Tag Archives: charter schools

Why High Tech High Couldn’t Operate in Kentucky

Over the last few years I’ve seen considerable interest from Kentucky educators in San Diego’s High Tech High School. For those of you who are unfamiliar with High Tech High, here is a brief description from the school’s website:

“Launched in September 2000 by an industry and educator coalition, the Gary and Jerri- Ann Jacobs High Tech High is an independent public charter school serving 584 students in grades 9-12. The school’s mission is to prepare a diverse range of students for postsecondary education, citizenship, and leadership in the high technology industry.”

In the last few years, more than a few Kentucky educators and education leaders have made their way to San Diego to tour the school, and most of them have returned to Kentucky energized about the possibilities for innovation in public education. I saw such enthusiasm on display again just last night. I was invited by my friend and colleague Dr. Justin Bathon to attend a film screening and discussion for “Most Likely to Succeed” at Lexington’s Steam Academy. The film was fantastic and I highly recommend attending or organizing a screening. The film highlighted High Tech High’s approach, students, teachers, and parents. And once again, Kentucky educators, parents, and students were inspired to transform classrooms, schools, and school districts into learning environments with similar characteristics as High Tech High. I wasn’t surprised.

What does continue to surprise me, however, is that in conversations about High Tech High and education innovation in Kentucky’s schools, there is rarely if ever mention of the fact that High Tech High is a charter school. And I’m perceptive enough to know that for educators and education leaders, it’s more than just oversight. It’s no secret that charter schooling is heresy in Kentucky’s traditional public education circles.

To be sure, there are plenty of charter schools in California and across the U.S. that can’t hold a candle to what High Tech High is doing. But it is absolutely the case that High Tech High is what it is because of California’s charter school law. Its leaders have used the flexibility and autonomy granted to it by California’s charter school law to build a school that bears little resemblance to traditional public schools in California or anywhere else. To miss that High Tech High is able to be as different as it is because it is a charter school is to miss something integral to its success.

Policy makers and education leaders in Kentucky should also realize this: If the leaders of High Tech High School wanted to come to Kentucky to replicate the school or create something similar, they couldn’t. Why? First and foremost, because Kentucky has no charter school law; so they couldn’t apply for a charter to do it. But even if it were current education leaders in a Kentucky school district who wanted to build a Kentucky version of High Tech High, they couldn’t; because without a charter school law, there is not nearly the flexibility for schools needed to pull it off in Kentucky.

Here are a few critical elements to the school’s model which Kentucky school leaders should pay closer attention to:

  • There is no tenure for teachers at High Tech High. Their teachers sign one-year contracts which may or may not be renewed at the end of the year.
  • California’s charter school law exempts High Tech High (and all California charter schools) from school district collective bargaining agreements.
  • High Tech High is authorized by the state to credential its own teachers (the first California charter school authorized to do so). Teachers hired are automatically enrolled in its free, two-year credentialing program. That kind of flexibility gives them the ability to recruit teachers who may or may not currently have a teaching credential, and who may or may not have completed formal training in education. High Tech High (and all charter schools in California) are granted further flexibility with the credentialing of teachers who teach “non-core, non-college preparatory courses.”
  • Leaders at High Tech High exercise an extraordinary amount of curricular and instructional autonomy; the likes of which current Kentucky schools do not have. In fact, a principal or superintendent in Kentucky proposing to alter the curriculum to the extent offered there would likely be laughed out of the state.
  • Leaders at High Tech High exercise tremendous budget autonomy in aligning personnel, instructional, and facilities expenditures with the the vision and mission of the school.

These are just a few of the areas where California’s charter school law has provided the legal flexibility that allows High Tech High to do what it does. There was no magic charter school dust that made the school what it is; but without the flexibility provided by the charter school law, the school wouldn’t exist. Education policy does matter. Kentucky’s policy makers and education leaders who have fallen in love with the High Tech High model would be shortsighted to not acknowledge that it does.

