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October 28, 2014 9 min read
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| NEWS | Charters & Choice

How to Close a Charter School: Advice From Three States

Opening high-quality charter schools and closing poor-performing ones was a major theme at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ leadership conference in Miami last week.

Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering that authorizers are the groups charged with overseeing charters, and when some of the publicly funded but independently run schools land in local news headlines for poor academic performance or fraud, it can undermine the movement at large.

The sector has long stood by the premise that if schools fail to perform, they are shut down. But closing schools is tough, and doing so requires an artful touch.

During a panel discussion on automatic-closure laws—which included Chad Aldis with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Ohio, Adam Miller with the Florida education department, and Brandon Brown with the Indianapolis mayor’s charter school office—the panelists discussed how much time a charter should be given to prove itself.

They pointed to data from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which show that if a school is consistently low-performing after four years, there’s only about a 10 percent chance the school will turn itself around.

Deciding when to shutter a school is perhaps the easy part—execution is a different story. Nobody wants to shut down a school; it’s disruptive and emotional for staff, parents, and students. But, experts say, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. The panelists, as well as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Kathryn Mullen Upton, outlined a few best practices on how to minimize the impact:

• Have a closure protocol in place that includes talking points, template letters, and FAQs for parents;

• Hold school enrollment fairs to help parents find new schools for their children; and

• Announce, if possible, closures in March or April of the school year, allowing time—but not too much time—for operations to wind down and parents to find new schools.

But, the panelists said, the best practice of all is to prevent closures with a rigorous charter-application process that yields academically high-performing schools.

–Arianna Prothero

| NEWS | Marketplace K-12

Chicago to Expand Pre-K Program With Hefty Social-Impact Bond

The list of public and private organizations pouring money into schools is long and diverse. The bulk of funding, of course, comes from state and local sources, and to a lesser extent, the federal government. But many nonprofits, businesses, and community organizations also contribute. And now, investment banks are starting to make their mark.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced that Chicago will use a $17 million social-impact bond, partially financed by Goldman Sachs, to expand prekindergarten.

Also known as pay-for-success loans, this form of financing shifts the risk from taxpayers to investors, as lenders are repaid only if students meet academic benchmarks. Specifically, the Chicago program aims to increase kindergarten readiness, improve 3rd grade literacy, and reduce the need for special education services for an additional 2,620 students over the next four years.

Assuming the benchmarks are met, the cost of future special education and intervention services decreases. The savings, which Emanuel’s office estimates to be up to $9,100 per student, would be used to repay the loan.

Chicago has the nation’s fifth social-impact bond program, and only the second for education. Goldman Sachs and Chicago-based Northern Trust Corp. are the senior lenders on this project, and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation is the subordinate lender, the Chicago Tribune reports.

–Kevin Connors

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Okla. Snack-Food Exemptions for Fundraisers Rise to the Top

Oklahoma has taken the lead in setting the highest number of state-approved exemptions for food fundraisers under new federal school nutrition requirements.

The new Smart Snacks in Schools rules set limits on calories, fat, and sodium for all foods offered during the day at schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. That means items sold in vending machines, on a la carte lines, and in food-based school fundraisers are being regulated for the first time, a move that has raised the hackles of some politicians.

But the regulations permit each state to allow schools to exempt some fundraisers from the rules each year. That has calmed the concerns of some school leaders and cafeteria managers, who say the revenue is necessary to balance tight food-service budgets and to fund student activities.

Data from the National Association of State Boards of Education show that many states have declined to allow any exemptions at all. Some others have voted to allow a small number of noncompliant fundraisers. Utah, for example, set the limit at three.

So what did Oklahoma do? State school board members voted to allow 30 exempt fundraisers per semester and to allow those fundraisers to last as long as 14 days each, according to an article in The Oklahoman.

Let’s see, 30 x 14 is 420 days. So that means the Smart Snacks rules basically don’t apply to school fundraisers in the Sooner State.

With that vote, Oklahoma’s exemptions exceed those of the previous leaders, Georgia and Tennessee, which had already chosen to exempt 30 fundraisers per year from the standards.

