Aspire shares one of its data tools

Aspire Public Schools, the state’s largest charter school organization, is giving away a spoonful of its secret sauce and hinting that more free stuff is coming.

This week, Aspire announced that it is making available a student performance analysis tool, called Schoolzilla (as in “Attack your school’s data”), to school districts statewide. This feature enables educators to compare and visualize California Standardized Tests data in quicker and cleaner ways than they could before.

By uploading CST files to a server that Aspire is hosting, a district can compare two-year test results among its schools in depth. Individual teachers can do custom analyses of their students’ results by subjects and individual strands (for example, in math, operations with fractions and decimals or functions and rational expressions), looking for common patterns and areas of improvement. The system enables districts  to upload files and produce information within minutes.

Here's a sample of what principals and teachers can do with the data tool. This chart compares how schools did on a particular math strand – place value, decimals and fractions – broken down by levels of student proficiency. Click to enlarge.
Here's a sample of what principals and teachers can do with the data tool. This chart compares how schools in a district did on a particular math strand – place value, decimals and fractions – broken down by levels of student proficiency. Click to enlarge.

Aspire has focused extensively on data use. It has developed a comprehensive database connecting 20 data systems that include student attendance, behavior, and measurements of achievement (CSTs are but one), school financial information, personnel evaluations, and other organizational metrics. It has created dashboards for principals and teachers that provide useful information on schoolwide and individual student goals, as well as an academic tracker that traces secondary students’ progress towards graduation. The data systems were developed over four years with teachers’ input, said Lynzi Ziegenhagen, Aspire’s vice president of technology. Aspire, based in Oakland, operates 34 charter schools in California.

One school district administrator who took up Aspire’s invitation to do a trial run with Schoolzilla is Rob van Herk, director of technology services for Alameda Unified School District. He called it “an incredibly powerful tool that makes it easy to slice and dice data and drill down by subgroups.” So a principal can instantly compare similar schools, looking for common points of improvement or differences in specific areas, he said.

Even more useful, van Herk said, would be access to the platform connecting the other data systems, so that districts could take advantage of the suite of tools that Aspire has created.

Ziegenhagen said Herk’s wish may come true. Foundations that funded the development of the data tools, including the Gates Foundation, did so with the intent of encouraging the spread of the charter organization’s innovations with other public schools. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is underwriting the cost of setting up a separate server and assistance to share Schoolzilla. So far 86 schools – 49 charter and 38 district schools – are using it. Aspire also received a highly competitive $3 million grant to develop online tools to assist teachers with The College Ready Promise, a new teacher evaluation and professional development system.

“We began with the CST tool because we knew people care about it,” Ziegenhagen said. “This is a conversation starter.”

Big choices for LA teachers

Teachers and principals in the state’s largest school district will be able to free themselves from a range of district policies and restrictions of the union contract – if they choose to.

In a break from their ongoing battle over teacher evaluations, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher announced a tentative landmark deal this week, giving great flexibility over working conditions and educational decisions rules to teachers at individual school sites where a supermajority (60 percent) approves.

The district has been pushing teachers to adopt a “thin” union contract in the hope that, liberated to make their own decisions, teachers will take the lead on school transformation. From a menu of 15 options that create more autonomy, teachers will be able to select school curricula, replace the district’s pacing guides, choose teaching materials, hire new principals (and, to an extent, other teachers), set daily school schedules and, to a degree yet to be determined, the school site budgets. The principals and teachers must agree on alternative plans, which the district must approve and then monitor. They must show evidence that parents were consulted.

Two parents chosen by the School Site Council would be on an eight- or nine-person committee that would hire the staff, subject to the principal’s approval. However, the committee would have to follow contract requirements to give priority to laid-off teachers.

Both Deasy and Fletcher declared the agreement, which union members must ratify later this month, a win-win. For charter schools, though, it was a loss. As an enticement to UTLA, Deasy agreed to a moratorium on a two-year experiment, Public School Choice, in which the district invited community groups and charter school operators to bid to operate newly built schools and to take over some failing schools. A dozen charter schools, including some high performers like Aspire and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, were selected and opened in the last two years, sharing large campuses.

