What’s a Charter School?

My sister works at a charter school and I’ve never even quite understood what that meant.  With the recent controversy over Betsy DeVos as the Education Secretary and the question of how public funds are used for education, NPR published this article today that provides a better understanding of charter schools.

Just What IS A Charter School, Anyway?

Thousands of teachers rallied in New York City’s Foley Square last October to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio take action on charter school growth.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We’re all familiar with the term “hidden in plain sight.” Well, there may be no better way to describe the nation’s 6,900 charter schools.

These publicly-funded, privately-run schools have been around since the first one opened in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992. Today, they enroll about 3.1 million students in 43 states, so you’d think Americans should know quite a bit about them by now. But you’d be wrong.

“Most Americans misunderstand charter schools,” was the finding of the 2014 PDK/Gallup poll on public attitudes toward education. The survey found broad support for charters, but also revealed that 48 percent of Americans didn’t know charter schools were public. Fifty-seven percent thought they charged tuition. And nearly half thought charters were allowed to teach religion.

Now that the Trump administration has made school choice a cornerstone of its education policy, we thought it would be worth exploring how charter schools work, who runs them, how they’re funded and whether they work better than the traditional public schools they’re often competing against.

We asked three charter experts to help us out with a survey course. Welcome to Charter Schools 101, your professors are:

Ted Kolderie, a former journalist and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He helped create the nation’s first charter law in 1991 and helped 25 states design their own.

Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. NACSA represents people and organizations that approve and oversee charter schools in 43 states.

Nina Rees, head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of charter schools.

What do we mean by “charter” school?

Kolderie: The term “charter” really refers to the decision by states to turn public education into a two-sector system. One is a traditional school district, centrally managed. The other, charter schools, are independent, not owned by a central school board. Both are public, but they’re organized in radically different ways.

People have to understand, chartering laws don’t create schools. It is enabling legislation that sets up a process for people to create schools. The charter sector was supposed to encourage innovation — pedagogical laboratories that would push new ways to teach, even if it was disruptive.

The charter sector [operates on] limited contracts. Their renewal is subject to performance. Charters are authorized by [groups] defined in state law. In New Jersey and Massachusetts, for example, the state is the only authorizer. Some states have created separate boards that authorize charters. Authorizers are usually non-profits and include universities but in most cases, local school boards authorize charter schools.

Rees: A local school district does not tell charters when to open or close their doors, what kind of curriculum to use, what company to contract for food or paper. Charters have the freedom to hire teachers without a union contract.

What does an authorizer do?

Richmond: They receive and evaluate proposals then decide if a charter school should come into existence. If a charter is approved, the authorizer monitors the school’s performance. Typically, five years later, the school’s charter comes up for review and the authorizer decides if the school should stay open. None of the 43 states with charter school laws permit an authorizer to be a for-profit entity.

Can teachers open a charter school? Wasn’t that the idea when the concept was first seriously considered in the 1980s?

Kolderie: Yes. The first charter opened in East St. Paul, Minn. It was started by a workers’ cooperative organized by teachers. Minnesota may be the only state where a teachers union can authorize charter schools.

But a charter school can be for-profit right? Fifteen percent of the nation’s 6,900 charters are for-profit.

Richmond: A charter school can hire a for-profit company to manage its school. Only one out of six charters in the U.S. are run to make money. In Michigan, 80 percent are for profit, more than any other state. Some states, like New York, prohibit charters from contracting with a for-profit management company.

Are charters funded the same way traditional public schools are, with a mix of local, state and federal dollars?

Richmond: In a couple of states, charters don’t get local money. But, in most cases, these [three funding sources] are common. Private donors are less common but also important.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says charters get less money. Is that true?

Rees: On average, charters receive 30 percent less per pupil, per year compared to traditional public schools. That gap is due in large part to the fact that charters don’t have access to the same funding streams [like school construction bonds] that traditional school systems have to build schools.

Transportation is another issue. [Charters] draw students from all over but we have to provide our own transportation, or parents rely on public transportation, because school districts do not make their buses available to charter schools.

Ted Kolderie, do you agree that charters get 30 percent less money?

Kolderie: Yeah, I’ve heard that figure. Its cited often by charter advocates. But the method and level of financing charter schools varies widely state to state, from “pretty good” to awfully weak.

Do charters get the same amount of federal aid from IDEA, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, and Title I, which targets low income students?

Rees: Technically yes. But its hard to track how the money is distributed. If a charter operates under a school district, the funding gets opaque.

Richmond: Each state has its own laws and regulations for distributing that money to districts and individual schools.

The only federal money that I know of that flows directly to charter schools is “start-up” money from the U.S. Education Department to help charter schools open. That began under president Bill Clinton.

What kind of kids enroll in charter schools and do charters take all comers like traditional public schools?

Rees: Charter schools have to accept all students. If they get more than they have slots for, the school has to conduct a lottery.

