though funding will be restored, and we appreciate this.”

Brown, who was a creator of two charter schools while mayor of Oakland, has become a protector of charters as governor.

Charters, ed groups at odds

The Education Coalition, the organization that represents mainstream education groups, announced its opposition Thursday to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to require a school district to offer charter schools any building that it decides it no longer needs.

The proposal is one of several that the governor included in his May budget revision to benefit charters, which, the budget notes, receive lower state reimbursements than district schools and generally face higher facilities costs. But the Coalition noted that selling surplus property and using the proceeds for general fund purposes is “one of the few ways districts have mitigated cuts.”

“This proposal comes at a time when school districts have taken over $20 billion in cuts over the past several years,” the Coalition statement said. “This proposal would eliminate this flexibility and remove a valuable tool districts have to sell surplus property and use the proceeds to minimize cuts in programs and services for students.”

The Coalition’s members include teachers unions, the state PTA, the California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California Association of School Business Officials.

The charter school community views the issue differently. By law, districts are required to offer charter schools comparable facilities. Instead, they are offering inadequate facilities to charters while at the same time consolidating buildings and putting them on the market for lease or sale, said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento.

Added Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, “Surplus property is very important to charters. What we don’t want is a mechanism by which districts can resist offering facilities,  then offload them by another mechanism.”

Brown had raised this idea in the January budget. In the May revision this week, he clarified that the provision would apply only to buildings that were funded with state money. It wasn’t clear from the budget message whether the provision would apply to school construction and renovation for any amount. Dennis Myers, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association, said it also wasn’t clear if the provision would apply only to charters approved by the host district or any charter school that wants a building.

The Ed Coalition is proposing that charters, like other local entities, be required to submit an offer to buy a surplus building.

A report this year by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that charters on average receive $395 per student (7 percent) less in state funding  than district schools, primarily because of differences in categorical grants that they receive and the additional costs that many charter schools face with buildings. Those charters in California serving low-income, minority students are expected to fare better under Brown’s weighted student formula, although Brown is also proposing that a charter school receive no more per student than the amount going to the district in which it’s located.

Turning surplus property over to charter schools could encourage parent groups facing the closing of their neighborhood school to start a charter school. That’s what happened in Los Altos, where parents started Bullis Charter School; the parents and the district fought in court over district facilities for years, until earlier this month, when they finally reached an agreement to provide Bullis its own campus. But the new requirement also could result in a more straightforward process, and more of a fair shake for existing charters that have been leasing buildings outside of the district.

Brown is also proposing two other provisions for charters:

  • County treasurers will have the authority to lend to charters as they have for school districts. Because the state has delayed payment of billions of dollars owed to schools, charters have had to borrow money in the private market at double-digit interest rates. Some districts have turned to county treasurers, which can pool borrowing at low interest. Some treasurers had questioned whether they legally could include charters.
  • Non-classroom-based charters, whether online schools or blended learning schools with both on-site and online instruction, will no longer have to go before the State Board of Education to receive full funding. Doing so has been a time-consuming, bureaucratic process for the charters and the State Board, which is striving to devote more time to policies and less to charter school oversight. Non-classroom-based charters, which number about 160 in the state, will still have to comply with a lot of regulations to get full funding, including instruction by California certificated teachers and a student-teacher ratio not exceeding 24:1, according to Premack.

Desert Trails parents won’t let adults’ deceit deny their kids a great school

The parents of Desert Trails Elementary want what all parents want: a great school for their children. Over the past few years they started a PTA chapter at their school, they joined the official school committees, they volunteered, and they spent extra time helping with homework. They did everything the system tells parents to do, and still, they find themselves today trapped in a school ranked the worst elementary school in their entire district and in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state.

So last June they decided to organize on behalf of their children. They formed their own Parents Union chapter, engaged their community, and organized for seven months to collect historic Parent Trigger signatures representing 70 percent of the parents in an effort to transform their failing school. But with their new power, the parents sought collaboration, not confrontation.

Their first proposal after announcing their supermajority wasn’t an outside charter school operator or an unprecedented departure from the status quo. It was rooted in a modest union contract modification to create a framework for accountability based on reform contracts that National Education Association affiliates have signed in districts across America, including in the LAUSD. Even more recently, parents introduced an innovative new Partnership School model that calls for parents, teachers, and district officials to share power and collaborate on a kids-first agenda.

