Monday, January 9, 2012

East Side Public Education Coalition statement on proposed Achievement First charter school proposal

I'm sharing a letter that I worked on with several other members of the East Side Public Education Coalition that states our stand on the proposed Achievement First Mayoral Academies about which I and others have written extensively.

Before that, I want to point out an opinion piece by educator Dan Ross, "A Charter School Prayer for the New Year," which hits a couple of the same points (thanks, sharp-eyed Facebook friend, for sharing this link this weekend). This can't be said enough: "Charters were never supposed to be the answer--they were supposed to provide answers.And:
When Albert Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, first proposed the idea of charter schools, he envisioned them as opportunities for small groups of teachers and parents to collaborate and develop experimental educational environments, an idea that recalls former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' notion of the states as "laboratories of democracy" in the federal system. If successful, the lessons learned from these pioneering schools could be applied writ large, affording all children the chance to benefit their innovations.

But ironically, in spite of the excellence of charters like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First, educators have largely learned nothing from their successes. That's not to say that charters are inherently better than traditional public schools -- studies have shown that the best charters perform as well as the best traditional public schools and that the worst charters perform just as a poorly as the worst -- but rather that in this challenging work, we cannot afford to ignore right answers, no matter where they come from.

In the face of our current educational crisis, how can we stand idly by while we have proof of concept for extended school days and school years, and fresh best practices in pedagogy, professional development, human capital strategy, teacher evaluation, and instructional leadership? Why are we leaving it to the charters to do the scaling up of these new models themselves by expanding their own fundamentally limited networks instead of implementing them en masse?
Ross' piece captures some of what I've been feeling about this as a person who enthusiastically supports many specific charter schools but hates how the idea of charters is being used as a weapon against traditional public school systems. Right on.

And now, here's our ESPEC letter, which can also be found on ESPEC's blog.

January 8, 2012
Board of Regents
Rhode Island Department of Education
255 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903

To Whom It May Concern:

The application submitted by Achievement First to the Rhode Island Department of Education to open two Mayoral Academy charter schools has provided community members from Providence and beyond with an opportunity to participate in a discussion about the programs and structures that will allow all children in public schools to receive the support and challenge they need to succeed in school and life. Both Achievement First’s proposed program and achievements and successes happening now in Providence’s public schools have informed our understanding of what is required to create and sustain such schools and the system that supports them.

We believe we must find ways to do what we know works to improve the public system. Rhode Island public school students trail the nation in measures of academic achievement and face an appalling racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. As we address these challenges, we must find the political will to face barriers to the institution of meaningful changes, which include:
  • a longer school day and school year
  • accessible high quality early childhood education
  • providing wraparound support services
  • community partnerships that allow for expanded learning opportunities and more time for learning
  • high quality curriculum matched to the needs of the learner
  • school-based decision-making by principal, teachers and parents on budget allocation, hiring and personnel management
  • meaningful professional development which meets both national standards and local needs
  • an assistant principal in every school with 400 or more students
We support strategic planning and investments that leverage these strategies for the benefit of as many children as possible.

Given the district’s dwindling finances and stagnant population, the establishment of Achievement First charter schools at the scale proposed by the charter application could have the effect of closing at least one district school and pulling resources away from Providence Schools at the time they are most needed. Given that the district has a high number of schools that struggle to support their students, including those schools identified as Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) schools for which closure is an option, we understand the urgent need for alternatives and choices. However, Providence has chosen to keep these schools open and invest in their staff members, students, and structures in order to improve student achievement. We need to focus on improvements that can be made in the existing public schools, learning from and keeping what works and changing what does not. We are concerned that if RIDE were to approve this charter application, it would divert scarce resources from our existing public schools and decrease the possibility that all children in Providence public schools would have the opportunity to attend high performing schools.

Mayor Taveras and Superintendent Lusi have stated that they wish to learn from Achievement First’s successes in other states to bring better practices to the Providence Public Schools. It is important to note that while there already are numerous “bright lights” in the Providence Schools, as acknowledged in the Education Opportunity Working Group’s November 2011 “Educate Providence” report, the Providence Public School Department (PPSD) does not have a system in place to identify, acknowledge, celebrate, and disseminate best practices already in existence. We contend that PPSD should use its resources to study and disseminate best practices already in our system before bringing in an outside organization to run our schools. Without the habits of sharing knowledge within the district, there’s no clear way for a newly introduced organization to share its practices.

Though Achievement First would present an option that could appeal to a number of PPSD families, the prospect of opening a new school will cause a level of disruption that our district can’t sustain. Choices about the schools offering educational options to the students in our district should align with the mission and vision of the district. However, the district’s vision isn’t at all clear at this time. We believe that the plans from the Mayor’s office and the Superintendent’s office need to be aligned and clarified, with appropriate and meaningful public input, before we make such potentially impactful decisions about introducing new schools into PPSD.

We are concerned about the unacknowledged cost impact that proposed Achievement First schools may pose. When Providence closed several schools last year, a leading rationale was transportation cost reduction. However, because they are not neighborhood schools, the Achievement First charter schools will increase transportation costs significantly due to the need to bring children from four different communities to the schools.

We are also concerned that the Achievement First schools may exacerbate rather than ameliorate the district’s equity issues. For example, an advantage of charter schools is that they have the potential for more flexibility than in-district public schools. Achievement First uses that flexibility to offer a significantly longer school day that allows educators to create a more effective learning environment. However, the length of the Achievement First school day stands in stark contrast to that of the Providence Public Schools’ standard school day. It seems inequitable that if this application were approved, some Providence children would have an 8.50 hour day and 190 -195 day school year, while others would have only a 6.08 hour day and 180 day school year. We want to know how the district can use its resources to pursue expanded and extended learning for all students.

We support choices and welcome innovation in our school district. We are not opposed to charter schools. However, we are not convinced that this is the right choice, and note that because the deadline for prospective charter schools to apply to RIDE is March 1, 2012, it is likely that additional charter applications, such as that of the Meeting Street School, will be submitted that offer both options to Providence students as well as potential threats to the district’s finances. We therefore suggest that the Board of Regents at the very least delay making a decision about the Achievement First application until we have a fuller picture of the charter options for the 2013 school year.

While the individual members of ESPEC hold diverse views, we agree that it is not clear that bringing these particular Achievement First charter schools to Providence at the currently proposed scale is the best decision. We therefore oppose the charter application as it currently stands. We agree with the concerns raised by other community groups about the financial costs, the failure to serve the whole student population, and the loss of public accountability inherent in the Achievement First application. We have observed that the public process to date has been divisive and unhelpful to parents who are genuinely seeking information. We believe strongly that concerned parents and community groups should pull together so that energy currently devoted toward and against Achievement First is instead directed toward identifying the assets of the schools we currently have in Providence and working systematically and swiftly toward their improvement.

As Mayor Taveras and Providence Public Schools administrators implement improvements that improve the learning experience and outcomes of all our children in all our schools, we must manage our scarce resources as wisely as possible both to encourage innovation and to preserve and invest in existing schools. We are aware of how challenging this is, and in that light want to question whether establishing Achievement First Schools in Providence via the Mayoral Academy charter school structure is the best move we can make now for long-run success.


Jill Davidson
Michael Kenney
Bill Mott
Harlan Rich
Kim Rohm
Karina Wood
on behalf of the ESPEC Steering Committee

cc: Governor Lincoln Chaffee
Mayor Angel Taveras
Superintendent Susan Lusi
Julie Tremaine, Executive Editor, East Side Monthly
Linda Borg, Education Reporter, Providence Journal

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