Saying he was disappointed by the decision to end school choice, Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Assn., said there should have been room for both district reform and charters. “We are aware that we are sometimes used as leverage to bring about flexibility in district schools,” he said diplomatically. “We are in support of all public schools getting charter-like freedom.”

But Fletcher said that ending public school choice is an “overdue corrective,” because the district and school board had become “enraptured” at the prospect of turning to outside operators to solve district problems. The LA Daily News found (update: corrected link and source) that in the first year, a majority of the public choice schools, charters notably excepted, did no better or worse than the neighboring schools. Fletcher said the pact would save 690 district teaching jobs, though his calculation assumes every campus in the next round of school choice would have gone to an outside operator – an unlikely scenario.

Fletcher won’t speculate on how many schools will pursue the local initiative process, other than to say that plenty of teachers at successful schools are satisfied with conditions under the current contract.

Priority for “local initiative schools” will go to low-performing schools, those whose API scores were in the lowest four deciles; they’ll apply for the 2013-14 year. Staffs at the low-performing schools that would have gone through the school choice process will be required to seek flexibility waivers next fall. The district and the union would create intervention strategies for those schools.

Deasy said the “ground-breaking” agreement, “an incredibly daunting challenge,” was created on the understanding that “teachers and parents are uniquely qualified to have a relationship with their school.”

Local initiative schools will be a variant of the district’s 31 pilot schools, which are based on a model in Boston. Pilot school teachers, some of whom banded together to create district alternatives for the school choice program, have committed to a detailed process leading to a full-scale transformation. Teachers who tinker with changes ­will miss the larger potential that Deasy is counting on.

“It takes an incredible amount of work to plan, open, and operate a school,” said Paul Payne, a 10-year math teacher who’s part of the first-year Los Angeles River School, a 275-student pilot high school with an environmental focus.

“There’s a need for appropriate avenues for teachers’ voices in school reform,” Payne said. “Expertise is not in district offices but in the schools. But you cannot force teachers to embrace teacher-led reform. You can only give them the opportunity.”

Nearly 1,000 charter schools in state

With a net addition of 70 schools this year, 7 percent of California students – about one in 14 students – now attend a charter school. In Los Angles Unified, it’s more than one in 10 students; in Oakland, it’s one in five.

The California Charter Schools Association released its annual census on Tuesday. There are now 982 charters in the state, the most in the nation. One hundred started this fall ­despite a very inhospitable climate for opening new schools; in addition, 30 closed.

“In spite of the challenges, charters continue to open,” said Jed Wallace, CCSA president and CEO. “This speaks to the momentum of the charter movement.” And that is expected to continue next fall, with dozens of  schools in the pipeline, he said.

New schools, especially those that roll out a few grades each year, feel the squeeze. Late state tuition payments have pinched all public schools, but particularly charters that lack access to cheaper lines of credit. Between 50 and 60 charters this year and next will get federal startup loans, but they’ve been late, too, leading some charter leaders to take out second mortgages or take huge pay cuts, Wallace said.

Charters in California are a county-city phenomenon, with few in the suburbs. There are small rural and independent study charters and there’s a large and growing number of urban charters for low-income minority students run by charter management organizations (CMOs) like KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, and Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools.

Still, single, one-off charters remain dominant, with 577 charters; there are 257 charters run by CMOs, and 142 charters that are part of a decentralized network.

There are 200 charters in Los Angeles Unified alone, where CCSA has sued over access to school facilities provided to charters without charge under Proposition 39. Charter schools there match district demographics in some respects, and fall short in others. L.A. charters serve larger numbers of African Americans (they comprise 17 percent of the charter school population in Los Angeles, compared with 8.8 percent in the district); about the same proportion of Hispanic students (60 percent vs. 63 percent of the district population); but fewer English learners (21 percent vs. 31 percent districtwide) and students with disabilities, who are generally more expensive to educate (8 percent of Los Angeles Unified charter students, according to CCSA, or 6 percent according to the Los Angeles Times, compared with  12 percent districtwide).

The growth in charters parallels what appears to be the public’s favorable impression of charters. In a USC/Dornsife poll on education issues released on Tuesday, 48 percent of the 1,500 respondents agreed with the statement that charter schools provide a higher quality education than traditional public schools, while 24 percent disagreed; 52 percent of respondents with children said they would send their own child to a charter school (see page 22 of the poll).