The Desert Trails Parent Union seeks collaboration because they know we can’t have great schools without great teachers. The parents understand that a kids-first agenda is good for parents and kids, but also good for good teachers. It’s good for kids if teachers are paid a lot more money. It’s even good for kids if we raise taxes to do it, as CTA and CFT are rightly calling for on the November ballot. It’s good for kids if teachers are respected, empowered, and not micromanaged by a bureaucrat who’s never met their kids or set foot in their classroom. It’s even good for kids if teachers are unionized and have basic workplace protections. But it’s also good for kids if teachers – as well as all other grown-ups, including parents – are held accountable for student performance. Parents have strong disagreements with the California Teachers Association about the issue of accountability. But we also broadly agree on a whole host of other critical issues.

Instead of collaboration, harassment

Unfortunately, in its final opportunity to collaborate with parents, the district denied parents their constitutional right to petition based on an illegal “rescission” process riddled with lies, harassment, and forgery. The defenders of the status quo have proven themselves willing to cross moral, ethical, even legal and constitutional boundaries in a desperate attempt to defend an indefensible status quo.

Ultimately, parents got what they expected: adults willing to do whatever it took to retain power at the expense of kids. We have no idea who forged CTA’s “rescission” petitions. That is for the courts to figure out. But we do know for an incontrovertible fact that someone forged the rescission petitions without the parents’ knowledge in a rescission campaign instigated by CTA. We also know that the parents of Desert Trails have been denied their constitutional right to transform their failing school using  the Parent Trigger. .

But the fate of Desert Trails is no longer in the hands of the status quo.

The district last week chose to yet again reject the parents’ offer of partnership, choosing confrontation over collaboration and forcing parents into the courts to defend their rights and fight for their children. On Thursday, parents filed a lawsuit to preserve their constitutional right to petition the government under the Parent Trigger law, and their children’s constitutional right to a decent and equitable education under the California Constitution.

The parents have a high-powered pro bono legal team from Kirkland & Ellis that is committed to representing them entirely for free. The district, on the other hand, has chosen to spend the parents’ own taxpayer dollars that should be invested in children and teachers and instead pay high-priced lawyers to defend an indefensible status quo in a case that they are certain to lose.

Parents support teachers’ right to unionize; they simply want teachers unions to support that same right for them. It will be impossible to form partnerships if parents must endure lies, harassment, forgeries, and violations of their constitutional rights every time they organize on behalf of their children.

Parents will no longer be silenced, because this isn’t about them, it’s about the future of their children. But if CTA and other teachers unions can accept that parents now have the same power as they do to unionize and act collectively, then they will find that parents unions and teachers unions have much in common when it comes to a kids-first agenda.

Ultimately, everyone on all sides of this issue must ask themselves a fundamental question: Would you be satisfied sending your own child to a school where two-thirds of the kids can’t read or do math at grade level? Would you be satisfied sending your own child to the lowest-performing school in your district that is ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state every single year? If the answer is no, how can you ask another parent to send their child instead? If everyone can start from that same simple premise, then wherever we end up on this journey will be the right destination for our children.

Ben Austin serves as Executive Director of the nonprofit Parent Revolution. He served as Deputy Mayor under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and held a variety of roles in the Clinton White House. A former member of the California State Board of Education, he has helped craft education reforms based on parental choice.

Rocketship, Aspire: Tenn. volunteers

California-based Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education are applying to open 26 charter schools in the next five years in a new reform district in Tennessee, where the need is great, the climate for charters friendly, and the money for public schools better than in California.

Tennessee would mark the first venture outside of its home state and a shift in its expansion strategy for Aspire, the largest charter school operator in California with 34 schools primarily serving low-income minority children in Los Angeles, Oakland, Fresno, and Stockton.

Tennessee would become the third region for fast-growing Rocketship, which runs five elementary charters in San Jose with approval for 25 more in Santa Clara County and an additional school in San Francisco. Earlier this year, Rocketship’s  board  of trustees accepted the City of Milwaukee’s invitation to open eight schools, with the first in the fall of 2013.

Achievement School District, which operates the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, announced Tuesday that Rocketship and Aspire are among 12 charter operators, four of them without prior experience, that applied to take over existing schools or open new ones. Sixty-nine of the 85 schools in the Achievement School District are in Memphis, with a smattering in Nashville and Chattanooga. Transforming the worst-achieving schools into a laboratory for innovation, while inviting in successful charter operators such as Rocketship, Aspire, and the charter network KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), was part of Tennessee’s  winning Race to the Top application. Rocketship and Aspire will learn in June whether their charters are approved. KIPP already operates a charter in Nashville.

Aspire wants to open 10 elementary schools in Memphis, where most of the students in the Achievement District schools are African American. It “was not an easy decision because we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin,” said Elise Darwish, Oakland-based Aspire’s chief academic officer. “But when we looked at the poverty and needs in Memphis, it was a no-brainer.”

