Saturday, March 31, 2007

Charter School Haters

The recent events with Rep. Merrifield's email to Sen. Windels being made public have pushed another one of "pet peeve" buttons! Is the charter school community really so naive as to believe this is rare or isolated behavior on the part of people who don't like charter schools?

Way too often, people keep their head buried in the sand and only occasionally pop up and complain about egregious actions. Call be pessimistic, but I doubt even this will wake up parents in charter schools to get involved in the legislative process.

There's no doubt that Merrifield's statements were wrong. But, multiply this one email by a hundred other statements he's made to get only a piece of the full picture. Merrifield was downright nasty during the House Ed hearing on SB 61. He was the one who told Solano, acting chair, not to allow Alex Medler, Chair of the Charter School Institute, back to testify on proposed amendments to the bill -- after she had promised to do just that.

When SB 61 was heard in Senate Ed earlier this year I saw similar treatment for the charter school folks who came to testify. Windels made sure her people had ample time to speak about the bill and then only seconds were allowed for people from the charter school community.

When will people wake up and get involved? People need to talk to candidates when they're running for office and then after elected, hold them accountable. Charter school parents should be calling the offices of Merrifield and Windels every week, like clockwork. Plus, these parents should be asking five of their friends to either call, write or email these two elected officials who apparently need to realize there are a lot of caring parents of charter school students. The charter school parents who are currently being represented by either Merrifield or Windels really need to be involved in the next election cycle! It's time to pull their head out of the sand!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hatred for Charter Schools in the State House

House Education Committee chair, Rep. Mike Merrifield's vitriolic email about charter schools, addressed to Sen. Sue Windels became public today. Hat tip to Face the State for exposing this!

Merrifield says, "There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charerizers, [sic] and Voucherizers! They deserve it!"

This email comment is not really surprising, based on actions Merrifield has taken in committee to show his dislike for charter schools. (See my Mar 7th post for more info.) The bill he's talking about, SB 61, was certainly aimed at gutting the Charter School Institute in the version that was initially introduced.

Why is the Charter School Institute so threatening? Maybe because they're considered a model authorizer with a good application process and have developed a reputation of being fair, but tough. Many charter developers report going through the Institute is tougher than some local school districts.

I personally know many of the "charerizers " [sic] that Merrifield talks about in his email. They're parents who have tried everything they know of to work with their local school district only to find there is no hope--except to start a charter school. They're teachers and principals who have become frustrated with a focus on behavior problems in the classroom instead of actually being able to teach students to read and write. Most of all, they're the students who now have a very bright future and a hope for a better life because they're learning in a charter school! They're certainly not worthy of Merrifield's nasty assertion that they belong in hell!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Charter Schools Provide Choice & Innovation in Education

Russ Spicer, the Headmaster at Liberty Common School in Fort Collins, writes a column for his school's weekly newsletter. I'm on his distribution list and like reading what Russ has to say about books he's read, the charter school movement or the charter school philosophy. This week, Russ wrote:

"The charter school model greatly resembles the 'free market' economy model. Let's say you own a business that must compete against numerous other businesses similar to yours. You are going to do everything within your power to make your business a better choice than your competitors. You will try to offer better service, better prices, and better products. If not, you will not attract or keep customers and ultimately your business will fail and close. There is motivation to improve and do the best you can for your business."

"In contrast, if you had a business that was the only one available, there are few checks and balances to ensure the business does the best it can do. It doesn't matter if people are happy with the product, prices, or service. You are the only shop in town. They have to come to you; they have no choice. That business owner has very little accountability. The mainstream public school in many respects resembles the business that has no competitors while the charter school resembles the business that must compete against other businesses."

This mindset at Liberty Common School has probably impacted leadership's vision for success. It has been nationally recognized as a Blue Ribbon School and has also repeatedly received the state's John J. Irwin School of Excellence award.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Senator Nancy Spence, Charter School Champion

Senator Nancy Spence is a charter school champion! Here's what she had to say about this year's (anti) charter school legislation:

"Frankly, I'm getting sick and tired of these repeated attempts, bill after bill, year after year, to undermine charters," Spence said. "Parents want them because their kids obviously aren't being served by traditional schools. After trying for years to reason with lawmakers who don't support charter schools, I'm fed up."

H/T to Ben DeGrow for his blog on this at

Sen. Spence's statement is exceptionally remarkable after hearing Jefferson County school board member, Vince Chowdhury, state on March 1st that the (Jeffco) school district meets all the needs of all of their students. No wonder Mr. Chowdhury repeatedly votes against parents who want educational options.

Friday, March 23, 2007

SB 199's Impact on Charter Schools

Here's a clip from the Colorado League of Charter School's flyer regarding SB 199:

"Some Colorado kids go to traditional public schools. Tens of thousands go to public charter schools. Both are free for families, both accept children without discrimination and both have to meet state standards. Then why do some Colorado legislators -- like State Senator Sue Windels -- continue to support spending less money per child educating kids who attend public charter schools than those who go to traditional public schools?"

