Selected readings on US charter schools
Governor’s office disputes charters assessment
While many consider Jack Markell an “education reform” governor, a recent national report gives Delaware a squarely average ranking on reform efforts – and Markell’s office is backing away from embracing the label.
Some of Markell’s policies fit the “reformer mold,” like supporting more resources for charter schools and an emphasis on tying teacher accountability to student test scores.
And Markell prides himself as helping Delaware become the first state, along with Tennessee, to win money from the federal Race to the Top program, which gave the state $19 million to spend on, among other things, new teacher evaluations and implementing the Common Core State Standards.
But according to a report from the Center for Education Reform, “the first state is in the middle of the pack when it comes to parent power. There’s hope though that we’ll see some movement with a more reform-minded executive in the Governor’s mansion.”
Markell, who took office in 2009, does not appear to be chomping at the bit to make all the changes reformers like the report’s authors would like to see.
“The Governor isn’t interested in labels or rankings,” spokesman Cathy Rossi said in an email. “He is focused on strengthening Delaware schools and recognizes that different schools are best for different students.”
Delaware ranked 23rd on the Center’s Parent Power Index, which the group said is designed to measure how much “access to quality educational options” parents have.
The Center is an influential nonprofit in the national education reform movement. It is a strong supporter of charter schools and other parent choice options, like private school vouchers.
The group received more than $800,000 in donations last year from the Walton Family Foundation, a group named for the founder of Wal-Mart that supports charter and school choice options, according to the Walton Foundation’s website.
The Center and the movement it supports is controversial among some educators and activists who argue its policies don’t reform but instead put unfair pressure on teachers and sap money, talent and other resources from traditional public schools.
Delaware is lauded for giving parents school choice between public schools and the Center says the state has an “average” charter school law. It also says the state gives parents good information in making decisions, though it argues there are too few options.
This puts Delaware way behind “reform” paragons like Indiana, Florida and Ohio, which took the top spots.
The report offers Delaware a to-do list if it wants to follow those states’ lead:
• Create a voucher system that gives public money to parents who want to send their kids to private schools.
• Create an independent charter school authorizer outside of the Department of Education.
• Make it easier for more charter schools to open in the state.
• Allow state capital money to pay for charter school construction and renovations.
• Place more emphasis on students’ test scores in decisions on teacher pay and layoffs.
The report specifically labels Markell a “pro-reform” governor. Kara Kerwin, a CER spokeswoman, said that hasn’t always been the case.
“In previous analyses, the governor didn’t really come out strong on school choice,” Kerwin said. “But recently, we’re starting to see him emerge as pro-reform. His administration obviously wants to address some of the deficiencies in the charter school law and teacher quality laws, and we’re hopeful that trend will continue.”
Markell’s office said the governor isn’t tied to the same agenda as CER, though he may happen to support a few of the same policies.
Rossi said, for example, that Markell would not support a private school voucher system.
“He does not believe it’s responsible to divert resources away from the public school system to support private schools, through vouchers or other means,” she said.
Rossi said Markell is instead focused on higher standards in classrooms, better teacher preparation and more quality early learning.
Rossi said Markell’s office “doubt[ed] the validity” of CER’s rankings, pointing out that several low-ranked states outperformed higher-ranked states on standardized tests. She also said the report did not appear to account for changes Markell helped push through during the most recent legislative session, especially those that overhauled Delaware’s charter school law.
While Markell’s administration may not count itself among the ranks of school reform advocates, some critics say it is all but marching in lockstep with them.
“Absolutely he is part of it,” said state Rep. John Kowalko, a frequent critic of Markell’s education policies. “I can see why the governor would want to avoid that label, but he and his Department of Education have certainly shown they are willing to employ those concepts.”
Kowalko pointed to programs the administration has pushed or supported that he said are “right out of the purportedly reform playbook,” like tying teacher evaluations to test scores and giving more resources and flexibility to charters.
Kowalko especially points to HB 165, a Markell-backed bill he strongly opposed that passed in the most recent legislative session. In addition to revamping the rules for how charters are created and approved, that bill created a Charter School Performance Fund that could dole out up to $5 million a year to charters that are rated high-performing or serve low-income students.
“The governor can say he doesn’t support vouchers. But if you’re taking public money and allowing it to be resourced into charter schools, to me that’s as close to vouchers and privatization as you can get,” Kowalko said.
Supporters of HB 165 maintained that charter schools are public schools and said traditional schools weren’t harmed by the bill.
Paul Herdman is CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a nonprofit that works closely with state officials. He said he thought Markell was right not to focus on things like private school vouchers.
“Those are very different issues,” Herdman said. “From our perspective, we think we need to work within the public school system to make it work. The author of this report has a particular point of view, and there are some things in there that are helpful. But we believe [Markell] is doing the right things.”
Herdman pointed to the state’s push to implement the Common Core State Standards and investments in pre-K and early learning programs as evidence of smart policies Markell has spearheaded.
Kendall Massett, director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said her group is pleased with the state’s efforts so far.
“Progress was made toward more equitable funding for charter schools in the recent update of our charter school law,” she said in a statement. “However, we still have a way to go for true equity.”
The charter school law allowed charters access to minor capital funding, but charters still can’t get access to state money for major renovations or building projects.
Rather than creating an independent authorizer, Massett said she’d like to see more individual school districts approving charters. Currently, all but a handful are approved by the state.
Source: Delaware Online – by Matthew Albright