October 2013 School Board News

On the Hill
Dissecting the charter and school choice movement: Watch the trends

The charter school movement officially appeared on the national stage in 1989 when then-U.S. Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos conducted a series of forums across the country featuring supportive researchers, local success stories, and parent endorsements.

However, support for a federal charter school program failed to gain traction largely because of concerns expressed by key education organizations, including NSBA. These groups were concerned about the various educational, financial, and governance issues involved, as well as the lack of adequate evidence of success.

Charter supporters also went to the states. Starting with Minnesota, they successfully promoted legislative action in a handful of states in the early 1990s. They persuasively argued that charters would allow experimentation, resulting in successful practices that then could be adopted in traditional public schools. They said charter successes would help traditional public schools break down the regulatory barriers that too often prevented change from occurring. Further, the cooperation between charter schools and traditional public schools would benefit all schools.

Over this period, NSBA has supported charter schools, but only if they were authorized by the local school board in the area in which they would operate. That is, through local authorizing, oversight, and evaluation, school boards are best positioned to decide how a charter school should operate to meet the overall needs of students in the school district. It can hold the charter school accountable for the achievement goals for its students, and it can ensure that the school will remain public and representative of the community.

Since its inception, the charter school movement expanded from a limited number of schools in a limited number of states -- most notably Arizona, California, and Michigan -- into an established national presence of some 6,000 schools. At the same time, states are allowing more charters to be created outside of the authority of local school boards. Increasingly, charters are seen as more generally available alternatives to traditional public schools rather than as exceptional entities. In effect, the trend in the charter school movement has rapidly moved in a different direction than advocated by NSBA.

In part, the dramatic change in the charter landscape can be attributed to federal policies such as the $200 million to $250 million per year of support over the past 12 years. A big boost was provided by the current Department of Education when it strongly encouraged states to initiate or expand the number of charters they would authorize in order to compete for Race to the Top grants. More generally, it has been advocating and providing information to expand their presence. Meanwhile, pending legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would reframe the current federal program to concentrate federal aid funds to support states in building infrastructure to authorize more charters.

At the state level, more legislatures are passing laws to establish charters or lift caps on the number they would allow. By no small measure, state lawmakers have been politically moved by the growth and advocacy of organized charter school associations in their state and of companies that have a stake in charter expansion. Publicly, the rhetorical theme of providing parents with a choice to remove their child from a failing school has resonated well. At the same time, credible public opinion research shows that the public supports good-quality neighborhood public schools over charter schools, including an overwhelming 2-to-1 majority in a poll conducted by Hard Research last July.

The pressure to expand charter schools continues, despite several simple facts that contradict the reasons why they were established in the first place. First, respected research, such as the CREDO reports from Stanford University in 2009 and this year, shows that a relatively small portion of charters out-performs traditional public schools. A larger portion does worse, and most perform at about the same level. Since success for specific groups, such as African-American students and English language learners, varies significantly from state to state and among individual schools, generalized expectations of success cannot be made at the local level. No compelling results exist that demonstrate that charters should rise from the experimental or locally determined level to become a more available alternative to traditional neighborhood public schools.

Second, charter schools and traditional public schools generally do not cooperate. Rather, they tend to be isolated from each other, if not outright competitors, particularly in areas where charters have been authorized by an outside agency. Third, whatever beneficial practices charters have achieved through deregulation have not worked their way into traditional public schools, which are being constrained by more -- not fewer -- controls from the state and federal levels.

Charter schools still make up a small portion of school enrollment. However, at 6,000 schools in number, they are redefining public education in the minds of some lawmakers from being a publicly governed institution into a publicly financed collection of entities that exclude the broader public interest.

With support from various organizations and corporations, virtual charter schools have appeared, as well as full-time individual online programs. These schools and programs frequently operate without adequate oversight or disclosure of weak academic performance. Similarly, inadequate disclosure requirements have resulted in payments made to companies that have overstated their student enrollment numbers or the time that students were actually logged in. These are funds that could have gone to local public schools.

Where charter schools and online programs exist, lawmakers should make every effort to ensure that parents, students, and taxpayers are protected through full public disclosure requirements. For example, traditional public schools must disclose student performance on state assessments in each school by subgroup, as well as the credentials that teachers have for the courses they teach. These schools should be required to do these things, too. Financial data relating to the cost of services, profits, management fees, and salaries of school managers also should be disclosed. Boards that authorize or evaluate these schools and programs should be free of any personal or family financial or political interest in the decisions or recommendations that are made.

But beyond these and other protections for parents and taxpayers, the time has come for school board members and other public school advocates to insist that lawmakers pay attention to the basic public policy principles that are at stake. Will public education continue to be a public institution representative of the entire community? Or will it increasingly become a collection of publicly financed entities governed outside of the view and involvement of the public and its interest in the education of the whole child? Parents and community members also need to know whether these charter alternatives are having a negative impact on neighborhood public schools. Lawmakers need to give the public what it wants: support for good neighborhood public schools. 

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. 