Kolderie: Traditional district schools don’t take everybody. Superintendents talk as if they do, but they only have to take the children of families who can afford to live in their district. There are all kinds of charters enrolling all kinds of kids. The strongest support for charters has been among parents who had never gone beyond a high school education. That’s where the strongest preference remains.

Aren’t charter schools often accused of “creaming,” not taking kids with special needs?

Rees: Charters cannot pick the students they want. They have to accept kids with disabilities and ELLs, English language learners. Right now, charter schools are tilted to serve low-income kids. Over 50 percent [of students in charter schools] are from black and Latino households, mostly in inner cities.

Kolderie: The charter sector is still a public system. It has to be free, open. No tuition, no teaching religion, no picking and choosing kids.

Are states consistent in how they evaluate charter schools and are they held to the same performance standards as traditional public schools?

Richmond: In general, they’re evaluated based on test scores, graduation rates, finances — the same as traditional public schools. But there’s great inconsistency state-to-state in how well that’s done. We need better oversight of charters. Charter supporters don’t want a lot of oversight. The good news is that we know what good oversight looks like in terms of balancing autonomy with accountability.

Who is responsible for making sure “bad” charters are shut down? And how much time do they have to show they’re doing well?

Rees: Charters, on average get 3-5 years to ramp up. Research indicates that charter schools that start out strong continue to do well and those that start weak do not get better over time. A failing school should be closed immediately or turned over to another charter school operator.

Kolderie: When a charter school is not doing well, if the authorizer fails to act, the state has to step in. Most closures are due to financial reasons and poor management.

What about online charters, or “cyber schools”?

Richmond: Cyber schools have not done a good job for most kids. Many studies have evaluated their performance and I have yet to find one that’s shown they’re good. … Taxpayers are paying an enormous amount of money to those operators and kids are being shortchanged.



Suggested posts and targeted ads in your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. feed are common place anymore. I get it; its how social media sites monetize.  I usually gloss over them, but today a suggested post for,  reMarkable – the paper tablet, caught my eye.  The idea is this minimalist e-ink tablet replaces your notebooks, sketchbooks, and possibly even your e-reader.  My initial reaction is that this is a pretty cool idea.  At work I have a couple of notebooks that I use and I scribble notes on the back of printouts all the time that ultimately end up scattered across my desk.  Having a tablet to take and organize notes would be a perfect solution.  I’ve tried apps like Evernote, but unless I have my laptop it doesn’t help much.  Even if I had a tablet, I would still need a keyboard to effectively take notes.

The downside of reMarkable is the price.  The current offer is $379 for a pre-order bundle that includes the tablet, a stylus, and a folio cover.  Regular price is $529 just for the tablet and $79 for the Marker.  For that kind of money, you could buy a 9.7 inch iPad Pro or Surface Pro and get a lot more features.  ReMarkable doesn’t have a browser or use apps and the reMarkable team sees the lack of features as a benefit.  You can work, read, sketch, whatever without the distraction of notifications from other apps.  It doesn’t get any more simple than a piece of paper so it makes sense to create a simple replacement, but not for that price.  I’d love to get my hands on one to see how paper-like it really is.  Assuming it lives up to the expectations, the price would need to drop to more like $200 for me.

The reMarkable tablet is expected to start shipping in August.

The Dash

I’m a terrible friend.  A couple weeks ago my friend Jet asked me to write a review for his upcoming independent movie, The Dash.  Jet is an all around good dude and one of the nicest and happiest people I know.  Of course I wanted to check out his movie, but the thought of writing a review was a little intimidating.  I don’t consider myself a movie reviewer.  Like most people, I enjoy a variety of things and sometimes I write about them.  With it being the holiday season, I procrastinated.  But with a few days off of work and a run time of just under 52 minutes, I decided it was time to watch The Dash.

“Whenever we eventually get our gravestones, you have the year that you were born and the year you died and all the good stuff happens in that little dash.” – The Dash

In what started out as a joke five years ago, Jet started filming his friends as they hung out, partied, and played jokes on each other.  The Dash is a compilation of those candid moments.  I tend to be dismissive of reality TV.  I don’t care what the housewives of whatever county are doing, who did or didn’t get a rose, or who can sing.  Not all reality shows are trashy and ridiculous, however.  The Dash works because it has the advantage of perspective and a destination for the viewer even though it feels random at times.  Intermingled with what’s to come, you find yourself immersed into what life has thrown at this group of friends and the plot comes into focus.   Jet narrates the movie and points out, “the one thing about reality, it’s not always so funny.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but I would call The Dash a docudrama at its finest.  I highly recommend you check it out for yourself. The Dash is out now and you can watch it for free on vimeo here.

Rogue One

Spoilers ahead!

