All Public Schools in New Orleans will be Charters in 2014-2015 School Year

Something significant happened with the closing of the 2013-2014 school year in New Orleans. The Orleans Parish School Board closed its remaining traditional public schools, for good. That means beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, all public schools operating in the city of New Orleans will be public charter schools. In scope, the change is not as grand as it initially sounds. There were only a handful of traditional public schools remaining in operation in New Orleans. Over 90% of children in New Orleans already attended charter schools, making public schooling in New Orleans the largest urban education reform experiment in the nation. But there is something incredibly significant about the fact that there will be no traditional public schools in a major American city next year. Charter schools had their beginnings in 1991 with the passage of the nation’s first charter school law in Minnesota, and the subsequent opening of the first charter schools in 1992. But I don’t believe school reformers in Minnesota  or the father of the charter school concept, Ray Budde, imagined that 13 years after the passage of Minnesota’s law, there would be a major American city where all public schools would be charter schools. Undoubtedly, the transformation of public schooling in New Orleans was sped along by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina which destroyed the vast majority of the city’s schools. But even prior to Katrina, the New Orleans Public Schools were in complete disarray; by many accounts the city’s school system was academically, financially, and ethically bankrupt. The state had already been busy devising plans for a take-over of the city’s failing schools. In many ways, Katrina just provided the opportunity for massive reform. And that large-scale education reform begun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and continued even to today has fundamentally transformed public schooling in New Orleans.

Problems do remain, however. Much work remains to be done in New Orleans. Many kinks in the system have yet to be worked out. But the numbers are clear; current academic performance for students attending public schools in New Orleans has far exceeded performance levels for the city’s public school students prior to Hurricane Katrina. And according to a recent report by the Times Picayune, 45% of New Orleans voters say the schools are improving. I don’t remember seeing such a large percentage of New Orleanians who believed schools were moving in the right direction.

Choice is very clearly now a central tenet of public education in New Orleans. Parents have many more public school options than they have ever had before. What must continue now is a redoubled effort to ensure that the options available to parents are in fact high quality charter school options. Charter authorizers in New Orleans must hold their schools accountable for academic performance. Performance accountability is central to the charter school concept. That means, first, maintaining the highest standards for granting charters to applicants. Second, schools that fail to perform at or above the agreed upon levels of academic performance must be improved immediately or closed down, with no exceptions. We cannot allow charter schools to become the traditional public schools of pre-Katrina New Orleans; schools that failed generations of New Orleans families with no accountability. Finally, that means giving high performing charter schools and charter networks in the city the opportunity to expand, and recruiting the highest performing charter operators from around the country to New Orleans.

Efforts to ensure that parents’ school choices are in fact high quality choices are already underway. There are many individuals and groups in the city that are engaged in that work. One of those groups has been New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO). NSNO has invested heavily in innovation in the New Orleans charter school sector and the expansion of charter school operators that have proven to be effective. That kind of work must continue with even greater intensity. New Orleans has the unique opportunity to be not just a grand experiment in urban education reform, but to become the model for large-scale urban education reform in America. The fate of New Orleans and its children are dependent on state and educational leaders’ resolve and commitment to get charter schooling right in New Orleans.

Marty Solomon’s Misleading Op-Ed on Charter Schools in Kentucky

I was quite disappointed to read Marty Solomon’s op-ed
published in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday June 2nd. Dr. Solomon made
the argument that charter schools would be bad for Kentucky and in his words, “Our
legislature is wise to continue to reject their creation and to refuse to
weaken our public schools.” I do hope that Dr. Solomon’s intentions were good,
and that he, like me, wants to see improvement in learning for children in
Kentucky. I don’t have reason to believe otherwise. But regardless of his
intentions, there are quite a few problems with the argument he puts forward
for keeping charter schools out of Kentucky. The obvious difference between our
positions is that I support the passage of legislation in Kentucky to allow for
the creation of high quality public charter schools. But it is not our
difference in position on charter schools that troubles me; what troubles me is
the inaccuracies and myths he puts forward which only serve to mislead
Kentuckians.

Dr. Solomon’s op-ed is ripe with inaccuracies and
over-generalizations. I will identify and discuss a few here which I believe are
most problematic. First, and most disappointing, he seeks to mislead
Kentuckians into believing that charter schools are not public schools, when in
fact there is no credible argument against the fact that charter schools are in
fact public schools. In Dr. Solomon’s words:

Although advocates
like to call them public schools because they receive public funding, charters
are really private schools, run by private individuals or corporations. They
are completely outside the public school system as far as teacher requirements
or acceptance of handicapped kids.

If charter schools were not public schools there is no way 42
states would be allowed to allocate state and federal funds to public charter
schools in the same way funds are allocated to traditional public schools. In
the city of New Orleans, approximately 90% of children attend public charter
schools. Does that mean the vast majority of children in New Orleans now attend
private schools? Of course not. While variation exists in state charter school
laws, across the states, all charter schools are public schools.

