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: 29 charters in San Jose

Rocketship Education, the charter organization whose hybrid online/classroom model has drawn national attention and foundation dollars, wants the Santa Clara County Board of Education to let it open 20 more elementary schools, primarily in its hometown of San Jose, in the next seven years.

Together with the three schools now operating and six already approved, Rocketship would be running 29 schools by 2018-19, an ambitious and unprecedented number of charter schools by one operator serving low-income, minority children in a concentrated area – basically East San Jose, plus maybe a school in Sunnyvale and one in Gilroy.

Rocketship co-founder Preston Smith said that Rocketship was responding directly to SJ2020, a commitment by school district officials in San Jose to eliminate the achievement gap – the difference in proficiency levels between Asian and Caucasian students and Hispanic and African American students – within a decade.

Rocketship is doing that now with its two schools (a third opened this year). Its first school, Mateo Sheedy Elementary, had a 925 API (on a level with Palo Alto schools) two straight years. The 2010 API score for its second school, Si Se Puede Academy, was 886, with a student body that’s nearly four-fifths English learners and more than 90 percent low-income.

Blend of online learning, classroom instruction

Rocketship has developed a distinct system that combines regular classroom instruction with small group tutoring and a computer lab providing individualized learning. Rocketship saves money by having non-credentialed individuals run the learning labs. It uses the savings  to hire an academic dean and assistant principal – a principal in training for the expansion program – at each site and to run two-hour after-school tutoring for struggling students. Donors and foundations have invested $3 million to develop adaptive learning software.

Once the 29 schools are at capacity, Rocketship would serve about 15,000 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, making it the equivalent of one of the largest districts in the county. (Click here for Rocketship’s letter to the county trustees requesting additional schools.) About 40,000 students in San Jose are not learning at grade level – more than half of testing-age children in the city. In grades 2-5, about 9,000 children in San Jose are below basic or far below basic – the lowest two quintiles on state standardized tests, according to Rocketship’s application to the county.

Rocketship has identified neighborhoods with low-performing schools in San Jose, which are represented by red and orange dots, mainly in East San Jose (click to enlarge).
Rocketship has identified neighborhoods with low-performing schools in San Jose, which are represented by red and orange dots, mainly in East San Jose (click to enlarge).

Rocketship already has a countywide charter to open five schools. It is technically seeking a revision of that charter. Along with testing the political will of the county board, the proposal will test Rocketship’s management and financial capability and school districts’ capacity  and openness to adapt to disruptive change – the  potential loss of millions of dollars in state revenue from the defection of thousands of students. It may also become a test of the flexibility of the  rarely used law enabling county offices to grant countywide charters. Rocketship must  prove that it cannot achieve  its unique program by seeking charters through individual school districts – some of which are antagonistic to charters. It’s unclear whether trustees, having approved a countywide charter already, can revise terms  and conditions of Rocketship’s request for subsequent schools.

“We are writing the rules with regard to a countywide charter of that magnitude,” said County Board Chairman Joseph Di Salvo, who said that Rocketship’s achievements and commitment to work with low-performing students are not in question. “The number of schools and the timing – four per year for five years – are a huge question mark in my mind. At the same time, I don’t want to be complicit in leaving kids in schools that are not meeting their academic needs.”

Rocketship has notified 11 districts that it may start a charter school, most likely near one of its Program Improvement schools. However, Rocketship is expected to concentrate its efforts in San Jose Unified and Alum Rock Union Elementary School District. It also will open two schools in Franklin McKinley, the one local district whose superintendent has openly invited in Rocketship.

Weighing the impacts on district schools

Districts are not supposed to consider the financial impact of a charter school on their operations when considering a charter application. But Di Salvo says he wants the county office to examine possible negative impact on students left behind in district schools under Rocketship’s proposal.

John Danner, Rocketship’s CEO and co-founder, said the revised application would be a performance contract, tying Rocketship’s ability to open additional schools to high academic results. The current metrics, which Rocketship had no trouble meeting, are 700, 750, and 800 API scores respectively during the first three years. Rocketship would consider making the third year target 875 – the actual target of schoolwide proficiency.

Danner says he is confident Rocketship has the leadership succession and financial systems to bring the organization to scale quickly. And he says he is mindful of the challenges facing districts with new charter schools. But he says districts would have a decade to anticipate and adapt to the impacts (the first set of four new charters would be in 2013-14, and the last schools would reach capacity in 2020).

And there are ways Rocketship could help.  Rocketship’s current model is to build its own schools – an unusual arrangement. But Rocketship would consider paying full-market rent for district facilities – a big financial plus; under state law, it could request space for free. It would work with districts to adopt Rocketship’s hybrid model, Danner said.

A hearing on Rocketship’s request will take place June 15. In what may be unfortunate timing, the application coincides with delicate discussions between Rocketship and other charter operators and four San Jose districts on whether to pursue a charter compact spelling out areas of mutual interest, like sharing data and best practices, and commitments to resolve other issues, such as charters’ agreement to take more special education students. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is encouraging the compacts, would provide $100,000 initially to work out details, with the possibility of more money to implement ideas or provide help to districts faced with downsizing. (Don Shalvey, Deputy Director of Education for Gates, is on Rocketship’s national strategy board.)

Negotiations with some districts may implode because of the Rocketship expansion. (Franklin McKinley Superintendent John Porter intends to pursue it anyway.) But Danner said that the Gates compact, with  resources to help districts restructure, now becomes more relevant and offers the opportunity to start a dialogue on what districts will look like in the future.