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Comment From Someone Who Knows

Kathryn, an experienced and successful charter school principal, sent me this comment after reading an earlier blog.

"Incremental degradation--if we compromise at work or at home; if we lower the standard about how we talk, what we talk about, and most important, what degree of authenticity we bring to our (educational) conversations--it's a slow and deadly slide. You are required to be responsive to your world." Fierce Conversations by S. Scott.

Passionate engagement by all players, coupled with a strong and clear vision, is something charter schools share.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Charter Schools Would be the Third Largest School District in Colorado

If all the charter school students in Colorado were counted as a single school district, the charter district would be the third largest in the state. There are 52,352 students attending public charter schools in Colorado, based on Oct. 1, 2006 data. During the 2006-07 school year, 133 charter schools are operating.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Charters in the News

My pet peeve is when the media puts a charter school in the news for something they wouldn't report on if it were a noncharter public school. Charter schools operate the same as their traditional counterparts except in regard to governance and financial operations.

Why don't we see headlines when a charter school, in its fourth year of operation, is the top-ranked high school in the state? Ridgeview Classical Schools has been the #1 rated high school for two consecutive years. Isn't that worthy of a headline?

Instead we hear about the teacher who had an affair with her student on the Today show this week. This morning the news reported a carjacking in the vicinity of [blank] school, "a charter school." In neither of these stories was it relevant that it was a charter school. But, if it's possible for the public to associate problems with charter schools, this is a clever way to feed that public perception!

Yesterday I visited Northstar Academy in Parker. I was extremely impressed by this first year school and what they've already accomplished. Students had written persuasive essays about why they should be allowed to wear green for St. Patrick's Day, rather than their school uniform. The Principal reported these essays were so good, she agreed with them. Yesterday I saw lots of green clothes--and some very happy students! And even more noteworthy than what they were wearing, I saw examples of student work on display and classrooms with students on task--they were learning! I think Northstar Academy should make the news for doing an excellent job educating their students!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

CSAP & Charters

Across the state, thousands of public school students are taking the state assessment, CSAP. This is a very important assessment for schools. Some charter schools have reported that their District Assessment Coordinator (DAC) has told them they have to administer the CSAP at the charter school on the same day as the district. However, state law only indicates a window of time to administer the CSAP. Many charter schools have waivers from the district's school calendar and have different days off than their district. If this situation arises with your charter school, make sure you're communicating with the district -- in writing, if possible. Ultimately, the decision should be made considering what's best for the student.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why are Charter Schools Successful?

I'll probably write about this topic fairly often. There are LOTS of reasons that charter schools are more effective at increasing student academic achievement. First, I should note that not all charter schools are the same and therefore their results vary, even if they use the same curriculum.

Charter schools work because of the passion for excellence in the school's leadership. This is most likely the combination of the governing board (parents &/or community members) and school administration. Some other time I'll comment more in-depth about charter school principals, but this time I'm going to focus on the passion and drive in governing board members.

There have been studies about the characteristics of people who start charter schools: entrepeneurial spirit, think "outside the box," a "can-do" attitude, etc. Most often I see people who are dedicated to seeing children become successful adults. This is not limited to parents believing only their children should be successful. It goes far beyond that.

Many charter school developers do not make good board members once the school is open. Some continue to be dynamic leaders of the school they helped create. Just the process to open a charter school requires endless hours of determination and a willingness to learn and ask questions.

I often tell people who just get their school approved, "Now your work truly begins." I can see the look of disappointment on their face because the charter application process could be compared to giving birth. For some, it's a long and very difficult labor. Who wants to hear that once that baby has been born the real work begins?

The real heroes of charter schools are the parents who have sacrified family time and put their personal lives on hold while they work on a new charter school, often bucking the system and making waves. Some charter schools honor their founders either through an annual "Founder's Day" or by recognizing them at celebrations. Our state has many such heroes who started the first charter schools and also continue today. Through this venue, I'd like to write about some of the incredible people I've met over the years! Watch for more on this topic!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Graduation Requirements v. College Entrance Requirements

The fact that many school districts in Colorado have graduation requirements below college entrance requirements means students (and their unsuspecting families) are the losers.

How can we educate a generation of parents who are dealing with planning for their student's college entrance for the first time? Parent's can't wait until their student's junior year to begin preparing for college. It must start when the student enters ninth grade. Plus, parents now have to know for themselves which courses are required for college entrance because simply getting a high school diploma isn't enough in most school districts.

A couple of years ago one large metropolitan school district investigated the fiscal impact for adding one additional math course. The current graduation requirement is two years of math in this district, but students graduating high school in 2010 must have four years of math. The district determined adding one math course would cost $6 million dollars. This calculation didn't even factor in that students/families wise enough to know they need math, science and foreign language courses (beyond high school graduation requirements) will be taking additional courses.