There was one cautionary note: Asked whether the state should spend more money increasing the number of charter schools or improving public schools, respondents chose investing in public schools by a three-to-one margin.

Wallace criticized the wording of the question, because it failed to state that charter schools are public schools, and didn’t include a third option: spend more money on charters and district schools.

Unanimous for Rocketship

Undeterred by the threat of a suit by local districts and at odds with a staff recommendation, the Santa Clara County Board of Education unanimously approved three more Rocketship Education K-5 charters Wednesday night, bringing to eight the number of Rocketship charters it has approved and signaling a receptiveness to granting as many as 20 more in the next two months.

Board President Joseph Di Salvo, calling Santa Clara County “the epicenter of  change” in education, and other board members said bold action – opening up to a high-performing charter organization – was needed to meet the goal of SJ2020, closing the achievement gap in an area where half of students do not perform at grade level.

“We are moving in the right direction,” said Board member Leon Beauchman. “We cannot wait for the perfect solution.”

The 7-0 vote was loudly applauded by many of the nearly 700 Rocketship parents, students, and supporters who filled the boardroom and spilled over to another room and a cafeteria to watch the hearing on TV. A dozen parents implored the board to act, with personal testimonies of what Rocketship had meant to them and their children. “Rocketship is closing the achievement gap, empowering children, giving parents hope,  and having us believe in our kids,” said Karen Martinez, whose two daughters attend Rocketship Si Se Puede Academy in the Alum Rock Union School District.

The board acted under its authority to grant a countywide charter, an infrequently used power that lets a charter organization open multiple sites without first going to districts for approval. Five Santa Clara superintendents challenged the board’s guidelines for doing so and implied they’d sue over the issue. While not signing their letter, San Jose Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews said that Rocketship should come to his district and be part of its portfolio of schools, and turn to the county board only if rejected. “Our mission is to close the achievement gap and teach 21st century skills. We are aligned with Rocketship,” he said. As proof, he said that at a board meeting tonight, he will recommend that his trustees grant a charter to Rocketship.

Advantages of a countywide charter

The staff of the Santa Clara Office of Education recommended denial, based largely on an analogous state appeals court decision that restricted the authority of the State Board of Education to grant statewide charters.

But, Jerry Simmons, an attorney for Rocketship, countered that county boards have fewer restrictions under state law, and Rocketship has satisfied the threshold: that services to those benefiting from the charter “cannot be served as well by a charter school that operates in only one school district.” The law for statewide charters demands a higher burden: substantial evidence that a statewide charter provides services that cannot be provided in only one district. An example might be an arts school requiring a near-professional level of talent.

Rocketship’s mission is to serve low-income, disadvantaged students throughout the county. If it had to be chartered by a district, co-founder and Chief Achievement Officer Preston Smith said, Rocketship might not be able to do this. Students from the chartering district, including wealthy students that Rocketship doesn’t target, would get priority over low-income students from another district under rules for an admissions lottery. If too many of those students attended, Rocketship would lose Title I funding needed to educate poor kids.

SJ2020 is a countywide initiative and a “moral imperative,” Smith said. With 32 districts in the county, not all will have a Rocketship school. Low-income students in low-achieving schools anywhere in the county should have the right to attend Rocketship, he said.

In the two schools that are already operating under a countywide charter, a quarter of the students come from other districts, Smith said. Rocketship will continue to locate its schools near district schools with API scores under 775, but it will be able to market to nearby districts as well – like Sunnyvale Elementary School District, where the 712 API scores for Latinos is 111 points below the district average and nearly 200 points below the average for white students.

Rocketship has identified seven districts for its remaining 20 schools, including a half-dozen in San Jose Unified, the largest district in the county. It’s also promising to hold its own schools to a high standard: For every Rocketship school that fails to make 775 API the first year and 825 the second year, it will postpone expanding a school. Two of the three schools approved Wednesday will open next fall, one in San Jose Unified and the other in Alum Rock.

Zero hour for Rocketship

Rocketship Education, the Palo Alto-based charter organization with unparalleled expansion plans, will learn tonight if the Santa Clara County School Board will approve any of the two dozen K-5 schools it has planned for low-income, minority students in and around San Jose over the next seven years.

