Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Charter School Success for Kentucky's Students -- Is in the Details

| by Brigitte Blom Ramsey, Executive Director |
With the General Assembly back in session this week, pending legislation to allow for charter schools in Kentucky is top of mind for legislators and education advocates.  

For the past two years, the Prichard Committee has worked to ensure that Kentucky policymakers and citizens have access to facts and research about the potential impacts of charter schools on education in our state and on student outcomes (see our report Exploring Charter Schools in Kentucky: An Informational Guide (2014) and corresponding blog post What the Research Tells Us About Charter Schools & How That Informs Our Next Steps (2014)).

Now, given the near certainty of charter school legislation this session, it’s important that we all work to make charter schools a reliable “tool in the toolbox” of our public education system -  one that can be part of a clear overall strategy to increase student achievement and close achievement gaps. Kentucky’s improvement in education over the past 26 years is in the top quarter of all states.  Any charter school action (like any adjustments to our education system) should be entertained thoughtfully to ensure our public resources are  used to, not only maintain progress but to, quicken the pace of further improvement (see the Prichard Committee Policy Statement on Charter Schools in Kentucky (2016)).

Kentucky's leaders have learned a great deal in the last few months.
In late November 2016, the Kentucky Department of Education and Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development hosted a Kentucky Board of Education Special Meeting on Charters to learn from researchers who have studied the impacts of charter schools. The event included presentations from the Education Commission of the States, Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, University of Kentucky, and the Prichard Committee. Researchers agreed on some common themes:
  • Charters show the largest learning gains for low-income students and African-American students in urban areas, with less clear results for other student groups;
  • High-quality charter schools with a trackrecord of success are realizing these gains for students; and
  • Many charters that incorporate a ‘no excuses’, ‘whatever it takes’ model and attract teachers with that same mindset have achieved great success with educationally disadvantaged student populations.

As a result of the learning session with researchers, KBE issued a position statement on charter schools which expresses a preference for local authorizing with an appeal to the state Board, a focus on “at-risk and underserved students” and funding that doesn’t negatively impact overall funding for public schools.

In December 2016, we joined several Kentucky Board of Education members, including Ben Cundiff our host for the day (KBE member and Prichard Committee member), on a visit to two public charter schools in Nashville, TN -  East End Prep and Explore! Community School. KBE member Dr. Gary Houchens archived the visit in this post.

Our visit helped us see the faces of leaders, teachers, and kids behind the numbers in the 2015 Urban Charter School Study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). This study indicates that high-quality charter schools in cities such as Boston, Newark, Memphis, and Nashville have spurred strong learning gains among some of our nation’s most disadvantaged children.

Our visit also underscored the importance of an emerging issue we hear frequently in national meetings of education reform researchers and advocates – an issue that Kentucky will be wise to put at the forefront as we move forward:
  • Instilling collaboration between public charters and traditional public schools, that engages and inspires community support, will be critical to ensuring all children are served well (Center for Reinventing Public Education (2016)).  Collaboration has been a hallmark of education policy in Kentucky for years and should be leveraged as a position of strength – allowing us to uniquely benefit from some of the most current research on charters.  

What happens in Frankfort over the next few weeks MATTERS.
Kentucky’s legislative framework to be shaped in the coming weeks can be the first step in building conditions for success, and aiming for the positive results charters have provided for some students. The broad parameters of the legislation, as well as the details, are still very much in play (see our bill summaries for HB 103 and SB 70).
Kentucky will likely be the 45th state (including the District of Columbia) to approve public charter schools and, as many have noted before, we owe it to ourselves (in fact, our students) to learn and benefit from the successes and challenges in other states. For any legislative framework, we see four major issues as essential:
  • Authorizers -- Researchers repeatedly point to the importance of authorizers who have been highly trained to support key principals and standards such as those outlined in the NACSA Quality Authorizing Guide (2015)The Prichard Committee supports a moderate approach to initial charter legislation with authorizing by locally elected school boards and an appeal mechanism to the Kentucky Board of Education as a secondary authorizer. All authorizers should be trained in and required to adhere to nationally recognized standards for quality authorizing. 
  • Accountability and oversight -- Charter school accountably is a key component of overall quality of the public education system. The Prichard Committee supports monitoring and oversight by the Kentucky Board of Education with strong renewal/closure standards and charter contract requirements with clear performance expectations for raising achievement and closing achievement gaps. 
  • Enrollment -- Charter schools should not discriminate in the enrollment of students in any fashion. The Prichard Committee asserts that no student or group of students should be prohibited from enrollment on the basis of ability, performance, geography, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, and also that charter schools must provide free and reduced-price meals as well as services for students with learning differences.
  • Funding -- Funding for charter schools should not diminish the resources currently available to school districts to educate and increase achievement for all students. Federal funding will likely be available to support public charters in Kentucky and, historically, states have been asked to outline their strategy for using charters to increase student achievement (USDOE Public Charter Program). The Prichard Committee supports the expression of an explicit, bold goal that seeks to increase student outcomes for all student groups in the Commonwealth and the investment of resources to achieve the goal.  

As citizen advocates for improved education in Kentucky, we are committed to working in partnership with educators, community and faith leaders, philanthropy, and the business community to ensure only exceptional public schools – public traditional schools, and public charters if legislation does indeed become law.  Our public education system should leave nothing to chance as we put each student in Kentucky on a meaningful path to academic and life success.

Ultimately, our success – as individuals and as a state - will be measured in the excellence and equity of the education our students receive and the deep engagement by parents and communities in the process.

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