Aspire serves 12,000 students in California, and that will grow by 10 percent by filling out existing schools. Beyond that, for now, it will look beyond California for growth, Darwish said.

More funding, fewer hassles

Aspire will receive $8,100 per child in school funding in Memphis, more than 40 percent more than the average $5,660 tuition it gets in California, plus facilities if it takes over an existing school. The charter will be for 10 years – twice the length as in California ­– and it will be monitored by Achievement School District’s new superintendent, Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep, a group of charter schools in Houston. That’s simpler and more direct than answering to dozens of authorizing school districts, as in California. Aspire received a statewide charter authority from the State Board of Education in California, enabling it to open anywhere in the state, but that approval has been tied up in court.

Two years ago, Aspire was one of only three school systems in the nation singled out by McKinsey and Company for its “significant, sustained and widespread improvement” in student outcomes. Earlier this month, the education research firm Mathematica and the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington named Aspire as a top-performing charter organization and pointed to its effective system of coaching teachers.

For the past six months, Aspire CEO James Willcox has been meeting community leaders in Memphis. Aspire may fly parents from California to Memphis to answer questions about the charter school and its approach. Parents in a Memphis school that Aspire takes over will have the option of going elsewhere. Existing teachers will have the option of applying for jobs at the charter school.

Darwish said that in Memphis, Aspire would further develop a blended learning approach it is piloting in Oakland, in which for part of the day students learn online using software programmed for individualized needs.

Blended learning has brought Rocketship acclaim – and contributed to its high API scores. Students spend 100 minutes a day in a learning lab, using online programs to bolster basic skills and accelerate learning. The model, which satisfies the state’s minimum instruction time, also saves money, which Rocketship plows back into higher teacher salaries and training. (For my take on Rocketship’s learning lab, go here.) The same will happen in Tennessee, with additional school funding going to art and drama, with student transportation eating up some of the differential, said Kristoffer Haines, senior director of national development for Rocketship.

Rocketship has applied to open eight schools in Nashville, starting in 2014-15, and eight in Memphis, starting a year later. Nashville will be a homecoming of sorts for CEO and cofounder John Danner. When he and his family lived there, Danner started  KIPP Academy in the city, and was active in the state’s early charter movement.

Rocketship’s K-5 schools in San Jose serve primarily Latino students, many of them English learners. The Oakland Unified trustees and Alameda County Board of Education rejected Rocketship’s proposal for a charter school in West Oakland last year, partly on the grounds that Rocketship had no experience teaching African American children.

Haines said that Rocketship subsequently hired researchers to examine issues raised in Oakland and is confident its model will work successfully in predominantly African American schools. It makes the case for that in its application to the Achievement School District, he said.

Charters choose Brown’s tax plan

Charter schools and the state’s largest teachers union rarely find anything to agree about. But the California Charter Schools Assn. is now the second major education group, next to the California Teachers Assn., to endorse Gov. Jerry Brown’s $7 billion tax initiative. The 13-member board of CCSA, representing most of the 982 charter schools in the state, voted unanimously to support it last week, said Jed Wallace, CEO of the charter schools association.

Brown has been leaning on political leaders to exclusively back his tax plan in order to put the squeeze on sponsors of two competing tax initiatives gathering signatures and make them drop out. But Brown didn’t call him, and he didn’t need to, said Wallace. “The governor’s is the one initiative that attempts to put the states’ broader fiscal house in order while providing some resources to education,” he said Sunday.

Then there’s the not insignificant factor that charter schools know they can count on the support of Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland. The other two competing initiatives – “Our Children, Our Future,” sponsored by the PTA and wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, and the Millionaires Tax of 2012, by the CTA’s little sibling, the California Federation of Teachers, with backing by the California Nurses Assn. – would dedicate more money for schools. Brown’s half-cent sales tax increase and quarter of 1 percent increase in the graduated income tax would produce money for the General Fund, with about 40 percent going to community colleges and K-12 schools through Propositon 98. But, through a weighted student formula, Brown is also proposing to make funding more equitable and simpler, a long-sought goal of charter schools.

A recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated that charters receive on average $395, or 7 percent less funding per student than district schools, and that doesn’t take into consideration extra facilities costs that many charters face. Most of the difference is in smaller categorical grants, and the difference is larger for new charters. Nearly all categorical funds would gradually disappear under a weighted formula, to be redistributed to districts based on the number and concentration of low-income and English-learning students they serve.

At a forum last week at CCSA’s annual convention, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst estimated that nearly all charter schools would fare better under Brown’s formula. Also last week, Brown attended a rally for charter funding equity at the state Capitol.