The Board’s decision will test its authority to approve Rocketship schools unilaterally through  a countywide charter. The Board already has approved five Rocketship charters this way, with two now operating, but it’s facing pressure not to approve more.

The Board will vote tonight on three Rocketship charters and hold hearings on the remaining 21, with votes on those next month or in January. Since all of the proposals are basically alike, whatever happens tonight will signal the outcome of the rest.

A law firm for a half-dozen districts, Dannis Woliver Kelley of San Francisco, sent a letter this week to the Board asserting that the guidelines that the Board passed last month for issuing countywide charters are too permissive. The letter implies a potential lawsuit if the charters are granted. The districts say that charters must go through them for approval, except under special conditions.

The Santa Clara County Office of Education, which endorsed a countywide charter two years ago, has reversed itself and now recommends denial for three charters. That’s because, Superintendent Chuck Weis said, an appeals court decision last year restricting the State Board of Education’s authority to approve multi-site charters statewide sets similar limits for countywide charters. The State Board adopted more restrictive regulations as a result, but they have yet to be tested.

Rocketship disagrees with the county office’s interpretation of its own guidelines.

Hybrid model not an issue

Rocketship has drawn national attention for a school model that combines traditional classroom instruction with a learning lab, offering individualized online instruction and small group tutoring. Hybrid learning saves money, which Rocketship plows back into training and higher salaries. It also has produced impressive results, with a network API of 868 and all three schools ranking in the top 10 schools serving a majority of low-income kids in Santa Clara County. This winter, Rocketship will choose an urban district­ in another state to start up eight schools. New Orleans, Chicago, and Milwaukee are among those bidding for Rocketship. Further national expansion is expected.

Weis said that Rocketship’s model is impressive, and he has no doubt that the county Board would approve the schools on appeal if local districts denied them charters. With a few minor quibbles, the county’s review of the three charter proposals is favorable.

However, Weis said, the dilemma is a vague countywide chartering authority law that, in an applicable case, a court has interpreted as very restrictive.

High burden of proof on charters

The key statute says that to qualify for a countywide charter, a charter applicant must provide “reasonable justification” why it cannot serve its target students as well by simply having an individual school district, not the county, be the charter authorizer.

The county office concluded that all of Rocketship’s schools operate under the same educational model and serve the same low-income, largely minority student population. The fact that three of those are single-district charters (two approved on appeal to the county) shows that Rocketship doesn’t need a countywide charter to meet its goal, it said. On Thursday, San Jose Unified trustees are expected to approve another Rocketship school, further proof that Rocketship can go through districts.

But Preston Smith, co-founder and chief achievement officer of Rocketship, said that in district-chartered schools, students in the district get priority for admission. Rocketship, in keeping with a multi-district commitment, known as San Jose 2020, to eliminate the achievement gap in a decade, wants its schools to become magnet schools for underserved students wherever they live in the county.  That purpose should qualify for a countywide charter, Smith said. “Low-income students in neighboring districts without a Rocketship school would have no opportunity to attend our schools.”  (To an extent, Rocketship’s decision to purposefully locate schools where it can draw from nearby underperforming elementary schools undercuts its argument.)

There would be two other benefits to Rocketship  from a countywide charter. One involves collaboration, the other efficiency. Neither reason can factor into the Board’s decision.

Smith said that districts would be more likely to work with Rocketship if they knew that Rocketship already has county approval for a charter in their district. Without prior approval, superintendents and trustees would just say no and throw the decision back to the county. “There would be no incentive to put their necks out” and work with teachers unions.  “It changes the tone.”

Rocketship builds its own schools, a process, starting with locating sites, that takes two years. A countywide charter for multiple sites would add predictability, making financing and organizing easier. It’s likely that most of the six districts threatening to sue – Santa Clara Unified, Sunnyvale School District, and Evergreen School District – would reject Rocketship anyway, wasting a lot of time and money for both the district and Rocketship.

“Reducing an administrative burden makes perfect logical sense,” said Weis, “but it’s not an intention of the law.”

In the end, Rocketship will pursue the charters through districts if it doesn’t get approval through the county, Smith said. But the hassles and the extra expense “only further add to the challenging environment in California when we have cities nationwide begging us to come,” he said.

