Thursday, July 13, 2006

The OSBA declares war on charter schools

Bear with me on this post. I'm sorry it is so long. But it will take some time to explain the lengths the education establishment will go to manipulate rules and processes in order to protect itself.

This example concerns charter schools. For the uninitiated, charters are independently operated public schools that compete with the district-operated schools. Charters are public schools - they are publicly funded, and must accept all students. They are released from some regulations that cover other public schools in exchange for heightened accountability provisions, which the charter must meet, or it will be closed.

Here's the problem: In Oregon, a charter school must be approved by the school district in which it will be located. This means the founders of a startup school must ask a district if it is OK if they open a new school in the district that will compete for students with the district's schools, and if a student attends the charter school instead of the district school, the district will lose about 80% of the funding it gets from the state for that student.

Guess what? Districts usually want to tell the charters "NO!"

But the charter law seems to force them to say "yes." At least, that is, if the charter fulfills the requirements in the charter law. To get the approval, a charter school has to present a proposal to the district that addresses 24 different elements, everything from curriculum to assessment to staffing.

The charter school law explicitly says that the legislature wanted the new law to create new charter schools, and that the law should be "interpreted liberally" to make that happen.

But now, after seven years of experience dealing with charters, the education establishment groups are getting better and better at subverting the explicit instruction of the statute. They are using the school districts' control over the charter school approval process to basically give the middle finger to the legislature.

Here's the deal:

As I said, the original charter school statute requires that charters provide information on 24 different elements of the school that range from the very involved (curriculum and assessment) to the mundane (the name of the school.)

But the language of the charter law gave school districts a way to run out the clock on most charter proposals. It says that the district "may require any additional information the board considers relevant to the formation or operation of a public charter school."

It took almost six years for the school districts' lobbying group, the OSBA, to figure out how to use this language to stop charters, but it finally did. Here's how:

One thing the OSBA does is provide school districts with template procedures and policies for all sorts of things. Districts find this service very useful, because they can basically just vote to adopt the OSBA template policies and not have to spend any staff time developing their own policies from scratch.

When a policy is adopted, it basically acts like an administrative rule for the district.

One such policy a district must have in place is a policy and procedure for how charter school proposals are handled by the district. The policy scripts the timelines, hearings that must be held, and what information is required to be presented by the charter school, and how the district must analyze that information and come to a decision.

The OSBA created template charter school policies a few years ago, which nearly every district in Oregon adopted. Recently, the OSBA decided it needed to revise this template. Why? My guess is they saw an opportunity to give districts the tools they needed to stop any charter school they want to stop.

In the new template, the OSBA has layered on about 75 new informational requirements to the 24 called for in the charter law that a charter proposal must address. And many of the items they say they need to judge a charter proposal are simply unanswerable.

The cumulative result of all this new information required of a proposed charter school is to put such a huge burden on the front end of starting a charter school that virtually nobody would bother to do it.

Charter proposals that I compile generally run about 250 pages. If I had to try and answer all the specious questions and fulfill all the informational requirements in the new OSBA template regulations, it would require at least ten times that number of pages of information.

Here's the very first new item of information that the OSBA wants a charter proposal to include. Bear in mind that they want this information at the very earliest stage of opening a charter school - at the point the school is proposed to the district:

(1)Description of a curriculum for each grade of students, which demonstrates in detail alignment with Oregon’s academic content standards;

This sounds perfectly reasonable, right? After all, shouldn't a proposed school show that its curriculum is aligned with Oregon's vaunted standards? Here's the problem:

Oregon's standards are comprised of explicit learning goals for each grade in 12 different content areas. Take just one content area - math - and look at the standards. Just for grades K-5 in math, there are a total of 285 individual learning goals that are part of the "standards." These goals range from things like "Read, write and be able to identify whole numbers less than 10" at the kindergarten level, to "Develop and evaluate strategies for computing with decimals and fractions" at the 5th grade level.

(As an aside, what kind of standard is this? Why would we want our fifth graders to be developing strategies for computing with decimals? Don't we already know what the best "strategies" are for adding and subtracting decimals? I always thought it was the job of the teacher to know what the best strategies are, and to teach these strategies to the kids. But no, not in the world of "new, new math." These days the 10 year olds are perfectly capable of not only developing their own personal strategies for working with decimals, but they can evaluate them as well. This is the kind of nonsense that pervades Oregon's so-called "Standards," which charter schools somehow have to prove their curriculum covers.)

So, a proposed K-5 charter school, if it wants to satisfy this single requirement (remember - this is only one of 75 new items of information) is supposed to go through its proposed curriculum and prove that all 285 math standards are taught by it, and specifically identify which page and which lesson in the math curriculum addresses it. And that is only for math - there are 11 other content areas to go through.