Q&A with Anisa Baldwin Metzger of the Center for Green Schools

Nearly 13 million pre-k-12 students are being educated in schools that have green building polices—and that number keeps growing.

While some energy-saving solutions, such as solar panels, can be pricey, green schools aren’t necessarily more expensive, says Anisa Baldwin Metzger, manager of sustainability at the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), In fact, she says, green schools can save districts thousands of dollars in heating, cooling, and lighting costs while teaching students, staff, and the public about conservation and sustainability. Recently, Baldwin Metzger spoke with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy.

How have public perceptions of green schools changed in the past 10 or 15 years?

The public has slowly begun to understand the importance of the ideas inherent to sustainability: healthy living, energy efficiency, natural resource conservation, and investment in the future. For shorthand, USGBC often uses the concept of a triple bottom line: people, planet, profit. We’ve gained much better evidence in the past few decades about the impact of school environments on productivity, focus, respiratory health, and general well-being. Also, within the last seven years or so, we’ve seen more and more examples of healthier, more resource-efficient schools being built at or below regional construction costs.

What do you tell school board members who might balk at the cost of building green schools?

Green schools do not have to cost more money. Any choice made in designing and constructing buildings has the potential to raise or lower the cost. The emphasis should be on clearly setting expectations for design teams. When school leaders take the time to ask about and understand what goes into a green school—what’s behind the LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] rating system, for instance—they are better able to manage design choices. The Center for Green Schools has hundreds of volunteers all over the country who can come in to talk to your team about what goes into a green school.

Can building a green school lead to other efficiencies?

I don’t have to tell your readers about the cash-strapped situation of facilities departments. They are always the first to get cut when budgets are tight. While there is usually a learning curve in the first year or two of managing green buildings, facilities managers report fewer emergency calls and fewer complaints over time from their green schools—both new and renovated.

What advice could you offer a school board looking to go green?

First, be intentional about the goals you set for your green schools. Set the expectations high for your team, and your expectations will give them the permission they need to be creative and resourceful. If your goal is to save money, find every energy efficiency opportunity you can while maintaining a healthy learning environment. If your goal is [to] improve student health and performance, use existing research to make smart choices about day lighting, ventilation, and other targeted items. Second, involve your facilities team from the very beginning of any project. Make innovation and efficiency everyone’s job. Some of the best ideas to save energy in an existing school come from custodians and teachers.

About 3,000 K-12 schools have pursued or obtained LEED certification. That’s a lot, but still a small percentage of U.S. schools. Do you see a time when green schools will be the norm?

With $542 billion needed over the next 10 years to modernize our pre-k through 12th-grade schools, you might think the outlook is dire. Yet state- and district-level commitments toward green schools have soared. In McGraw-Hill’s survey of hundreds of administrators, released in October 2012, 81 percent reported doing at least some new green projects, and 84 percent reported doing some green renovations over the last three years. Our estimations put the number of children impacted by green school building commitments at more than 14 million. More investment in our school infrastructure is absolutely needed, and more people are realizing that the investment should be in spaces that make our students and teachers healthy, and ready to learn and teach. 

Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

NY takes Common Core tests
Tougher reading and math tests, based on the Common Core State Standards, have had a huge impact on passage rates in New York state, the Daily News reports. Just 31 percent of third- through eighth-graders passed the new tests, down from 55 percent passing the language test and 65 percent passing the math test in 2012. In Rochester, only 5 percent of students met both standards, while New York City saw its passage rate halved from last year. State charter schools performed as poorly, and sometimes worse, than traditional public schools, with just 23 percent of their students meeting the new language standard, compared with 31 percent of regular public school students. Thirty-one percent students in both charters and regular public schools met the new math standards.

Virginia’s religious exemption law
At age 16, Josh Powell could not solve an algebra problem or write an essay. The oldest of 12 children from a rural Central Virginia family, he knew as early as 2008 that home-schooling—which his parents had arranged through a religious exemption—was not going to get him where he wanted to go, and he sought to enroll in the local Buckingham County Public Schools.

He was denied.

Josh’s story, which appeared in the Washington Post, shows that when it comes to religious exemptions, parents’ wishes prevail. That is especially true in Virginia, the only state where families do not have to provide proof that their children are homeschooled or otherwise educated, says the Post. It said the number of Virginia families claiming religious exemption has grown 50 percent between 2000-13.

Josh, now 22, eventually attended community college, and ultimately won admission to Georgetown University. Later, he wrote a letter to his school board on behalf of younger siblings who wanted to attend public school. The board said no again. The school board’s attorney said the board is complying with Virginia law.

State school board leaders focus on transformative leadership at NSBA event

More than 80 state school board leaders gathered in Memphis, Tenn., in August to discuss school governance trends, hone their leadership skills, reflect on the fast-changing landscape, and learn from their colleagues at NSBA’s annual Presidents’ Retreat.

NSBA President David Pickler, a member of Tennessee’s Shelby County School Board, hosted the retreat in his hometown for state school boards association presidents, past presidents, and state executive directors.