Charter wins Prop 39 ruling (updated)

Long-running hostility between a high-performing charter school and a wealthy, high-achieving district in the Bay Area has led to a state Court of Appeal ruling that further clarifies the right of charters to comparable district facilities.

In a unanimous, unambiguous decision overturning a District Court ruling, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Appellate District ruled that the Los Altos School District failed to offer Bullis Charter School adequate space because it did a faulty comparison with what was available in its other schools. ** Update: The Los Alto School District trustees voted 4-0 on Monday to appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court, according to the Los Altos Patch (see below).

The Bullis case was the latest of about a half-dozen Court of Appeal interpretations of Proposition 39, mostly favoring charter schools. Prop 39 is the complex law voters approved in 2000 that requires a school district to “make available, to each charter school … facilities sufficient for the charter school to accommodate all of the charter school‘s in-district students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools of the district.”

The case centered on the basis for determining what constitutes “reasonably equivalent.” Prop 39 doesn’t require that each and every space offered to charters be identical to other district schools, the court said. But it does require that districts  acknowledge these differences in making a full and  accurate comparison considering the range of a school’s space needs. As Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, observed, “Size matters but it isn’t everything,” particularly if a charter is offered qualitatively better facilities.

However, districts must make a good faith effort with no playing cute to deny the charter its due.

Miscalculations and mistakes

Los Altos District didn’t do that. It made “mistakes” in reporting the outdoor lot sizes of five comparison schools by more than 50 percent on average. It undercalculated  the needs of Bullis’ library; it failed to pro-rate the outdoor space Bullis shared with Eagan Junior High, since Bullis was restricted to using a soccer field 40 percent of the time. It counted as district space provided to Bullis a multipurpose room that Bullis raised the money to build. It chose the smallest room size in the district, instead of an average room size, in the comparison.

In a footnote to the decision, the judges said “there is certainly evidence in the record” from which a finding could be made that the district acted in bad faith, though the court “declined to do so here.” (Prop 39 does not mete out penalties for bad faith, though courts could award lawyers’ fees at some point, and in the case of Los Altos, they would be huge.)

The court outlined general criteria that districts must follow in responding to a facilities request under Prop 39. Few districts have the quality facilities found in Los Altos, so it’s all relative. Still, districts must must:

  • Select appropriate district-run schools to use as a comparison group with the charter school,
  • Factor in three categories of space (teaching, specialized teaching, and non-teaching space such as libraries and day care facilities provided at other schools) in the comparison schools; and
  • Consider the site size of the comparison schools.

Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Assn., says he is hopeful that the Bullis decision would lead to a common-sense application of Prop 39. “There is an emerging consensus (among courts) that districts have not been doing what they should have in terms of standards of reasonable equivalency.”

Still fewer than half of the state’s 900-plus charter schools have sought free facilities under Prop 39. The Association is suing Los Angeles Unified, which has cited a shortage of space in not responding to some charters’ requests. And there remain inventive ways that districts can circumvent Prop 39,  so the Bullis ruling is not likely to end lawsuits, maybe not even at Bullis.

Founded seven years ago by Los Altos Hills parents when the district closed Bullis Elementary School, Bullis got its charter, on appeal, from the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which renewed it last month. It’s now a K-8 charter serving about 10 percent of students in Los Altos, and has a wait list.

Ken Moore, chairman of the Bullis board, said that the school is cramped and lacks a functioning library and eighth grade science lab. Students have been kicked out of using the Egan gym.

Moore is optimistic that, with the oversight of Santa Clara County District Court, where the case will return, Los Altos will provide adequate facilities next year. By redrawing school boundaries, the district could  open up more space at Egan and solve the problem, he said.

But while there may be a space shortage at Bullis, there hasn’t been a shortage of money for lawyers in Los Altos. No one’s betting this lawsuit will be the last.

** “The decision not only impairs school districts from exercising their judgment, balance interests, and make decisions in the best interests of all students, it provides a windfall to charter schools, affording them greater space than afforded students attending district schools,” according to the district announcement. Board President Bill Cooper added in the statement,  “As much as this court might wish to cast this process as strictly formulaic, in practice, the allocation of resources under the standard of “reasonably equivalent” does not neatly fit into a by-the-numbers approach.”