Brown is proposing to raise the sales tax by a half cent for four years and the income tax on those earning more than $250,000 for five years. Brown would commit most of the education money to pay down $10 billion in deferrals, money owed to schools that the state pays in the next fiscal year. Deferrals have especially affected charters, many of which have to borrow the money owed by the state at higher short-term interest rates than district schools pay.

Nearly all charter schools are nonprofit organizations, with restrictions on involvement in political elections. But they can provide information to parents on the impact of the various initiatives on their schools, Wallace said.

Neither the California School Boards Association nor the Association of California School Administrators has yet taken a position on which initiative to support. Of the other members of the Education Coalition, the teachers unions are split, and the state PTA is backing Munger’s $10 billion increase in the income tax.

Charter movement’s U-shape

Charter schools in California tend to be bipolar, with disproportionate numbers of very high and very low performing schools, according to a newly released analysis by the California Charter Schools Association.

In duplicating a pattern that it found last year, in its first “Portrait of a Movement” annual report, the Charter Schools Association renewed its call for local authorizers to focus attention on academic achievement and to not renew the poorest performers on the state’s Academic Performance Index. CCSA has identified 29 schools – about 5 percent of the state’s eligible charters – that fail to meet the minimum academic criteria of three measures; CCSA is recommending closure of the 10 that are up for charter renewal by the end of this school year. (Small schools and schools classified as serving highly mobile and at-risk students, known as ASAM schools, were excluded from the list.)

One of CCSA’s metrics, which is highlighted in the Portrait, is the Similar Students Measure, or SSM. It predicts a school’s API after factoring in student demographics – including family income, parent education level, mobility, ethnicity, and percent English Language Learner and Special Education students – and then plots whether schools exceed or fall short of the prediction. It’s the SSM, a schoolwide counterpart to the value-added metric that projects a teacher’s impact based on students, that shows concentrations of charter schools at the upper and lower ends in comparison  with non-charter schools. By taking into account the student body served, particularly in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students, the SSM gives a richer picture than the raw API score alone, according to the Association.

Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups.  Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 4.)
Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 4.)

Based on three years of student testing of 789 charter schools, the SSM showed that one out of eight charter schools (12.7 percent, or 100 schools) fell in the bottom 5th percentile of their predicted API, compared with only 4.2 percent, or 312 schools, of non-charter schools (see graph and chart). If they had performed purely as predicted, only 39 charters would have been in the bottom 5th percentile.

Nearly one out of five (19 percent, or 150 schools) fell in the bottom 10th percentile of predicted API scores, compared with 9.1 percent, or 673 schools, of non-charters.

At the other end, one out of seven charters (14.7 percent, or 116 schools), fell in the top 5th percentile band and more than one out of five (21.8 percent, or 172 schools) were in the top 10th percentile. Had they performed as predicted, again only 39 charter schools would have been in the top 5th percentile. By comparison, 4 percent of non-charters (295 schools) are in the top 5th percentile and 9.1 percent (673 schools) are in the top 10th percentile.

It’s the “U” pattern of top and bottom schools, so visible on a graph, that CCSA wants to turn into a “J.”

The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.5 percent). Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 6. Click to enlarge.
The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.6 percent). Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 6.)

By another measure, it’s already happening. Nearly twice as many charter students attend the top 5th percentile of schools, based on their predicted API scores, than attend the bottom 5th percentile of charter schools: 30,350 students or 13.4 percent of charter students attending the highest-performing schools, versus 17,115 or 7.6 percent of charter students attending the lowest-performing schools.

The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high versus low performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the least performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 5.)
The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high- versus low-performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the lowest-performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 5.)

That’s because the lowest-performing schools are smaller, an indication they may be having a harder time with finances and enrollments (see chart and graph).

Success with low-income students

The Portrait offers a further look at Calfornia’s 987 charter schools:

  • Charters operated by a nonprofit Charter Management Organization – like KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Rocketship Education, and Alliance for College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles – were concentrated at the top, with 40 percent of charters operated by a CMO in the top 10th percentile of Predicted API measure. Independent, solo operations tended to be clustered in the lower 10th percentile.
  • While there are high-achieving independent study and virtual or online charter schools, a disproportionate number are clustered at the bottom. Of the 25 schools identified as online charters, eight (32 percent) fell in the bottom 10th percentile, with three or one-eighth in the top 10th percentile. It’s still a small sample, the report notes, so more research is needed.
  • Charters serving primarily low-income children are doing well academically. Nearly a quarter of the 108,000 students tested in schools where at least half of the families qualified for free or reduced lunches attend schools in the top 5th percentile of schools. Thirty-five percent of students attend schools in the top 10 percentile  compared with 11 percent in the bottom 10th percentile of schools.
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10 percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10th percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)

The Portrait highlights the success of charters in Oakland, where they comprise 23 percent (29 schools) of Oakland’s 126 schools and 19 percent of its 31,700 students. The report credits Oakland Unified’s “active oversight” and its “rigorous charter review process containing clear and transparent standards for approval and renewal.” A surprising 48 percent of charter students in Oakland attend a charter whose Predicted API score fell in the top 10th percentile, compared with 6 percent of students in district schools; only 4 percent of Oakland charter students attend a school in the bottom 10th percentile.

