Sunday, June 6, 2010

Charter School Autonomy, Part One

I just got done reading "Charter School Autonomy: A Half-Broken Promise," from the Fordham Foundation. (Yes, it sat in my "to read" stack for quite some time!) Colorado was included in the 26 states whose charter school laws were examined by the authors. This included four individual charter schools: Provost Academy and Thomas MacLaren, both authorized by the Charter School Institute (CSI) and W Denver Prep and Envision Charter School, both authorized by Denver Public Schools (DPS).

In comparing the report's findings on a national scale to Colorado, there are numerous reasons why Colorado's law is stronger than most. Below I will go through each of the report's criteria for autonomy and point out the relevance for Colorado.

1. Teacher Certification: The State Board of Education automatically waives teacher licensure laws and doesn't require a charter school to meet the federal "highly qualified" definition by licensure. Instead charter schools with the licensure waiver, can demonstrate in other ways that their staff is "highly qualified."

2. Contract Revisions: The state law says that charter schools can "negotiate" their contracts with their authorizer. The degree to which they actually can varies across authorizers (districts and CSI). Most districts that have more than one charter school already, tend to standardize their contracts so that they aren't, for example, paying for Special Education services in two different ways. The development of last year's "sample contract language" provides for the charter school to define their own characteristics. It also more clearly explains what is considered a "material change" to the contract whereas in the past this was often ambiguous and led to differing legal interpretations. Colorado's law also allows for a charter school, for the purpose of gaining a better financing package, to have a long-term contract. Many schools in the state have 30 year contracts, or even "ever-greening" contracts that automatically renew each year. It should be noted that these long contracts do not change the accountability provisions for academics nor does it prevent the annual renewal of financial terms.

3. Staff Compensation: This is another one of the statutes that are automatically waived for charter schools, upon request. In fact, many charter schools do not even use a salary schedule. Instead many use performance pay systems and negotiated salaries. All charter schools use at-will employees. The charter contracts explicitly state that the charter school employee is not a district employee.

4. Board Composition: Although this is somewhat vague in the law, authorizers have, for the most part, steered away from dictating who can and cannot be on a charter school board. There have been a handful of situations where the authorizer either closed a charter school due to their governance issues or mandated a clean sweep of the current board. The authorizer's legal ability to do this remains in question, however. The new sample contract language contains an appendix that is a Board Certification Form. The form is meant to provide disclosure for potential conflicts of interest. Almost all charter school contracts require board's to have, and adhere to, conflicts of interest policies. Further, some authorizers in the state frown on charter school staff (i.e., teachers) from being on a charter school board. This is the exact opposite of some other states.

5. Special Education: The entity that has the legal authority to deliver Special Education services, and ensure compliance, is the "LEA" or Local Education Agency. In our state this is the local school district. Some of the smaller districts have formed a cooperative, a Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), for the purposes of delivering Special Education services. Charter schools must remain under their LEA and don't have the authority to join a BOCES unless their district participates in a BOCES. Charter schools have little autonomy in the area of Special Education in our state. For many charter schools their main source of contention with the requirement they adhere to whatever their district wants, is when district employees do not support the charter school's educational program or when the cost is very high for limited services.

To be Continued

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