Published Online: April 17, 2007
Published in Print: April 18, 2007, as Advocates Want Bigger Role for Charters Under NCLB

Advocates Want Bigger Role for Charters Under NCLB

As Congress gears up to revise the No Child Left Behind Act, some charter school advocates are calling for changes to enhance the sector’s role in providing new alternatives for communities with low-performing public schools, and in replacing some troubled schools altogether.

Bush administration officials recently highlighted ideas to help make the autonomous public schools bigger players in the drive to reach the law’s goals for improving student achievement, such as having federal law trump state-imposed caps on the number of charter schools in cases where communities want to shut down chronically low-performing schools and reopen them as charters.

“The whole idea of restructuring [is that] … the old way didn’t work, all bets are off,” Karl Zinsmeister, President Bush’s chief domestic-policy adviser, said at an April 5-6 charter school conference here hosted by the Department of Education. “We need to try something dramatic, something new, and getting around the caps is, we think, an important first step.”

Critics question whether charters, whether start-ups or conversions, are any more academically promising than regular public schools. And contradicting state law is likely to face resistance.

“States have set careful [conditions] on how many charter schools they might have,” said Joel Packer, the director of education policy and practice at the National Education Association. “We don’t think the federal government should override that.”

‘Engine’ of New Schools

Charter schools generally must meet the main provisions of the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, including requirements on testing, accountability, and the hiring of “highly qualified” teachers. The law also has measures specifically to help charters, including the $200 million-a-year Charter Schools Program, which is seen as a critical support for starting such schools.

Moreover, the NCLB law offers chartering as one remedy for chronically low-performing schools. Schools subject to restructuring under the law may reopen as charters, though few schools have done so to date.

Like many other constituencies, charter advocates seek changes in the law’s requirements for showing adequate yearly progress, or AYP, that would encourage models that measure individual student growth, rather than relying solely on absolute levels of proficiency. Charter proponents also want more flexibility in the demands for highly qualified teachers, which they say often don’t fit with the innovative approaches in charters.

Charter Checklist

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has put forth ideas for reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

REDESIGN THE CHARTER SCHOOLS PROGRAM:
• Give priority in the competitive-grant process to helping create high-quality charters in communities with many schools “in need of improvement” under NCLB.
• Provide incentives for states to ensure quality charters, create and support non-district authorizers, finance charters equitably, and remove charter caps.
• Allow funds to go not just to schools, but also to nonprofit organizations that support charter schools.
• Allow charter-support organizations to partner or compete with state education agencies to administer the program in a given state.
• Widen support for the expansion and replication of successful charter models.

RESTRUCTURING:
• Eliminate the “other” option from the law’s list of consequences for schools facing restructuring.
• Require that charters created in response to NCLB restructuring have full autonomy over budget, personnel, and other matters.
• State-mandated caps on charter school growth should not apply to restructured schools.

AYP AND ‘HIGHLY QUALIFIED’ TEACHERS:
• Encourage states to use a student-level growth model that is scientifically valid in addition to absolute proficiency levels to measure adequate yearly progress.
• Provide broader latitude to states in defining teacher quality, including allowing states to define which subjects are considered “core.”
• Allow states to focus on teacher “effectiveness” instead of the current “input-based means” of determining highly qualified teachers.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools outlined its proposed NCLB changes last month. The Washington-based research and advocacy group wants a larger role for charters under the law, arguing that many of the schools show strong results with disadvantaged students.

“We ought to see chartering as a primary vehicle for accomplishing the goals of NCLB, especially in creating strong, new schools,” said Nelson Smith, the alliance’s executive director.

One idea, he said, is to give priority in the Charter Schools Program to start-ups in communities with many schools identified for improvement under the law. Another is to increase the amount of money for that program and the law’s charter-facilities programs. Funding for those programs has stayed flat for several years.

One-upping the Bush plan on state charter caps, Mr. Smith said the federal law should pre-empt caps for any community that lacks adequate transfer options for students in schools identified for improvement. Under the current law, if schools fail to make AYP for two or more years, their students may transfer to other public schools. About half the states have charter caps, the alliance says.

Some analysts say the NCLB transfer option is rarely exercised, in part, because families often have so few choices, particularly with many other nearby schools on the needs-improvement list, especially in cities.

“Charter schools obviously are one way to increase the public-school-choice capacity,” said Morgan Brown, who heads the Education Department’s innovation and improvement office.

On restructuring, beyond its plan to override charter caps, the Bush administration wants to tighten the NCLB law in ways that may lead more schools to pick the charter option.

A school in the NCLB restructuring phase, the law’s final sanction for poorly performing schools, must take one of five steps: reopen as a charter; replace all or most staff members; contract with a private management company to run the school; turn the operation over to the state; or undertake “any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms.”

‘A Little More Aggressive’

Education Department officials say most schools choose the “other” option, and that the use of that route has mostly led to only minor changes. Eliminating that option, the administration suggests, could lead more schools to go the chartering route.

“It’s time to get a little more aggressive, a little more serious about the kinds of things we’re asking these schools to do,” Kerri L. Briggs, the department’s acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said at the charter conference.

Some experts caution that trying to turn around a failing school by reopening it as a charter is very hard and should not be entered into lightly. And charter advocates worry that districts may simply turn those schools into “faux” charters that change little and lack autonomy.

Critics say the Bush plan to tighten the restructuring reins would be a mistake.

“In a law that is overwhelmingly focused on process and compliance, they’re narrowing what it means to comply,” said David L. Shreve, an education expert at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Asked about restructuring and charter issues more generally, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said it was too soon to talk specifics.

“[Mr. Miller] is willing to listen and talk about these issues,” said spokesman Aaron Albright. “Generally, he supports the concept of charter schools,” the spokesman said, but added that academic results have been mixed at existing schools: “Some are doing an excellent job, while others are doing even worse than public schools in their area.”

Vol. 26, Issue 33, Pages 21-22

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