Weeding out lowest performers

The Similar Students Model is one of three metrics that CCSA uses to determine which schools to recommend for charter non-renewal. The other two are the absolute API score (must be over 700) and growth in API (minimum of 50 points over three years). CCSA says it invites charters to make the case why they shouldn’t be on the list by presenting  other data on student achievement. A few have taken them up on the offer, says Jed Wallace, CEO of CCSA. And CCSA says that it visited most, though not all, low-performing charters last year.

There’s been little change over the past decade in the concentration of low-performing charters. If its recommendations were followed, as charters come up for renewal, the number of charters clogging the bottom 10th percentile could be significantly reduced over the next seven years, the organization asserts.

But CCSA’s methodology and its criteria have met resistance, within the ranks of the community and outside of it. Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, criticized the use of self-reported demographic data on income and family education and the focus on API and California Standardized Tests, which he calls a crude measure of a school’s performance.

Premack’s criticism may have resonated where it counts. CCSA spent months negotiating with Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley to have the minimum API score of 700 and its three-year growth target incorporated into AB 440, on charter revocations.

But after a two-hour meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown, Brownley pulled it and another bill on charter accountability last September, shortly before they were to go to Brown for his signature. No one has said why, but Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland, made it clear in a veto of a bill sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last year that he wants to de-emphasize API and test scores as a measure of a school’s performance and look at qualitative measures, including school inspections.

Charters getting 7% less funding

Under state law, charter schools and district public schools are supposed to be funded equally. That’s not happening, according to a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which found that charter schools receive on average $395 per student or 7 percent less than district schools. And for the half of charter elementary schools that don’t qualify for class-size reduction subsidies, the gap increases on average an additional $721 per student.

Click to enlarge (source: LAO)
Click to enlarge (Source: LAO)

The LAO recommends equalizing funding over time for the state’s 440,000 charter students, given the state’s budget crisis. One way, which Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing, is the adoption of a weighted student funding formula, favoring English learners and low-income students, for all districts and charter schools. Short of that, the LAO recommends increasing the categorical block grant for charter schools – the primary source of the disparity ­– and then giving equal flexibility over spending decisions to charters and district schools.

Charters and district schools get about the same basic program funding, which on average is $5,077 for elementary schools and $6,148 for charter high schools.

LAO researcher Jeimee Estrada found that the difference in funding is with categorical programs, which have restricted funding. Charter schools received a block grant of $409 per pupil in 2010–11, $150 less than funding that districts get for the same programs. (If the Legislature agrees with Brown’s plan to eliminate home-to-school transportation, that difference would fall to $50 per student.) Districts received $245 per student more than charters for other categorical programs. Charters also aren’t entitled to the $46 per student that districts receive as reimbursement for state mandates.

The class-size reduction subsidy is available for K-3 schools, but it was frozen in 2008, so all charters that have opened since then aren’t eligible. Only 49 percent of charter K-3 schools get money for the program, compared with 95 percent of district elementary schools.

The LAO study doesn’t take into account facilities costs, another expense for many charter schools. Although districts are obligated, under Proposition 39, to provide comparable building space free of charge, the process has been contentious and unsatisfactory in many districts. ** Some charters rent space in the community or building facilities at their own expense.

Some charters, like Pacific Collegiate in Santa Cruz, and charter organizations like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) do substantial private fundraising to support their schools, while others don’t or can’t. Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education operate their schools on state tuition only but use philanthropic dollars to help support their central offices.

In his 2012-13 budget, Brown proposes several measures to help charters financially. He wants to speed up the process by which charters can seek exemptions from delays in state payments, which hit charters especially hard. And he wants to qualify charters for short-term borrowing instruments, called TRANs, to lower the interest payments that charters are paying. Brown would increase the charter categorical block grant by $50 million to account for the growth in charter schools; the per-student amount – $409 – would remain the same.

** Charters won a victory in the battle over Prop 39 last week, when the State Supreme Court let stand an Appeals Court ruling that admonished the Los Altos School District in its long-running battle with Bullis Charter School over what constitutes “reasonably equivalent” facilities. The district short-changed Bullis in offering facilities based on faulty space calculations and comparisons with other district schools. The decision spells out what districts must do to make fair offers in the future and will be binding on lawsuits in lower courts in California.