–Evie Blad

| NEWS | On Special Education

Students With Certain Disabilities Focus of Anti-Bullying Guidances

Bullying of students with disabilities such as diabetes, depression, or food allergies could result in a denial of their right to a free, appropriate public education—and as such requires immediate steps on the part of the school to remedy the situation, according to guidance in a “Dear Colleague” letter released last week by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

The most recent guidance refers specifically to students covered by Section 504, a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by organizations that receive federal money, such as schools.

Section 504 predates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by two years, and a major difference between the two statutes is how disability is defined. The IDEA has 13 disability categories, while Section 504 has a three-part definition that is broader than the IDEA.

Though all students covered by the IDEA are also covered by Section 504, there’s also a smaller group of Section 504 students who are not a part of the IDEA. That group might include students with mental-health disorders such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, students with severe food or environmental allergies, or students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The department says this guidance builds on its 2013 letter that outlined schools’ responsibility to curb bullying of students who are covered under the IDEA. “While there is broad consensus that bullying is wrong and cannot be tolerated in our schools, the sad reality is that bullying persists in our schools today, and especially so for students with disabilities,” says the letter from Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights.

Schools must take steps to eliminate bullying that is significant enough to “interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school,” the new guidance states, regardless of whether the bullying is specifically linked to a student’s disability. The guidance says that part of a school’s role in such situations is to convene the student’s “504 team"—parents, teachers, and school administrators—to determine if additional or different services are needed. (The individualized education program, or IEP, team makes educational decisions for students covered under the IDEA.)

The letter acknowledges that there is no hard and fast rule for schools to follow in determining whether bullying has had enough of an impact on a student’s academic success to be a violation of his or her ability to receive a free, appropriate public education.

–Christina A. Samuels

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Florida Takes First Formal Steps in Clash Over Testing of ELLs

As promised, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, has taken the state’s first formal legal step against the U.S. Department of Education over the issue of testing English-language learners. Scott hadn’t filed a lawsuit as of last week, but on Oct. 17 sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, requesting a hearing on the issue before the office of administrative law judges, which deals with government agencies.

The source of the conflict: Earlier this year, Florida passed a law that would allow schools to delay counting the test results of English-learners for accountability purposes until those students have had at least two years of classroom instruction. The problem? Federal law, specifically the No Child Left Behind Act, wants ELLs to count after one year of instruction.

The Sunshine State sought to include the change in its application for an extension of its NCLB waiver. The Obama administration gave Florida the thumbs up on the extension, but said it couldn’t approve the change for ELL testing. It’s worth noting that the Education Department has made plenty of exceptions and changes in other areas of the waivers in general, especially when it comes to teacher evaluation.

And it’s also worth noting that there may be some politics at play here. Scott is locked in a tough battle for re-election against former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee. The education of ELLs is an important issue to Latino voters, who make up a huge voting bloc in Florida. And Alberto M. Carvalho, the Miami-Dade County superintendent, is on Scott’s side of this issue.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Early Years

Voter Support for Early Education Strong in Five Key States, Polls Say

A majority of voters in five battleground states—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and North Carolina—support expanding early-learning programs such as preschool and home-visiting programs, according to polls released last week that were conducted with the backing of early-education advocacy groups.

The polls in Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina were conducted between May and September for the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy organization with offices in Washington and Chicago. The Georgia survey was conducted in August on behalf of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, based in Atlanta.

Overall, voters supported the idea of increased investment in early education, though Republicans generally showed less support in the various states than Democrats. (This mirrors national survey data in a poll conducted by Gallup in September.)

Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, said that the polls offered an opportunity to gauge the baseline support for early-childhood education in those states. The next step is putting early-childhood education on the radar screen of the various candidates. The issue has not been at the forefront in those states, she said.

“We’re trying to use these poll results that show public support across the board to build public demand. They’re not the same thing,” she said. “We want to tell candidates there’s really only an upside to supporting these investments.”

–Christina A. Samuels

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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