More district-charter compacts

To create incentives to work together for the sake of all students, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is encouraging charter schools and school districts to sign compacts and apply for money to fund their collaborations. Last month, Sacramento City Unified School District followed Los Angeles Unified to become the second California district and 12th nationwide to reach a deal with their charters. ** By Dec. 1, three or four districts in San Jose, along with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, are expected to sign on as well, with each receiving $100,000 to continue planning their work.

While charters and districts harbor animosity and suspicions toward one another in many districts in California, the Sacramento City Unified compact, signed by Superintendent Jonathan Raymond and representatives of seven charters in the city, recognizes the need for “trust, mutual respect and the willingness to work together. This compact begins this new era of sharing, an era that we believe will lead to tangible results for students, families and Sacramento.”

The 8-page agreement lists specific commitments by each side and details procedures and deadlines for meeting them by 2014.

Charters effectively will become part of the district’s portfolio of schools, given equal access to information for parents. District schools and charters will share best practices; charters will work with the district on parcel tax or school construction campaigns and proportionately share new taxes or bond revenues. Successful charters will get a fast track to have their charters renewed, while poorly performing charters will have an early warning system that could lead to shutting down voluntarily. The district and charters together will create a hybrid school that blends online and in-school learning.

For their part, charters commit to proactively increase efforts to enroll more English learners and special education students – a point of contention in the past and a response to charges nationwide that charters discourage high-needs students from applying. They pledge to make enrollment numbers and other data available and to discuss with the district plans to disenroll students, along with evidence of interventions they have tried on the students’ behalf. They even commit to purchase district services – custodial, special education, and technology among them – when feasible.

The district, in turn, promises to include information about the charters on the district website and in parent recruitment events. It will work to provide facilities in areas where charters want to locate and offer long-term use agreements. The district will open up its professional development offerings, including its Leadership Academy, to charters.

The Sacramento compact appears more detailed and expansive than some of the first-round compacts signed by Denver, Los Angeles Unified, Baltimore, Hartford New York, New Orleans, and Nashville. Those had a kumbaya tone – a pledge to stop fighting and get along.

But John Porter, superintendent of the 10,000-student Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, says that Gates is looking for something bolder than merely a truce, and that the San Jose districts will provide it in the two additional months that Gates has given them to work out details.

Focus on high achievement in math

Porter said that the four districts and their charters will sign an agreement with the goal of collectively focusing on high achievement in math. The region will seek a separate regional code on the National Assessment of Education Progress and a nation code for international tests, as Ontario, Canada has with TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. It would be a Monaco-sized nation; though San Jose Unified and East Side Union High School District are the largest of San Jose’s 19 school districts, the two and Franklin-McKinley combined serve only about 67,000 students. Franklin-McKinley is a feeder district to East Side Union, as is Alum Rock Union Elementary District, another district that has been part of discussions but hasn’t decided whether to join the compact. The Santa Clara County School Board, the other member of the partnership, may be the most charter-receptive county board in the state and will soon decide whether to grant Rocketship Education an additional 24 charters in the next seven to 10 years.

Like Sac City’s compact, Franklin-McKinley’s will call for sharing enrollment data and ask charters to commit to serving a proportionate number of English learners and special education students. Charters, in turn, will be able to recruit at district events, Porter said.

Porter is bullish on the potential of sharing information. He had negotiated with Rocketship on opening up a charter this year and looks forward to exploring Rocketship’s hybrid model that uses online learning in a school setting.

Districts that form compacts will be able to compete for $2 million to $10 million second-stage grants to carry out the commitments.

** NOTE:  Sacramento City Supt. Jonathan Raymond signed the compact; the school board was not asked to approve it.

Charter failure prompts scrutiny

The bankruptcy of a one-year-old charter school in West Sacramento has underscored difficulties with state and federal funding of startup schools and raised questions about the State Board of Education’s long-term capacity to oversee dozens of charter schools that it has approved.

There are probably practical fixes to the funding issue that could reduce the odds that millions of dollars would be squandered on bad-bet charter schools. The issue of the State Board’s oversight of charters raises a deeper question: Who should approve and monitor charters ­– local districts, the State Board on appeal, or perhaps independent agencies and universities, as in other states, with the expertise and a disinterest in the charters they would regulate?