I find Dr. Solomon’s misleading of Kentuckians in this fashion to be
unfortunate. And the argument that charter schools in Kentucky would be outside the public school system regarding
teacher requirements or the provision of services for children with special
needs is flat out not true. Any reading of the charter school legislation that has been put forward in Kentucky shows his statements to be untrue. To read Rep. Brad
Montell’s (R-Shelbyville) charter school bill filed in the 2014 session of the Kentucky legislature please click
here.

Also in a particularly misleading fashion, Dr. Solomon makes
the argument that charter schools in Kentucky would take funding away from
traditional public schools. In his words:

But they are funded by
taking money from public schools. This idea was quite attractive to many state
legislators who eschewed tax hikes to fund vouchers, but did not object to
taking the money away from public schools.

What Dr. Solomon fails to say to the reader, however, is that
since charter schools are public schools, charter schools in Kentucky would be
funded in the same way every other public school is funded; charter schools
would receive a per pupil allocation based on the number of students that
attend the school. What he further fails to relay is that the only students who
would attend charter schools are those whose parents enroll them in one. The
commonwealth allocates state funding to schools based on the number of students
attending a school. If a parent decided to take her child out of Henry Clay
High School and enroll him in the charter school of her choice, the funding for
that student would follow him to the charter school. Please note that the
arrangement I speak of is no different than a child leaving Henry Clay High
School and enrolling in East Jessamine High School; the state funding for the
student would follow the student to East Jessamine. In that instance, would Dr.
Solomon argue that East Jessamine has weakened Henry Clay by robbing it of
funding? He most likely would not. Or what if a parent decided to take his
daughter out of Henry Clay and enroll her in The Lexington School. While The
Lexington School would not receive state funding for the student, those funds would surely no longer be allocated to Fayette
County. In that case, would Dr. Solomon argue that the Lexington School is
responsible for weakening Fayette County Public Schools? He most likely would
not, and he should not. Whether a child leaves Henry Clay to attend East
Jessamine, The Lexington School, or a public charter school, what has happened
is a parent made a decision to send her child to a school that she believes
best serves his needs. Would Dr. Solomon then argue that the parent is
responsible for weakening Fayette County Public Schools? I don’t know whether
he would or not, but I certainly don’t see it that way. I find the suggestion
that a school should receive state-funding for a student who no longer attends
the school to be pretty ludicrous. And I find it even more problematic that a
traditional public school would want to hold students hostage if their parents
want to enroll them somewhere else.

I would like to see opponents of charter school legislation
in Kentucky state their opposition to charter schools with honesty instead of
putting forward arguments and myths intended to mislead Kentuckians who only
truly care about getting the best possible education for their children. The
truth is that charter school laws vary significantly from state to state. Some
states have charter school laws that have produced high quality public charter
school options for families. Other states have not written thoughtful charter
school laws, and the result of those poorly crafted laws has been charter
schools that perform at or below the levels of traditional public schools,
serious deficiencies in charter school performance monitoring and
accountability. Because Kentucky has yet to pass a charter school law,
lawmakers have the benefit of learning from the successes and failures of other
states. I believe Rep. Brad Montell’s charter school bill incorporates many of
the lessons that we have learned since the passage of the nation’s first charter
school legislation in 1991 in Minnesota. The stakes are too high for too many
children in Kentucky to continue with these political games. Let’s base our
conversation on the charter school law that is actually being proposed in
Kentucky.

Bipartisan Support for Charter School Expansion

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) is one of a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress pushing for the passage of federal legislation which would increase funding intended to encourage the growth of charter schools across the U.S. Bills have now been introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Both the House and Senate versions would consolidate the existing federal grant programs which provide funding for charter schools, and boost federal financial support for charter schools from the $250 million budgeted in fiscal year 2014, to $300 million for fiscal year 2015.  Both bills are intended to “increase the number of quality charter schools available” (S.2304), While the bills are very similar, there is a relatively significant difference. With the Senate bill, the Expanding Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (S.2304), more dollars would be reserved for the replication of successful charter schools as opposed to starting brand new schools.

The House bill, the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10), passed out of the House Committee on Education and Workforce with bipartisan support in a 36-3 vote, and it passed with bipartisan support in the full House with a 360-45 vote. The Senate bill is currently under consideration with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. It too has relatively strong bipartisan support and a good chance of passing favorably out of the committee and passing in the full Senate.

Bipartisan sponsorship and support for these bills in both the House and Senate is evidence that charter school policy is no longer the politically divisive education reform issue that it has been in the past-at least not at the national level. This is not to suggest that lawmakers’ political affiliations never factors into policy making decision about charter schools, but it is no longer the case that one can assume a Democrat lawmaker will be unsupportive of efforts to support charter school expansion and strengthen charter schools. While the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are not likely to become fast friends of charter school advocates, I do believe even those groups are having to come to terms with the fact the charter schools will be a growing part of the public education landscape in the U.S. And as they come to terms with the reality that charter schools are going to be around, it is my hope that charter school policy conversations will turn to ensuring that charter schools have adequate resources and the autonomy they need to be truly innovative, and ensuring that across states, charter schools are consistently held to the high performance accountability standards that are central to the charter school concept.