And remember - this is on the front end, at the time the school is proposed. Which might be two years before it is planned to open.

The most amusing part of the new OSBA requirements come in the form of what we call the "How questions." They constantly ask the charter school to explain "how" it will comply with various state and federal mandates. It's not enough to just stipulate that the school will comply - they want to know "how."

And that is when it becomes even more absurd.

For instance, one item asks for : (1) Documentation of how the public charter school will meet the federal mandate of “highly qualified” teachers contained in No Child Left Behind;

Uh..... well.... we will only hire teachers who meet the definition of "highly qualified" as determined by NCLB. But the law already stipulates that we comply with all relevant state and federal mandates, so what exactly do they want here? What possible "documentation" would exist that would show "how" we would only hire such teachers?

This is a great example of the level of thinking that so often goes into education establishment mumbo jumbo bureaucracy. It is completely meaningless, but it very often finds its way into policy because nobody takes the time to ask the most rudimentary, common sense questions. And then it is used to put obstacles in the path of anybody who the establishment doesn't want at their little party.

The new charter school regulations are rife with this kind of stuff. You really have to read the whole thing to believe it.

In sum, the new regs are simply an obstacle that can be used to stop a charter school dead in its tracks, before it can get to the starting line and begin the statutorily defined approval process. Let me repeat that, because it is the real point here:

These regs can be used to stop any charter school proposal before it can even trigger the approval timeline scripted in law. Why?

Because the first thing a district does when it receives a charter proposal, according to a rule esatblished a few years ago, is review the proposal for "completeness." Only when the district deems a proposal "complete" is the 90 day approval/denial timeline triggered.

So if a district adopts regulations that require onerous and unreasonable information in the proposal that nobody could possibly provide, then the district can simply say the proposal is "not complete," and send it back to have the charter school revise it.

There is nothing the charter school developers can do about it. There is no appeal - we've been down that road before. If a district says a proposal is not complete, then the process doesn't start. They have the final say.

So, with these new template regulations, the OSBA has put the tools in the hands of every school board in the state to stop any charter proposal they want to stop before the process can even get started.

The preamble to the charter law, ORS Chapter 338, reads:

"The provisions of this chapter should be interpreted liberally to support the goals of this section..."

Does this sound to you like the OSBA is trying to support the goals of the charter school law? Far from it.

The OSBA is giving the middle finger to the legislature's stated desire to create charter schools.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am a school board member in the Metro area. I am a liberal Democrat who used to be against charter schools.

But I have seen so much bullshit over the last three years that I now believe that charters are one of the necessary elements of breaking the public school system out of its cycle of complacency.

The OSBA, when I first ran for office, I thought was a decent pro-education organization. Over the three years I have seen time and again that it is nothing but a hack political interest group, concerned primarily with:

1)Perpetuating its existence so the brass there can keep their $100K per year jobs,

and 2) Protecting the school districts so they keep paying OSBA dues so that they can continue to meet #1 above.

They have to be killed. I once was convinced about the OSBA's arguments about the health care trust that they run. Now I see that this is just a revenue stream for them, and we have to end it, even if it DOES cost a little money.

Rob, I'll help you kill the OSBA any way I can.

Anonymous said...

Where can we get a copy of these new OSBA template policies?

Rob Kremer said...

Anon:
They aren't yet on the OSBA website, but I'd be happy to email you a copy if you give me your address.

Anonymous said...

Great, thanks, my e-mail address is: free_from_the_matrix@hotmail.com.

gus miller said...

Rob:

The OSBA should be mocked for requiring of charter schools that which most "regular" public schools are not currently delivering at much higher levels of funding.

gus miller said...

Rob:

The OSBA should be mocked for requiring of charter schools that which most "regular" public schools are not currently delivering at much higher levels of funding.

Anonymous said...

Portland Charters may really have a list of new rules with their new Charter Manager, Cliff Brush.

Anonymous said...

Last Anon, you may be right about that. Portland may have have hired just the right guy to represent their anti-charter sentiment.

Anonymous said...

Rob, just a friendly reminder to send me those policies.
Anon (Matrix, see e-mail address above)

Anonymous said...

It's clear that the OSBA has everything to do with control, power and money and nothing to do with what is best for children. They are in the wrong business, but no one has stood up and told them so. Why are charter schools such a threat to them anyway?

Anonymous said...

The OSBA is a parasit. They are leaches that are sucking the blood out of our educational system. They need to be abolished if education in Oregon is ever to succeed.