Louis Freedberg, the new executive director of EdSource, writes about both developments in a two-part blog posting that ran Wednesday and today. He details the cautionary tale of the California College, Career and Technical Center, which came up at the State Board’s September meeting.

Before declaring bankruptcy this month, the charter had spent nearly a million dollars funded through a federal startup grant, a state loan, and standard state tuition payments. CCCTEC had encountered setbacks from its opening, when delays with its facility led to a sizable defection in student enrollment, contributing to escalating financial problems that led to a default in payments and loss of government money.

Richard Zeiger, Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction, told the State Board that CCCTEC’s failure was symptomatic of other charter school defaults, which happen “with great regularity,” and over two decades totaled “easily into the tens of millions of dollars, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it went higher.” Zeiger didn’t elaborate further at the meeting and didn’t provide Freedberg with specific numbers, saying the Department of Education is doing the research. It’s presumably a small portion of the 1,400 charters that have been granted over two decades, including more than 900 currently operating.

The federal Department of Education is already paring back grants to California and setting aside more money for proven charter management organizations. On Wednesday, it announced multimillion-dollar startup grants to Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education ($1.9 million), San Francisco-based KIPP ($9.5 million), and Los Angeles-based Alliance College Ready Public Schools ($3.1 million).

However, Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, which provides technical advice and training for charter operators, acknowledged that the state could cut funding losses by tightening procedures for awarding grants and tracking attendance.

Charter operators run on thin margins and need advance money to get rolling, especially first-time charters that start with one or two grades and are projected to break even when they reach full enrollment. That’s why the federal government started the Public Charter School Grant Program, with grants of up to $600,000, and the state started a revolving loan fund, repayable over five years. Throw in deferrals of state tuition payments and unexpected encounters with fire marshals, and new charters can find themselves in precarious spots.

But a more competitive process for grants, with check-off dates for when charters must have enrollments and facilities lined up, could catch problems. There also needs to be stricter scrutiny of attendance figures, on which advance state payments are based, made on the 20th day after the opening of a school. In CCCTEC’s case, fewer students attended than enrollment figures indicated, leading to $219,000 in overpayments last year alone, according to Freedberg.

Time for more authorizers?

Most charters are granted by local districts, but the State Board has granted three dozen – less than 4 percent of the total number of charters statewide – mostly on appeal after rejection by district trustees and county school boards. CCCTEC is one of those.

As State Board President Michael Kirst told Freedberg, “There are charter schools that are turned down by both local districts and counties that deserve to operate and so there needs to be some state appeal mechanism.” Some local trustees are unabashedly antagonistic to charters.

Whether the State Board should be saddled with oversight responsibilities – or contract out that function and leave the Board strictly with policy decisions – is a question that the State Board should confront as the number of appeals and approvals increases.

Charters pay fees, between 1 and 3 percent, to their authorizers, but, with rare exceptions, few districts do the monitoring well. It’s not clear that the State Board should have caught CCCTEC’s spending anomalies and possible misrepresentations earlier. But a review of the events leading up to bankruptcy should be part of the Board’s postmortem.

Meg Whitman funds charters

GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman vowed to promote the growth of charter schools. Private citizen Whitman made good on the promise Tuesday, donating $2.5 million to Summit Public Schools to start 10 more high-performing charter high schools in low-achieving areas in Silicon Valley, with a promise to double that amount if other tech titans match her $2.5 million.

For Whitman, who spent $144 million of her own money in losing to Jerry Brown in 2010, the donation marks the first sizable gift from The Whitman-Harsh Family Foundation, which she established five years ago with her husband, physician Griffith Harsh. Last week, she also donated $500,000 to Los Angeles Unified to extend web-based math instruction software created by Mind Institute, a nonprofit in Southern California, to 10 additional schools.

Meg Whitman and some of Summit's San Jose ninth graders. Click to enlarge. (Fensterwald photo)
Meg Whitman and some of Summit's San Jose ninth graders. Click to enlarge. (Fensterwald photo)

Summit currently operates four high schools, two in Redwood City and two in East San Jose, which opened last month. The potential $7.5 million in donations would fund strictly start-up costs for the new schools, not operating costs. Summit schools are budgeted to run on state funding, said Diane Tavenner, Summit’s founder and CEO.

