Category Archives: Charter Schools

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. Continue reading

Cory Booker’s Move on Charter Schools is Both Political — and Good

A prodigal son of the charter school sector returned home on Monday, when Senator Cory Booker voiced support for charter schools in the New York Times, a notable shift from his criticism of charter schools back in May.

It was a bold move in some ways, especially given the precariousness of his presidential bid and the inevitable price he will pay with the teachers unions. It was also a strategic move to the middle as centrist Michael Bloomberg joins the race and underdog Pete Buttigieg builds steam.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, photo by Gage Skidmore

It’s not hard to see the politics at play, but Booker deserves credit for calling out the Democratic party for being unresponsive to many constituents who support charter schooling. Booker takes fellow Democrats to task for not listening to the families who face “impossible choices” in favor of the more “privileged voices” in the party, a veiled reference to the omnipotent teachers unions, whose favor Senator Elizabeth Warren courted with her anti-charter education plan a few weeks ago.

Recent survey data on charter schools illustrates the misalignment between Democratic Party leadership and many of its key constituent groups, with higher levels of charter school support from African American and Hispanic subgroups than from Democrats and teachers.

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Media: “Give Louisville’s Low-Income Families the Same School Choice the Wealthy Have” in the Courier-Journal

Louisville is a wonderful city, and I’m proud to call it home, but like many other American cities, your child’s educational opportunities depend heavily on your income level. It doesn’t have to be this way: charter schools and scholarship tax credit programs are two policy mechanisms that can help level the educational playing field.

My op-ed out today in the Louisville Courier-Journal focuses on the need for Kentucky’s policymakers to empower lower-income parents with the ability to choose the best school for their child — just like the wealthy already do:

All families deserve to choose the best educational path for their children, but right now in Louisville, that right is reserved only for the wealthy.

Families with financial means who are unhappy with Jefferson County Public Schools have several options. They can move to nearby Oldham, Shelby or Bullitt counties, as thousands have done since the early 1990s, taking a significant amount of taxable wealth with them. Or they can enroll their children in one of the area’s many private schools, as thousands per year also do. Low-income families, meanwhile, are essentially asked to wait and hope that the school system improves.

Read my full op-ed here, and check out Bellwether’s other writing on school choice issues here.

Denver Voters Just “Flipped” the School Board

The votes in Denver have been counted. Tuesday’s election of Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick to Denver Public School’s board signals a seismic shift away from the education reforms made over the last fourteen years. Long known as one of the country’s most reform-friendly elected school boards, all three of the new members were supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the local teachers’ union.

headshot of newly elected Denver school board member Tay Anderson wearing a bright red tshirt with DCTA, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

photo of Tay Anderson courtesy his Facebook page

For the first time in over a decade, the balance of power on the board has shifted towards people supporting more traditional, union-friendly policies. This may signal that changes to Denver Public Schools (DPS) lacked durable support from the community. DCTA mobilized voters in response to a feeling that “for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities,” as my colleague Alex wrote on Monday.

Beginning in 2005, DPS began to grant more autonomy to schools, establish charter-friendly policies, and create a standardized performance management tool for all schools, resulting in student achievement gains and an increased graduation rate. As profiled on our Eight Cities website, DPS offers a mixture of school choices to students, including charter, district, and innovation options — and a unified enrollment system that allows families, at least in theory, to select the best school for their students. 

These policy changes were enabled by the composition of the district’s school board, with at least four of seven members aligned with education reform from 2009 to 2018. Four of those years (2013 – 2017) even saw unanimous support.

Yet reforms included closures of popular neighborhood schools. Newly elected board member Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old DPS graduate, experienced a school closure firsthand, inspiring him to become an advocate for Denver’s students. His platform includes building a teaching force more representative of local student demographics.

Some parents struggled to navigate the school performance management and unified enrollment systems, often defaulting to the neighborhood school based on proximity. Some objected to the expansion of charter schools, which DPS welcomed to meet rising enrollment in the 2000s. Teachers pushed back against the merit-pay system, culminating in a strike earlier this year. Other critics of reform efforts point out that despite the gains, the district has struggled to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students.

With the results of this election, the seven-person board now has five union-aligned members. If Tuesday’s results indicate dramatic changes to come in Denver’s school policies, it’s a district to watch.

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.

School Choice Isn’t That Simple for Youth in Foster Care

In theory, students in foster care, who may relocate frequently, would be prime candidates to benefit from school choice, with its specialized school options and flexibility.

But navigating choice processes, and even just identifying the right adult to weigh in on a school decision, can be a fraught process for youth in foster care. When a student is placed in foster care, the decision-making rights to their education may rest with one of many possible adults: a parent, another family member, a court-appointed volunteer, or a social worker. Each of these adults have different skills and capacity to dedicate to a student in their care. Some foster parents may have significant time to research school options and help a student understand which school may be the best fit, whereas a social worker has to care for dozens of students simultaneously.

These students deserve access to the full range of school choice options that their peers have, even if they frequently relocate — they shouldn’t have to lurch from assigned school to assigned school. (Federal law requires students in foster care to be eligible to remain in their original school even if placed under care in another district. Sadly, a recent U.S. Government and Accountability Office report found that state agencies are often unable to pay the cost of transporting students to their school of origin.)

As many communities consider expanding school choice options, it is vital for education agencies and systems of care to be mindful of the specific challenges students in foster care experience. My colleague Hailly Korman and I are currently working on a new project focused on the experiences of foster youth in communities with relatively high levels of school choice, exploring the following questions: Continue reading