The Washington State Supreme Court’s Charter School Ruling: What it Means and What it Doesn’t

If you have paid much attention to school choice news from across the country, you’ve heard that the Washington State Supreme Court delivered a monumental ruling on September 4th regarding the state’s new charter school law. In a 6-3 decision, the state’s high court ruled that the state’s charter school law (Proposition I-1240) violates the Washington State Constitution. At issue was whether charter schools in Washington may be characterized as “common schools”. This is important in Washington because the state’s constitution requires that state public school funding only be used to support common schools. In its decision, the Court deemed that because the boards of Washington’s charter schools are appointed and not elected, they may not be considered common schools, and thus are ineligible to be funded by common school funding.  

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have charter schools in operation. The nation’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling marked the first time a state court has found charter school funding be be in violation of a state constitution. So as you can imagine, the ruling has sent shock waves through the charter school and school choice communities, not only in Washington, but across the United States.

What Does the Future Hold for Charter Schools in Washington State?

While charter school advocates and parents of children attending the new charter schools in Washington are working around the clock to save their new schools, in the short term, the likelihood of saving them is slim. While fundraising efforts of charter school supporters in Washington and nationally have been valiant, it”s not likely to be enough. Further, if the schools are not tax-payer funded, in my estimation at least, they may no longer be considered to be public schools.

There is no appeal’s process for the court’s decision. The Washington Supreme Court has spoken and their word is final. Just as with the U.S. Supreme Court and matters relating to the U.S. Constitution, the Washington Supreme Court is as far as it goes in Washington. In short, the Washington state constitution says what the Washington Supreme Court says it says.

All is not lost, however; at least not in the long term. Charter school advocates in Washington intend to revisit the state’s law. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling was that charter schools in the state cannot be considered common schools because their boards are appointed and not elected. Charter advocates are now gearing up for another ballot initiative (Washington’s charter school law came as the result of a ballot initiative) which would amend the law to have charter schools boards as elected rather than appointed. Such a change would likely/maybe/possibly satisfy the Washington Supreme Court. As we saw with this case, however, the Washington Education Association is an extremely formidable foe for charter school advocates. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Implications for Charter Schools Across the U.S.

Outside of Washington state, education leaders, and policymakers, and parents are asking what the implications of the Washington Supreme Court’s decision might be for charter school policy and charter schools in other states. While the Washington state ruling does not apply to charter schools or charter school laws in other states, I do expect to see teachers unions lead (with renewed vigor) campaigns in other states to challenge the constitutionality of charter schools. My guess is the vast majority of those efforts will be unsuccessful, but there is definitely the possibility of success in some places. Charter school laws are different from state to state, and state constitutions have different provisions from state to state. Further complicating the issue is the reality that state courts have different political leanings from state to state; some which lean Right and tend to be more supportive of choice policies, and some which lean Left and tend to be much less supportive of school choice policy.

In short, the Washington ruling doesn’t signal the beginning of the end for charter schools in the U.S. As I’ve said many times and in many places before, charter schooling is now a permanent fixture of the public education landscape in the U.S. The ruling does, however, highlight a potential strategy for charter school opponents in other states. The politics of school choice has always been interesting, and it promises to remain that way.

Kentucky: The Bluegrass Institute’s Written Online Charter School Debate

This past Monday, Kentucky’s Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy published the latest in its series of “Free to Learn” debates on public charter schools. If you have not yet checked it out I encourage you to do so at your earliest convenience. You can access the debate by clicking here. By facilitating and publicizing this debate, the Bluegrass Institute is providing a valuable service to Kentuckians.

One of the reasons the public charter school debate in Kentucky is so important and the reason I have participated in this series of debates is that Kentuckians have a right to understand the education policy solutions being debated in Frankfort. Kentuckians have a right to hear all sides of the public charter school policy issue, and then make up their minds about how they feel about public charter schools’ potential for Kentucky. It is my sincere belief that once Kentuckians come to understand what high quality public charter school legislation looks like and the promise it holds for addressing some of the intractable issues that our traditional public schools have struggled with for generations, citizens of the commonwealth will be willing to tell their elected officials that Kentucky should give public charter schools a try. I believe once Kentuckians understand both sides of this issue, they will be supportive of public charter school advocates’ efforts to create additional high quality public school options for parents. Not one Kentucky family should be forced into the school situations that many Kentucky families now find themselves stuck with. No child in this commonwealth should be trapped in a school that will not or cannot meet her learning needs. Kentucky families need and deserve additional high quality public school options.