State Board, CDE at odds on charter

Unanimously voting to disregard the recommendation of Department of Education staff, the State Board of Education last week granted Rocketship Education a charter in San Francisco, Rocketship’s first school outside of Santa Clara County. The Board’s approval for its 33rd charter reflected a sharp disagreement not only over the Department’s conclusions on Rocketship but also how it went about  reaching them.

Rocketship appealed to the State Board after San Francisco Unified trustees voted 6-0 to deny charter approval for a K-5 school it would locate near low-performing elementary schools in the minority neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. In a 31-page decision, the trustees ruled that Rocketship was offering “an unsound educational program” and that it would be unlikely to successfully implement what it was proposing (see Item 1 of the State Board’s Jan. 11 agenda for the San Francisco decision, the Rocketship application and the Department’s recommendations).

Department staff actually found no basis to justify San Francisco’s denial on academic grounds. Rocketship is a fast-expanding, innovative charter organization that operates five charter schools in San Jose with approval to open 25 more by 2017-18 in Santa Clara County. The three schools that have been open long enough to be tested had an average API score of 868, nearly 200 points above the average of the neighborhood schools it was targeting in San Francisco, according to its application.

Among their reasons, the trustees criticized Rocketship’s English immersion approach and said its hybrid model, which integrates the use of computers in a Learning Lab  to supplement the work of classroom teachers, sounded like a “drill and kill” approach. (No trustees actually visited the school or heard a presentation by Rocketship.) Department staff pointed to Rocketship’s track record and said that,  as a charter school, it can choose different approaches to learning and curricula from the district. (Isn’t that a reason for a charter school?)

Instead, the Department staff pointed to four flaws in Rocketship’s financial plan, a combination of lack of clarity or missing information, that led it to doubt the proposal’s viability. In a clear departure from past practice, CDE staff and a consultant hired to do the review took the position that they were legally restricted from asking Rocketship any follow-up questions for answers could have met their concerns.

That approach confused members of the State Board as well as the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, which recommended that the State Board grant the charter after listening to the Department’s reasons and hearing directly from Rocketship’s chief financial officer and CEO (watch the hearing).

“I sense frustration among commissioners because of the conservative interpretation of the process,” Commission Chairman Brian Bauer, principal of the Granada Hills Charter High School, said during a hearing in November.

Having been chastened when a new charter school in West Sacramento went bankrupt last fall, losing at least several million dollars in state grants, Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Deb Sigman acknowledged that the Department has resolved to look at all charters’ financials in more detail. “We have directed staff to be very deliberate and thoughtful and look at denials by district and county, but there might be a more deliberate look at fiscal issues,” she told the Commission.

How much discretion on an appeal?

Advisory commissioners and State Board members didn’t dispute the need for more scrutiny. They’ve been burned by charters led by teachers and parents without much of a clue about California’s complex and precarious funding system. But they were puzzled by the Department’s efforts to make an example of Rocketship, a sophisticated operation with a level of reserve that far exceeds the average school district’s.

“I appreciate the oversight and attention to detail. It’s critical,” said Commissioner Vicky Barber, superintendent of El Dorado County. “In the past, the Commission has had fiscal matters discussion (with those) without basic understanding of school finance. But I don’t see the lack of understanding” with Rocketship.

Among the items the Department raised:

  • Each Rocketship school and Rocketship Education are separate nonprofits. Staff was concerned that the San Francisco school would be stuck with debts if it closed. But Bauer and Barber pointed to a passage in the 300-plus page charter petition that made clear the parent nonprofit would bear all debts of its schools and not require any fundraising.
  • The proposal didn’t spell out how the 15 percent management fee covering personnel for Rocketship Education would be spent. Rocketship acknowledged that it could have given more details in a footnote.
  • Repayment schedule of two loans of three on the school’s books was not given. Rocketship said that was because they did not expect they would be drawn down.

All sides agree that the Department, on reviewing an appeal, cannot consider or seek substantive changes to a charter proposal. But Commissioners and all Board members except for Patricia Rucker agreed that staff could seek clarifying information, as it has done in the past, and that the objections raised about Rocketship were minor.

The alternative would have been to reject the petition and force Rocketship to start all over with San Francisco Unified on the basis of issues that the school district had not raised.

“Rocketship,” said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento and author of the financial disclosure regulations for charters, “risked being caught in the charter arms race where authorities keep upping the ante so that it broadens the target they can shoot at. Do you need to go into the financial minutiae of school closure?”