“There is nothing like this anywhere, where a set of charters step up to eliminate the achievement gap. What happens in San Jose could be a model for the nation,” he said.

Nonsensical state regulations handcuffing online learning, innovation

California’s budget meltdown is an opportunity, not to raise taxes, but to explore innovative ways to deliver services more efficiently and effectively. With the revolution in online technology, education is a perfect area to rethink obsolete delivery systems. However, according to a new book by the Pacific Research Institute, California has erected reactionary barriers that prevent this revolution from reaching millions of students who might benefit from it.

Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California details both the promise of new learning technologies and the frustration felt by technology developers, educators, and policy experts as they confront a wall of government red tape. The potential of the online education revolution is epitomized by Rocketship Education, which operates two charter elementary schools in San Jose.

Charter schools are deregulated public schools that are independent of school districts and not subject to teachers union contracts. Although located in low-income Hispanic neighborhoods, Rocketship’s test scores are higher than many affluent district schools in Santa Clara County.

Rocketship uses a hybrid-learning model, where three-quarters of the school day is spent in traditional bricks-and-mortar classrooms and the other quarter is spent in a learning lab that uses software programs geared to the individual abilities of students and designed to teach them math and literacy skills. Preston Smith, chief academic officer for Rocketship, says that using the computer curricula in the learning lab “is adaptive so that if a kid gets a question right it gets more difficult,” but “if they get it wrong, the computer program] backs up and re-teaches.”

Compare this immediate feedback to a traditional paper-and-pencil test where, if a student gets a question wrong, he or she won’t know of the error until the test is corrected and handed back hours or days later, with little individual re-teaching given to students. Not only is the Rocketship model successful in raising student performance, it has succeeded in lowering costs significantly. Certificated teachers aren’t needed to oversee Rocketship’s learning labs, so the schools employ fewer teachers. For every four classes, Rocketship needs only three teachers, thus saving $500,000 a year.

State regulations, however, hamper Rocketship’s successful learning-lab innovation. A key problem with California’s regulations regarding minimum instructional minutes, according to Smith, is that “our learning labs do not count for instructional minutes.”

There are other frustrating and nonsensical regulations. For example, students cannot enroll in a virtual charter school – where all instruction is delivered over the Internet and the student learns at home – unless he or she lives in the county in which the charter school is chartered or in a contiguous county. So if a student lives in Marin County he or she cannot enroll in a virtual charter school based in San Mateo County, even though the two counties are just a few miles apart. Konantz, a top official at virtual schooling provider K12, Inc., sharply criticizes Sacramento policymakers who seemingly believe “the Internet changes from county line to county line.”

Virtual learning is also impeded by state regulations that require a low student-to-teacher ratio of 25 to 1, even though no studies have been conducted to justify this ratio. Further, California regulations prevent star teachers in other states from teaching California students through online courses if those teachers don’t hold a California teaching credential. Research shows that there’s no connection between having a California credential and higher student achievement.

Konantz blames the traditional public-education sector for these backwards regulations because “I think folks were afraid of losing money.”  In other words, if it were easier for students to choose hybrid or virtual charter schools, the regular public schools would lose per-pupil funding. Not surprisingly, teachers unions oppose online education alternatives. The National Education Association, parent organization of the California Teachers Association, says there should be “an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek home-schooling over the Internet.” The California Federation of Teachers, in model contract language, says: “No employee shall be displaced because of distance learning or other educational technology.”

Lawmakers in Sacramento should click the delete button on these regulations and develop a new funding system for education. California could save money and give parents greater choice by adopting the plan put forward by new Florida Gov. Rick Scott. His plan would attach 85 percent of state per-pupil funding that parents could use for private schools, private tutoring, or online virtual schooling. “Parents should figure out where the dollars are spent,” says Scott, so “if the parents want to spending it on a virtual school or “whatever education system they believe in, whether it’s this public school or that public school or this private school or that private school, that’s what ought to happen.”

As the home of Silicon Valley, it’s unacceptable that California prevents students from benefiting from the education technology revolution. Parents and their children must be given the freedom to exercise their fundamental right to choose the type of education that best meets their individual needs.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the co-author of three books, including Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 2010). He is also the co-executive producer of the 2010 PBS-broadcast film “Not as Good as You Think: They Myth of the Middle Class School.”

Online learning to drive charter schools’ innovation and expansion

Netflix CEO and charter school benefactor Reed Hastings attracted attention two months ago when he bought the education software company DreamBox Learning for $10 million.

Losing interest in charters and moving on to a new challenge? Hastings said he was asked.

To the contrary, Hastings said this week, technology and charter schools will reinforce each other. Savings from the use of new technology will fuel the expansion of charter schools, and their growth will force hidebound school districts in turn to adapt innovative technologies that will improve learning.

Continue reading “Online learning to drive charter schools’ innovation and expansion”

Charter fund buys online software firm

California charter school funder Reed Hastings has underwritten the non-profit Charter School Growth Fund’s purchase of 2-year-old DreamBox Learning, a much-praised company producing online math software for K-3students. Beyond an undisclosed purchase price, Hastings is putting up an additional $10 million to extend DreamBox  offerings to other grades and to add literacy software  –  evidence of Hastings’ interest in scaling up e-learning for public schools.

Continue reading “Charter fund buys online software firm”