Category Archives: Charter Schools

ICYMI: Is There or Isn’t There a Looming Fiscal Cliff for Education?

Throughout the past month, Bellwether has weighed in on the financial health of schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with different reactions, resources, and recommendations from across our team. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: 

You can read all the posts in the series here, and we welcome your reactions! Thanks for following along.

9 Considerations for Charter School Mergers in an Era of Limited Budgets

Since March, school funding experts have sought to understand how the economic turmoil coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic would affect school revenue. Most analysts agree that the impact will be significant and will be felt most by those who are the furthest from opportunity. Unfortunately, charter schools — which nationally enroll a student population that is 52 percent low-income, 25 percent Black, and 34 percent Hispanic — are particularly vulnerable to variations in state funding. 

Charter schools struggling with financial sustainability may consider whether the school’s mission might be better served by merging with another charter school. However, while charter school mergers can work, they are far from a simple solution and must be approached carefully.

As our colleagues Lina Bankert and Lauren Schwartze have previously written, a “merger” can take many shapes but, fundamentally, it involves joining together two or more organizations as one entity — through a formal legal agreement — in pursuit of a common goal. In the current financial climate, financial sustainability may be what prompts schools to explore a merger, but any merger conversation should start by defining all of the reasons why it could be a strategic move for each partner in the merger.

These nine considerations will help school leaders determine whether a merger might make sense for their school:

While a merger can support better financial efficiency in the long-term, financial efficiency is neither immediate nor guaranteed. If school leaders are pursuing a merger first and foremost because they believe it promises immediate financial benefits, they should stop and reconsider. A successful merger between two or more charter schools requires a short-term infusion of funding to support the merger process. To conduct due diligence, support internal decision making, plan implementation, and ensure a smooth transition period, school leaders will need financial resources for necessary staff time and legal expertise. Any long-term financial efficiencies will only occur after an initial up-front investment that can sometimes total hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

While a merger can increase financial strength by achieving a larger or more stable revenue base (via combined student enrollment) and by enabling some economies of scale, in practice the additional revenue is often used to support a high-quality school model, via investments to support rigorous and consistent instruction for the merged institution. As a result, a merger should not be thought of as a strategy for “saving money” per se, but instead as a way to combine resources to provide a high-quality education to more students, with the stronger financial footing that comes with that.   

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FAQs for Future Applicants to the Federal Charter School Program Grant

As applicants anxiously await the results of the FY2020 Charter School Program (CSP) State Entities grant competition, we want to offer some tips for prospective future applicants. As my Bellwether colleagues recently wrote, the CSP is a discretionary grant that provides federal resources to create, replicate, and support high-quality public charter schools. Developing a strong CSP application takes significant time and forethought. Although future funding of the CSP hangs in the balance, charter networks thinking about applying should plan far in advance to develop a strong application. 

Bellwether has partnered with a number of charter management organizations to develop winning federal education grant proposals, including CSP Replication and Expansion grants. The Frequently Asked Questions below explain what differentiates a successful application and provide advice on developing a winning proposal. 

Logistics of applying 

When should I start thinking about applying for a CSP grant? 

Six-to-eight-week turnarounds are fairly common: in 2019, the notice inviting applications appeared on November 26, 2019 and the deadline for transmittal of applications was January 10, 2020. Because the turnaround is pretty quick, occurs at a time of year when many staff may be planning time off, and the applications themselves are often over sixty pages long, preparing in advance is very helpful. 

As you think about applying, consider your network’s readiness to grow and increase impact. Indicators of readiness to grow can cross multiple dimensions, such as quality of programming, strength of student outcomes, clarity of instructional and cultural visions, student and staff retention and satisfaction, and financial health and sustainability. Bellwether offers a “Readiness to Grow” diagnostic tool that can help organizations assess their strengths and areas for focus before or during a growth process (see case study that used this tool here).  Continue reading

The Accountability Wars Are About to Begin

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told states not to expect a waiver on state assessments this year. Some in education will surely push back with the argument that COVID-19 upended metrics historically used to hold schools accountable — student performance and engagement in particular — and, as a result, schools can’t be held accountable at all.

But the question of assessing students shouldn’t be if testing should happen (and yes, states should give assessments this school year), but rather how should we assess teaching and learning in COVID-19 and beyond. 

For charter schools, authorizers can and must continue to hold schools to high standards, especially in this time of uncertainty, by assessing school performance using new metrics and existing metrics defined in new ways; and by rethinking the authorizer role in helping schools meet the needs of students and families.

Assess school performance using new metrics and existing metrics defined in new ways

Authorizers historically measured school performance using proficiency and growth on state-level annual assessments. But real questions exist on what a missing year of data nationwide means for comparing data from previous years. Similarly, past student engagement metrics, previously measured through attendance, or student’s physical presence in the classroom, aren’t possible in a virtual environment.

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A New Way to Classify — and Learn From — “Alternative” Schools

Nearly every district in the country uses the term “alternative” to describe a broad swath of schools, including those that serve students who are pregnant and parenting, students who are new arrivals to the United States, adult learners, youth in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, or students who have previously dropped out. In short, it’s a way to classify schools that serve students who have needs that are not met or addressed by typical K-12 learning environments.

These and many other “alternative” schools meet student needs that are not going away. In the wake of COVID-19, in fact, these needs are more acute than ever. But because these schools are poorly understood by many sector leaders, their distinct strengths are at risk of going unnoticed and untapped. Rather than remaining the quirky outliers, these schools should become models for modern ways of learning, especially when flexible, hybrid, part-time, and distance learning programs are more relevant than ever. 

The reality is that within the big bucket of “alternative schools,” programs differ widely: some may be quasi-virtual or residential programs while others offer evening classes or deliver two-generation support for parents and young children. Ultimately, the big label of “alternative” obscures more than it illuminates. I would like to offer a more sophisticated definition and challenge the idea that these schools are fungible alternatives to conventional education opportunities. 

I have identified three defining features of alternative schools based on my research and experience, including many visits to schools across the country:

  1. They align to an otherwise unmet need for services. For the most part, the alternative to many of these schools is not attending school at all. 
  2. They are intentionally designed to meet a set of specific student needs. This may be a complex constellation of needs, but the designers of the school’s programs and services are guided by the needs, wants, and constraints of the young people that they serve. As a result, they may look much different operationally from a traditional school.
  3. They set mission-aligned learning and outcome objectives (e.g., improved parenting skills, increased school attendance, or developmental milestones of social and emotional learning) and may adjust the thresholds or timelines for traditional metrics of school success (for example, using a six-year graduation rate rather than a four-year measurement).

I believe that schools meeting all these criteria can safely be called “alternative,” but even within that category, I’ve discovered further useful distinctions. Below I offer an overview of three common types of programs, each with its own real-world illustration. 

Schools that offer intensive in-person services

Although many charter models tout their unique in-person school culture and the intangible learning experiences that they create in their buildings, few programs offer the kind of in-person service delivery that a school like Monument Academy, a five-day-a-week boarding school in Washington DC, delivers. With a weekday boarding program for nearly 100 youth, many of whom are in formal foster care or informal kinship care, the physical aspect of the program model is foundational.

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