The NEA’s Call for Duncan’s Resignation: Latest Strike in a Battle the NEA will Lose

The leadership of the National Educational Association (NEA) is mad, and on July 4th that anger reached a boiling point when delegates passed a new business item calling for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While historically, teachers unions including the NEA have been staunch supporters of Democrat administrations, the relationship between the NEA and the Obama administration has been a strained one, largely because of the Obama administration’s support of key elements of an education reformist agenda which includes financial support for the expansion of charter schools, the continuance of the DC school voucher program, reform of teacher evaluation to include student performance, and most notably now, reform of teacher tenure and seniority rules. The Obama administration’s support for such reforms has earned President Obama and Secretary Duncan a place on the NEA’s ‘not so nice’ list. Officially, the new business item stated that it was necessary to call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation because of the U.S. Department of Education’s “failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.”

Duncan has flat out dismissed the NEA’s call for his resignation. In a recent AP article, Duncan is quoted as saying, “I always try to stay out of local union politics. I think most teachers do too.” Though brief, Duncan’s comment is clever dig at the union. Duncan is making the claim, which I largely agree with, that although the NEA’s leadership claims to be the voice of teachers, most teachers are not involved in the development of the union’s policy agenda and are not typically well-informed on the inner-workings and maneuvering of the union’s leadership. I go even further than Duncan and assert that many teachers, particularly younger teachers, are not supportive of the policy agenda, policy stances, and tactics of the NEA. And for that reason, I am very careful to distinguish between the voice the NEA’s leadership and the voice of teachers; I am convinced that on a variety of important policy issues their voices are not in harmony.

This call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation is the NEA’s latest move in a battle that’s gone on for about a decade now; a battle that in the end, the NEA is sure to lose. Democratic administration’s have historically been the NEA’s allies, holding off the progressive education reform ideas of conservatives. That day has passed. Much of the education reform agenda is supported and even advocated for by growing numbers of Democrats and political independents. If the next president elected is a Republican the NEA is sunk. They don’t stand a chance of reversing the education reform tide which includes the expansion of school choice, tenure reform (and in some states tenure elimination), teacher evaluation based in part on student performance, and tying teachers’ pay to their performance. But even if the next president is a Democrat, the likelihood of that Democrat being from the extreme liberal end of the party is none; it will not happen. Whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican, s/he will have to live and lead from a more moderate than extreme position; and it is the more moderate Democrats, or neo-liberals, that are becoming more and more supportive of the education reform agenda that the NEA is fighting against.

In the end, the NEA will lose this battle. Education policy does have a tendency to shift somewhat like a pendulum, but there are pieces of the current education reform agenda that are here to stay. Charter schools and public school choice aren’t going anywhere. Public school choice will become central to public schooling, everywhere. Teachers will be evaluated at least in part based on the performance of their students; what that measurement will look like will vary from state to state and may change over time, but the days of teacher evaluation not having a student performance component are soon to be over. Tenure for teachers will go away in some places and will look radically different in most other places. School administrators will have increased authority with the hiring and removal of teachers. The days of collective bargaining agreements protecting ineffective senior teachers while more junior effective teachers are dismissed will be ending very soon. Teaching will no longer be a profession where you can go a job pretty easily, join the union, get tenure for sticking around for four years, and have a safe position for the rest of your career.

The NEA is fighting for relevance and survival. ‘The organization’s leadership knows that Secretary Duncan won’t consider resigning based on their call, and the fact that the largest teachers union in the country can call for the Secretary of Education’s resignation and most Americans won’t even take their call seriously is an indicator of the organization’s waning influence on educational leadership and educational policy. I do believe there is a future for the NEA, but not as a labor union. Teachers are not labor. Teachers are professionals. My hope is that the NEA’s new leadership will take the opportunity during this time of transition for teachers and public schooling to reform itself into the world-class professional association that America’s teachers need and deserve.

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.