Rucker joined the other Board members in voting for the charter with the condition that parent Rocketship clearly state its responsibility  for any debts the new school may incur.

Statewide impact charters

Also last week, the Board approved  five-year extensions of the statewide benefit charters enabling  High Tech High and Aspire Public Schools to open charter schools throughout the state. The Board has granted only three of these (Magnolia Public Schools also has permission to open a limited number).  To receive a statewide benefit charter, a charter organization must have a track record of success and establish that it will provide a benefit that can’t be achieved through charters from individual school districts.

With 11 schools serving 4,600 students in K-12, much acclaimed High Tech High offers project-based learning targeted to areas with low-performing schools. It made the case that it needs a statewide charter to locate and better finance the construction of schools designed for of its approach. It also argued its High Tech High Graduate School of Education, offering Master’s in Education and a teacher credentialing program, helps the state meet its need for STEM teachers.

Aspire Public Schools has used the statewide benefit charter to open a half-dozen of its 34 schools. The benefit it provides, Aspire said, is increasing the number of minority, low-income students ready for college (all of its graduates last year were accepted to a four-year college); like High Tech High, it uses the statewide charter to reduce the cost of financing for school facilities and to  run a teacher residency program serving its schools. The California Schools Boards Assn., the California Teachers Assn. and the Assn. of California School Administrators sued the School Board over the statewide benefit charter for Aspire and won a victory in State Appeals Court in 2010. That decision forced the State Board to review its criteria for a statewide charter.

CTA lobbyist Ken Burt said last week the Board’s rationale “doesn’t meet the laugh test” and called on it to wait for a further ruling on the case, which is expected this spring. But Board members said that whatever decision is reached won’t end the litigation; postponing a renewal of the benefit charter would create uncertainly for Aspire parents who are now enrolling their children for next year.

Rocketship granted 28 charters

Rocketship Education has pitched for the opportunity to end San Jose’s education achievement gap by the year 2020. It will now have the chance.

With ambitious growth plans and the Santa Clara County Board of Education’s consent to pursue them, Rocketship is set to quickly become the equivalent of the second largest elementary district in the state’s sixth most populous county and one of the largest charter school organizations in California.

Mostly on votes of 5-2, the board granted 20 additional K-5 charters after a marathon meeting that crawled beyond midnight and into the early hours of Thursday. Together with its 10 schools operating or already approved charters, Rocketship plans to open all 30 schools by 2016-17 in eight school districts. Once built out, they will serve more than 15,000 primarily low-income Hispanic students. Rocketship also has two more charters, in San Francisco and East Palo Alto, on appeal with the State Board of Education, and plans to announce an expansion outside of California sometime in 2012.  Milwaukee and New Orleans are among cities vying for eight-schools.

Its geometric growth will sharply test the scalabilty of a school model that’s drawn national attention for high test scores and a blend of online and classroom learning. Rocketship recruits primarily high-achieving college graduates through Teach for America, trains them intensely, and offers them career paths as teacher leaders and administrators with higher-than-average pay in the expanding school network.

Rocketship and its supporters, who included San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, San Jose Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, and impassioned parents, characterized the need for Rocketship as a civil right and a fulfillment of the board’s commitment to SJ2020 to serve the needs of low-income children in 97 schools below the target of 800 on the state’s standardized tests.

“For my child, right now, there is urgency,” said Rocketship co-founder Preston Smith, a former teacher in Alum Rock, a district that would be most affected by the charter expansion.

But local school trustees questioned the urgency of pressing ahead with so many charters and the capacity of the county to monitor them all, and criticized the county’s granting a countywide charter as an encroachment on districts’ right to review and approve individual charters.

“I am asking you tonight to delay the approval of the 20 petitions before you in order to prepare for a slower rollout, to develop appropriate oversight mechanisms, and a method for measuring success,” said Pam Parker, president of the Santa Clara County School Boards Assn., in a letter she read, with a dozen school board members at her side.

In a hearing this fall, four district superintendents signed a letter in which they implied they would consider suing the county board over its authority to issue a countywide charter to Rocketship. The board determined that Rocketship’s plan to target its schools to low-income, English learners from any of the county’s 32 districts met criteria under state law.

Superintendents nonetheless said that Rocketship should be required to apply individually to each district and then appeal to the county board if rejected. Among those making the argument was Vincent Matthews of San Jose Unified. It rejected the first Rocketship charter five years ago but approved a Rocketship school last month, proof, Matthews said, that the district has a different mindset.

San Jose Teachers Association President Stephen McMahon, a rare union leader who praises Rocketship, even though nonunion teachers work in those charters, seconded Matthews. The county board is encouraging competition when it should be promoting cooperation between Rocketship and districts, he said.