With 10 more schools, Summit would serve 6,000 students in what Whitman is calling the Silicon Valley College Ready Corridor, a 50-mile stretch from South San Francisco to San Jose; 53 percent of students in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties graduate from high school unqualified  for a four-year college, and many of those live east of Highway 101.

Speaking to 200 ninth graders of Summit’s new San Jose schools,  Rainier and  Tahoma, on the lawn at their interim home, National Hispanic University, Whitman said, “I am proud to be an advocate and an investor in great futures for each and every one of you.”

Whitman, right, became Summit founder and CEO Diane Tavenner's personal coach this year. Click to enlarge. (Fensterwald photo)
Whitman, right, became Summit founder and CEO Diane Tavenner's personal coach this year. Click to enlarge. (Fensterwald photo)

Whitman’s investment comes nine months after she met Tavenner and, at the suggestion of one of Summit’s board members, invited her to lunch. (Whitman joined the Summit board in April.) Whitman, the former CEO of eBay during its boom years, became Tavenner’s personal coach, helping her with the challenges of doubling the size of the faculty, introducing technology to the organization, and creating an investment campaign. “I wanted advice from someone who had grown an organization,” Tavenner said. (Update: On Sept. 22, two days after she announced her gift in San Jose, Whitman was named CEO of HP, the world’s largest computer company.)

Since it opened its first high school in 2003, nearly all of Summit’s graduates have been accepted to a four-year college or university. All students take a college prep curriculum, including six AP classes, and a two-month exploration of college and career goals though a program known as intersession.

The student demographics are representative of the surrounding districts: Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City and East Side Union High School District in San Jose, which is heavily low-income Hispanic and Vietnamese.

Whitman was also attracted to Summit’s increasing use of technology. Online learning will be integrated, particularly in the new schools in San Jose. For math, Summit’s Rainier and Tahoma are pilot schools for Khan Academy, a free online instructional video library and management system that lets students master skills at their own pace and allows teachers to track the progress in real time.

Largely antagonistic to charter schools for years, San Jose has become a hub of charter school activity, led by a charter-friendly Santa Clara County School Board. Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education has a countywide charter for nine elementary schools and is seeking approval for 20 more. KIPP opened a high school in East San Jose last year, and Downtown College Prep, the region’s first charter, opened a grades 6-12 school in East San Jose last month. This month, the board of the Alum Rock Union School District approved Alpha Middle School, whose founder was an administrator at the American Indian Public Charter in Oakland, against the district staff’s recommendation.

Charter reforms sidetracked

Facing objections raised by Gov. Jerry Brown, Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley this week withdrew a package of charter reform bills that she and the California Charter Schools Assn. had spent four months negotiating. She expressed optimism that she could satisfy Brown’s concerns, which she would not specify, in coming months.

Brownley pulled AB 360, requiring that charters comply with public records, open meeting, and conflict of interest laws, and AB 440, which would set new academic minimums for a school to have its charter renewed. A third bill, SB 645, sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, had already been waylaid by the Assembly.

Brownley, D-Santa Monica, has spent two years pushing for more transparency and tighter accounting requirements in charter school operations. The charter schools association has called for using minimum API scores and academic growth measures to weed out poorly performing charters, and asked Simitian to sponsor their bill. The association and Brownley came together to see if they could settle their differences.

They came close. AB 320 already had passed both chambers of the Legislature and was a procedural vote from heading to Brown for his signature. AB 440 was headed for a final vote in the Senate, where it faced opposition from some Republican senators, the CTA, and the California School Boards Assn. for different reasons. While there still was a good chance it would have passed, Brownley said she ran out of time to address Brown’s issues.

Brownley and Simitian met with Brown last month for what turned into a 2 ½ hour meeting. Brown founded and was intricately involved in two charter schools in Oakland, and has strong views on how charters should operate.

Brownley said that Brown did not offer specific changes to the bills but expressed concern that the academic targets and blanket conflict of interest regulations not be too prescriptive. The charter schools association had created exemptions to regulations that it thought protected charters.

It was a timing issue, Brownley said. “There wasn’t enough time left in the session for the governor to feel comfortable with where we were headed.”