The retreat focused on transformational leadership—Pickler’s theme for his term as president—and addressed the challenges in public education. Pickler encouraged school board leaders to become more effective advocates for public education and school board governance.

“This is our time to challenge conventional wisdom and embrace the possibilities ahead,” said Pickler. “We also must consider the challenges ahead with the efforts by well-funded and well-organized entities that want to dismantle our American institution of public schools and local school board governance. We must take on those who are trying to take away our students’ right to a great education and fight for the futures of more than 50 million schoolchildren.”

School board leaders participated in an interactive training event with staff from Crew Training International (CTI), a local company that offers training to develop the skills used by U.S. military aviators to accomplish complex missions. The facilitated training explored several scenarios and allowed participants to use CTI’s specialized hands-on, computerized training. Following the leadership training, school board leaders participated in a wing-pinning ceremony recognizing their leadership training with Commander W. Brent Phillips of the U.S. Navy Recruiting Command.

Representatives from the National Governors Association and Northern Kentucky University, several state school boards leaders, and previous NSBA presidents spoke about key leadership topics and vital issues in the states and at the federal level concerning K-12 education policy.

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. Patrick Henry Brady addressed the retreat’s closing session,  discussing leadership and his experiences in the Vietnam War and during a long career with the U.S. Army.

Brady noted that school board members are “key to the success to the future of America.” He said that board members must “teach young people the importance of character and patriotism” and show them “they can be heroes.”

Pickler announced a new NSBA partnership with the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s (CMOHF) Medal of Honor Character Development Program. The program incorporates the ideals of courage and selfless service into the middle and high school curricula to build character and promote responsible citizenship.

The program offers lesson plans that draw upon the ideals embodied in the Medal of Honor and their application in daily life. The program already is in 33 states and Department of Defense Dependents Schools in Europe and the Pacific.

NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel praised the new partnership and noted, “We are honored to ally with the CMOHF to pursue our mutual goals of ensuring that students fully appreciate the value of these contributions and that they will be inspired to fulfill all their responsibilities as citizens of the United States. NSBA looks forward to exploring partnership opportunities with the Foundation and to lend our active support to its mission.” 

Your Turn
Preaching to the choir on green

When it comes to urging school districts to adopt green building solutions, it turns out that we are preaching to the choir. You are already deeply committed to being energy efficient and environmentally friendly, and many of you have already taken steps to make your schools greener.

Results of our survey show that most of your green efforts are driven by the need to conserve district resources and control costs. At the top of your list of concerns is energy consumption. Nine out of 10 said their districts are updating school designs to improve energy efficiency. Half of you said you landscape with native and drought-resistant plants, which conserves water. Thirty percent use recycled construction materials, and 24.4 percent of you are building up—instead of out—to minimize water runoff and loss of green space. Eighteen percent have or are planning for a “rain garden,” and 15.7 percent are converting asphalt playgrounds into “green schoolyards.”

Indoor air quality is equally important. Three out of four said their district carefully maintains ventilation systems to improve indoor air quality, and 72.7 percent said their districts use less-toxic cleaning supplies.

Here are some of the green solutions already in place in your schools:

• We established a position for a director of public facilities. Supervision is shared between the schools and town. This person has been working all year with an ad hoc master-planning committee to identify and prioritize school and town construction/renovation projects for the next 10 years. -- Mary Ann Stewart, board member, Massachusetts

• The site we chose for the high school was a brick quarry. We moved the earth that we excavated to build the school to a brick manufacturer and had our own bricks made. The high school is River Bluff High School; the bricks are known as River Bluff Red.  -- Cynthia Smith, board member, South Carolina

• The Hayes Freedom High School is capable of functioning solely on the energy it produces. -- Julie Rotz, board member, Washington state

• We obtained a solar energy grant that helped us to place solar panels on each of three schools. -- Camille Murao Baker, board member, Pennsylvania

• We are currently building a new school (K-6) in Murfreesboro, Tenn. We will be using permeable pavers in the parking lot to prevent storm water runoff from going into nearby streams and waterways. -- Jared Barrett, board member, Tennessee

• Our green team begins with our in-house design and engineering folks, extends through the qualifications of our designer of record, to the contractors on site, and culminates in third-party commissioning of all major building systems. -- Tom Tate, board member, North Carolina

• The site of our schools has been continuously inhabited by the Cherokee people for over 500 years. Patterns in the cement stucco on the building exteriors recreate traditional Cherokee basket weave patterns. River cane, white oak, basket dye plants, and ramps are featured throughout the campus and will provide renewable and sustainable resources for our students. To respect [Cherokee] tradition, most students enter the building from the East. -- Lori Blankenship, board member, North Carolina

• We have developed and implemented a series of career and technical courses in the area of sustainability that have been adopted by Virginia. -- Christine M. Curry Ross, board member, Virginia

• Bell Prairie in the North Kansas City School District (LEED Gold status) includes a rooftop garden that is tended by the students and used by the cafeteria as a supplemental source. It is irrigated by a cistern and a windmill. -- Terry Ward, board member, Missouri