Stating that San Jose teachers are “anxious, angry and frustrated” over roadblocks to reform, McMahon repeated a previous invitation, offering to sign off on turning over a failing elementary school to Rocketship. “This is not about unions but about student achievement,” he said. “If students succeed, the teaching profession wins.”

But county trustee Leon Beauchman said there was nothing to prevent districts from now negotiating with Rocketship over a district charter in exchange for dropping a county-approved charter. He doubted most would, so there was no longer cause for delay. Because it buys land and builds its own schools, Rocketship needs at least an  18-month lead time.

County trustee Grace Mah summed up the views of the majority of the board in reaffirming the commitment to move decisively to improve the education of underserved minorities within the decade. “And so we need a revolution,” Mah said, led by  Rocketship.

Once more around the track of school reforms in Los Angeles Unified

In a new labor agreement that embraces local school autonomy, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy has jumped from one school reform horse to another.

He dismounted the Public School Choice horse, thus ending the era when the school district sought to improve schools through robust competition among district-run school management teams, charters, and other complex operating arrangements. Under what has been called “portfolio” logic, the school district would assemble the best collection of schools it could, putting underperforming ones up for competitive bids while encouraging the ones that were doing well.

The labor agreement now being voted on virtually ends Public School Choice. For the next three years, no charters or external school management organizations can apply, and the district is forbidden to reconstitute a school that is making what the agreement calls but does not define as “reasonable progress.”

Deasy and United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher saddled up a new filly — the daughter of school reforms past — called decentralization. The underlying logic is that diversity in approach to schooling is good, that many different models of instruction are needed, and that teachers and administrators know best how to design schooling and to self-regulate their jobs.

They were right to get off the old horse. It was dead or at least hobbled. The 2009 Public School Choice resolution offered by former board member Yolie Flores was an audacious idea, but political pushback tied its legs from the beginning. Its racing life was short. In the first round of applications, the school board rejected Superintendent Ray Cortines’ recommendations and awarded none of the newly constructed schools to charters. The persistently underperforming schools, which had been ordered to write competitive proposals, largely competed against themselves. Few charter or external organizations sought to run them. Conventional wisdom in the charter world is that taking over existing public schools is too fraught with pain and difficulty to be worth the effort; better to start anew.

However, the new decentralization horse does not have a good track record. LAUSD rode this horse hard during the 1990s, and both Deasy and Fletcher could learn from that trial.

The 1990s decentralization horse didn’t get fed enough. Schools that joined the LEARN project were promised budgetary flexibility, which largely never appeared, and added funding, which dried up after a few years.

There may be no food at all for the new decentralization mount. While the labor agreement promises formative assistance for struggling schools and help for planning newly decentralized ones, the state budget shortfall, with more in store next week, may truly empty the feedbag.

The 1990s decentralization horse often didn’t know where the finish line was. LEARN training focused more on adult process skills than hard-core analytics about student achievement. There was no agreement about how to measure the outcomes the schools wanted, and for most of the period California lacked statewide measurements.

The same ambiguity applies now. Will the decentralized schools be judged only by the state’s Academic Performance Index? Will teachers be evaluated by how much they contributed to test score increases? Teachers in general and UTLA in particular loathe so-called “value added” measurements, but they have not proposed an alternative. The expectations for decentralized schools, the means of evaluating them, and the consequences are all up for grabs. Without a finish line, the new school reform horse is as likely to spend its time chewing the infield grass as galloping on the track.

The 1990s school reform horse had inconsistent trainers. Teachers and principals attended sometimes extensive workshops and residencies. (Palm Springs in July. Bring gloves; your steering wheel will be too hot to touch.) They learned the process rudiments of what was called a professional learning community. But these schools were isolated within the larger LAUSD and UTLA organizations. The idea of teacher leadership was rejected by the administrative establishment as improper and by union activists as not being tough minded enough.

The 1990s school reform horse had a short season at the track. LEARN was approved by the school board in 1993 and got under way the following year. By 1999, the race was over. External supporters grew frustrated with LAUSD, and they moved on to foster charter school development, particularly those now called the Alliance Schools. Opposition in the district, school board, and union increased. Victory was declared, but the season ended.

Fletcher and Deasy may have saddled up a better horse. Using the union contract as a reform document gives reform a stable home. Contracts last longer than superintendencies or a union president’s term, and they are good at patterning behavior. Still, neither union nor district could resist the temptation to mire their new ideas on a slow muddy track of committee approvals, school votes, plan documents, and more approvals. It may never get to the starting gate.

I don’t know whether this horse will run, but I’m putting down my bet. See you at the $2 window.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teachers unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.