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An Advocate's View of What to Watch in Charter School Policy

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Midterm elections, teacher evaluations and the growth of virtual education are among the events, reforms, and entities that could shape charter school policy this year. For a primer on what to watch on the charter school front, I spoke with Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president of state advocacy for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

Q. What policy trends do you expect to see in the charter sector this upcoming year?

A. Funding and facilities is one, authorizing and accountability has been and will continue to be a policy trend. I think we counted about seven states in the 2014 session that took steps to impact charter authorizing and accountability.

I do think that set of anti-charter bills that came up in Illinois will continue to come up. One in particular which is the whole issue of full-time virtual charter schools. That is often an issue of debate in new charter laws. The question is: Will this [law] allow full-time virtual charters and will they be for-profit?

Of all the issues in the charter space, that one seems to be the most problematic for folks. It combines full-time virtual education with another challenging issue which is for-profit providers. For some people, full- time virtual education is a problem; for others, for-profits,  is a problem. But the bigger question is are full-time virtual models a good fit in the charter space?

There's a lot of heat around that issue, and my guess is that will continue to be one of the more problematic issues.

Q. Are there any issues or policies that are not charter-specific but could affect charter schools?

A. I would say the interaction between charters and the other reforms that are happening in states. The best example of this is all the work around teacher evaluations which has probably been a negative for charter schools. A number of states have put these systems in place and they're often a one-size-fits-all system that might be a disconnect for charter schools and their unique autonomy.

But also a number of states are dealing with their state accountability systems. Michigan is a state that has been trying to get a school grading system in place.

How do those new statewide systems impact charter accountability? How do you begin to hold authorizers accountable? These are not initially charter school questions, but they impact charters and their autonomy for accountability arrangements.

Q. What are some specific states to watch this year?

A. Depending on what happens this fall we could see states without charter laws—Alabama, Kentucky, and Nebraska—we could see them pass a charter law in 2015.

Then there are states—Oklahoma and Wisconsin—with relatively weak laws, where if elections go certain ways, you could see them overhaul those laws.

We have been working with the coalition of organizations in Alabama over a few years now just to educate people, lawmakers in the state, and trying to build support. There is support for this in the leadership in the legislature. They had their primaries which are the most important elections in Alabama given they are so strongly Republican. The state teachers' union spent around $7 million dollars to basically challenge about 30 incumbents ... [the candidates they supported] lost all 11 races in the [state] senate and lost all but five in the [state] house. I think that's going to embolden the leadership to move forward on charter schools.

In Wisconsin, Wisconsin is a state where you have 245 charter schools, but 80 percent are what we call faux charters where they're really little programs in the district being overseen by the same principal as the district schools. They were created to access starter funds.

And really the only place in the state where you can start a real charter school is Milwaukee. So, giving people in other parts of the state the chance to open a real charter school by allowing them to go to a nondistrict authorizer.

Another issue is funding. The funding gap between the real charters and the traditional public schools is one of the biggest in the country. So trying to close that gap is a pretty big priority for the coalition of organizations trying to get a bill passed in hopefully 2015. But a lot of that is contingent on who wins the governor's race and who gets elected to the state senate.

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