As a Christmas present to myself, I decided to take the kids to see Rogue One this afternoon.  A friend posted a review a few days ago on Facebook and I’ve purposely been avoiding it.  I didn’t want any outside opinions influencing me before I saw it for myself.  While I won’t go as far to say that Rogue One was as good as Empire like he suggests, it was a good movie.  You can read his review here.  I’d love to see it again soon, but this is my first impression and random thoughts.

Everyone knew the Titanic was going to sink, but we all went and saw the movie anyway.  We all know where Rogue One is leading, and it was a fun ride along the way.  Rogue One doesn’t have the weight of the dark side vs light side to contend with.  It is largely a spy/war film based in the Star Wars universe.  I never imagined it would take us right up to the opening scene of A New Hope, but let’s back up.

The film opens with the only character development of the entire movie with a young Jyn Erso. The movie makes a point to show Jyn’s mother giving her a necklace with a crystal at the end of it.  It is likely a kyber crystal, which are used in light sabers and also what Jyn’s father used to power the Death Star.  In what seemed like foreshadowing was really nothing.  The necklace played no role in the rest of the movie unless I missed something.  The beginning of the movie felt rushed jumping from plant to planet, at least until the plot really starts moving.  Jyn, a reluctant rebel, is grown and goes on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, which her father helped design.  That’s really all there is to it.  Joined by a few quickly introduced characters and a snarky droid, the band of rebels is complete.

For any Star Wars fan there were plenty of subtle nods to the other movies like the cup of blue juice, bumping into the guys that pick a fight with Luke in the Cantina scene (although I’m not sure how they got off Jedha before it was blown up), the Alliance base on Yavin 4, Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa to make reference to his Jedi friend from the Clone Wars, along with plenty of other easter eggs.  It was fun seeing Ben Mendelsohn as Director Krennic.  It took me a minute to realize why I recognized him, but I think it was his voice that connected the dots for me.  Mendelsohn is great as Danny Rayburn in the Netflix series, Bloodline.  I highly recommend it!  But anyway.  Is Darth Vader still living on that same lava planet that Obi-wan sliced him up on?  I didn’t mind the CGI Tarkin as much as I didn’t like seeing Leia.  We all know she’s the one wearing the white cloak.  They could have just as easily not shown her CGI face.  I could have also done without the R2 and C3PO cameos, but maybe I’m just nitpicking at this point.

Director Gareth Edwards did a fantastic job of giving Rogue One the same gritty feeling as the original trilogy and the battle scenes were brilliant.  Seeing Star Wars on the big screen makes me giddy.  I grew up watching the original movies on VHS and remember watching the 20th anniversary special edition movies in the theater.  Rogue One makes me want to go back and watch the original trilogy again!


Live reuniting

It’s been rumored that Ed Kowalczyk is reuniting with his old band mates, Live.  There is no doubt Throwing Copper was a definitive album of the 90’s, spawning hit after hit.   I was a fan and stuck with the band through Secret Samadhi , The Distance to Here, V, and then I only got into the song “Heaven” from Birds of Pray.  You’d think after that long I’d be excited about the idea of a reunion, but I’m really not.  It’s one thing to be nostalgic, but it has been 13 years since I cared about a new song of theirs and over 20 years since the height of their popularity in the mid 90’s.

Looking back at what’s happened since, it’s surprising that they’re getting back together.  In 2009 they planned to take a two year hiatus that turned into a tumultuous break-up.  The band sued Kowalczyk over publishing rights and trademark infringement, which he counter-sued.  I wasn’t aware of this, but the remaining Live members recruited Kevin Martin and Sean Hennesy of Candlebox to form a new band, The Gracious Few, and released a self-titled album.  I’ll have to go check that out.  By 2011 though, the guys from Live decided to find a new lead singer and move on without Kowalczyk, releasing an album, The Turn.

It bothers me when bands tour without the original lead singer.  Let’s be honest; if the bass player gets replaced who really notices?  We recognize bands by the sound of the singer’s voice.  There isn’t always going to be an Arnel Pineda to replace a voice like Steve Perry’s.  So when a band tours under the same name but a different lead singer, they may as well be a really good cover band.

I’d probably be more excited about a reunited Live if they went on the road with another good band from the same era.  For some reason Third Eye Blind comes to mind.  The two bands are similar in the success they had with numerous hits from one album.  Candlebox would like make a lot of sense, too, given the history of the Gracious Few.  I never saw Live perform live back in the day, and I likely wouldn’t go out of my way to see them now. 



The One Moment

OK Go isn’t a band I seek out normally.  At least not for their music.  What I’ve heard from them, I like, but I can’t say that I’m ever just in the mood to hear OK Go.  When it comes to music videos, though, they are incredible.  They are the ones that did the video on treadmills, filmed a Rube Goldberg Machine in a single shot for “This Too Shall Pass” and filmed in zero gravity for “Upside Down & Inside Out.”  The latest video is for the song “The One Moment” and takes place over 4.2 seconds.  The rapid fire explosions are slowed down to the tune of the song and it is stunning.