Parents/students should make sure they know college entrance requirements. Plus, start asking questions about preparing for college entrance during the middle school years. Don't focus on deciding which school your child will attend, rather focus on making sure all his/her options are available once the student is ready to make a decision.

Friday, March 9, 2007

The Latest Ploy to Stop Charter Schools

We see different "seasons" from the anti-charter school folks. A few years ago the strategy was "negotiate to impasse." Now the strategy is to set the standard in a list of contingencies to open so high that it's impossible for a charter school to open.

In Colorado, if a charter school applicant is denied they can appeal that denial to the State Board of Education. A group of charter school parents in northern Jefferson County have been working for over five years to get a high school for their three K-8 Core Knowledge charter schools. These parents have a wealth of experience operating a successful school including getting bond financing for facilities and demonstrating academic improvement.

Initially these parents wanted to work with the Jeffco school district and submitted an option school proposal. After 8 months of not even hearing a response to the proposal (there are no statutory deadlines) the parents submitted a charter proposal. Suddenly the district became very interested in an option school and the board voted to open a new option school similar to the one these parents proposed. What's the problem? Parent participation was not going to be permitted. These parents were going to be relegated to PTO work.

The next year the parents submitted another charter proposal and then appealed the denial to the State Board of Education. The 8-member State Board had a split vote and so the charter appeal failed. However, individuals on the board chastised Jeffco for failing to open a school that had demand and came from a group of individuals who had already demonstrated success.

In the fall of 2005 founders of Madison Charter High School submitted a third charter application. This, too, was ultimately denied by the Jeffco school board. However, after two appeals to the State Board, the district was ordered to open Madison Charter High School and negotiate a contract within 90 days.

In the district's motion to approve they included a list of contingencies along with associated deadlines for meeting the contingency. One such example was that Madison High School would open with 400 students. Now Madison HS's charter application never contained a growth plan and never stated how many students would be enrolled the first year. How could the organizers state a specific number of students without a facility?

District staff saw the proposed Madison HS budget contained three different student count scenarios: 400, 600 & 800 students. This was the rationale used for claiming Madison HS "proposed" opening with 400 students!

The site selected by Madison HS board members was designed to hold 270 students and that size was also recommended by the new school's administrator. Further, the design of Madison HS was focused on a "small school atmosphere."

None of this mattered. The Jeffco school board on March 1, 2007 failed to amend their previous resolution, which left the Madison HS board without an opportunity to appeal the decision to the State Board of Education.

Clever, isn't it? Create a list of unrealistic contingencies and then claim it was the charter organizer's fault! Further, without taking any action there isn't a "trigger" to allow an appeal to the State Board of Education. This is the third time Jeffco has employed this strategy. Watch for it to happen more.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Charter Schools in the Legislature

In my ten plus years of either being a volunteer charter school lobbyist or just monitoring charter school legislation I've never seen it this ugly at the Capitol. On Monday afternoon the House Education committee heard SB 61, Charter School Institute.

Alex Medler, Chair of the Charter School Institute board, testified. When he was done one of the committee members asked if he'd seen the proposed amendments because they would significantly alter the bill. The committee asked him to review the amendments and then come back and give his comments. At the end of the testimony phase, Medler came back to the table. The acting chair, Rep. Solano, said that since he was going to be commenting on amendments, he should come back when they're discussing amendments, so Medler returned to his chair in the audience.

Shortly after, when the first amendment had been introduced and discussed, Rep. Cory Gardner asked for Medler to come back to comment. At the behest of bill sponsor and Chair of House Ed, Rep. Mike Merrifield, Rep. Solano banged the gavel and ruled the hearing portion of the bill done and no one would be allowed back to testify. Rep. Gardner objected saying, "Everyone in this room heard you say he could come back to comment on the amendments! This is just wrong!" and then Rep. Gardner walked out. He was soon followed by Rep. Ray Rose and Rep. Ken Summers.

Further, the first amendment was to strip away the Senate amendment added by Sen. Spence, which would have allowed high-achieving schools serving primarily at-risk students to charter up to three schools anywhere in the state. The bar for this amendment was set extremely high: 50% Free and Reduced Lunch qualifying students, 85% or higher on the CSAP and a record of success in operating a charter school.

Committeee member Rep. Debbie Benefield actually argued that charter schools needed the consent of all the adults involved before they should be allowed to open. Rep. Gardner argued that poor kids deserved an opportunity for a better education, regardless of what the adults thought--what's best for kids should drive the decision.

I've never seen such outright animosity against charter schools and those involved with charter schools. It's impossible to imagine anything positive being adopted for charter schools in this climate. I think the best strategy is just to kill every bill that's introduced by people who have demonstrated they don't like charter schools.

Thank you to Ben DeGrow for writing about this topic on his blog: