University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Issues the Ledge Might Tackle — Charter School Facilities

In The View from the OEP on October 22, 2014 at 2:19 pm


capital picOver the next couple of months in the OEP Blog space, we will discuss topics that we think may be the focus of legislative activity in the upcoming 2015 general session.  If there are topics you think we should be considering, please let us know!

In this week’s post, we consider the always-controversial topic of charter schools. And the topic only gets more heated when money is thrown into the mix! We have discussed funding and charters a few times in the OEP cyber space (see our past policy briefs from January 2014 and May 2012).  In short, in each of these analyses, we found that, on average, charter schools in Arkansas have access to lower levels of total revenue per pupil than do traditional public schools; the difference is approximately 20%.  The greatest portion of this gap is due to charter schools’ relative lack of access to facilities funding used to build, acquire, renovate, or maintain buildings and equipment. As charter school leaders continue to seek funds for adequate facilities, this funding disparity is likely to foster some spirited legislative discussion on how the state should support facilities for students in public charter schools in Arkansas.

As a result, the OEP today releases our newest policy brief on the topic of Charter School Facilities Funding.  The purpose of this brief, given that our state’s lawmakers may well be seeking strategies to support charter school facilities, is to describe what sources of facilities funding are currently available to Arkansas’s open-enrollment charter schools (which we will refer to as “charter schools” here), and highlight a few options that other states are using.

Our policy brief goes more into the nitty-gritty specifics, but we wanted to highlight a few of the key issues here. There are two main reasons charter schools are at a disadvantage relative to TPS when it comes to facilities funding: charters are unable to collect funds from local property taxes (because open enrollment charters are attached to no specific locality!), and charters are unable to access the state’s facilities funds. Currently, TPS districts in Arkansas can fund capital projects with assistance from the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation (DPSAFT). Charter schools in Arkansas are currently not eligible for this funding. Through the DPSAFT’s Partnership Program, which funds new construction and major renovations, the state provides funding to TPS districts based on a district’s wealth index: the state pays a larger percentage of poorer districts’ construction costs.

In an attempt to consider strategies that legislators might consider, we looked around a bit at what other states are doing with regard to funding charter school facilities. For the most detail, see our policy brief, but keep reading here for a snapshot of innovative funding opportunities for charter schools.

Credit Enhancement Programs

According to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), 9 states have some sort of Credit Enhancement Program. These programs allow charter schools to access higher bond ratings when borrowing funds, and in some cases, this can greatly lower the expense. In some cases, like in Colorado, qualified charter schools are also able to attach the state’s moral obligation pledge to their debt, meaning that the state has a moral obligation (although not technically a legal one) to step in and assist if a charter school defaults. Arkansas does have a credit enhancement program: the Arkansas Development Finance Authority (ADFA) guarantees certain bonds using interest earnings derived from investments of the state.

Right to use TPS buildings

According to LISC, 11 states (California, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, and Wyoming) make district facilities available to charter schools either through requiring published lists of available buildings, offering charter schools the right of first refusal to lease or purchase, or in the case of two areas (California and New York City), requiring school districts provide space.

According to a 2013 report, 63% of open-enrollment charter schools reported that there are empty TPS buildings near their school. Five of these reported asking the district for use of that facility, but none were granted access.

In addition, early this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced said that charters in New York City will now have access to public school facilities at no charge, or the city will subsidize their school space.

District-Charter Compacts

Some innovative partnerships have recently developed between charter schools and traditional public school districts. These partnerships aim to be mutually-beneficial relationships. In some, charter schools take up residency in empty or underutilized district buildings. Charters benefit from reduced start-up or facilities funding costs, but districts can benefit in several ways as well: collaboration in professional development, spillover of positive charter school culture, and in some cases the ability to “claim” the higher test scores of charter students. Several successful district-charter compacts were highlighted in a recent Education Next article. For example, a YES Prep charter school in Aldine, TX partners with the local school district and the higher-scoring YES Prep students count toward the district average.yes prep logo

 The Gates Foundation provides funding for district-charter “compacts” in 20 cities (usually in the form of $100,000 planning grants). These grants pay for joint professional development, gates logodesigning a universal enrollment system, establishing metrics to be used with all students, and creating more personalized learning environments for students, and implementing common core state standards.

What’s to come in Arkansas?

During the 2015 session, if the legislature takes up the issues of facilities funding for charter schools, there are several models across the country that may serve as a guide. We at the OEP are big fans of ideas that involve partnerships or the use of under-utilized public resources.  Thus, in places where public school facilities are vacant while nearby charter schools are in need of space, we like the idea of a district-charter compact (highlighted above) or “shared-space” solution. For example, the KIPP Delta charter school in Helena is forced to use portable and has taken on several million dollars in debt, all while several elementary school buildings sit unused in the same city.  While there are challenges associated with creating such partnerships, this strategy has been employed in other states; surely educators in Arkansas can also figure out how to collaborate for the sake of our schoolchildren.

A second plausible strategy would involve the state’s public school facilities funds being made all available to all public schools, including open-enrollment charters. Of the 43 states with a charter law, just under one-third allow charters to access per-pupil facilities funding provided by state resources.

Whether Arkansas lawmakers pursue one of the above strategies or an innovation not mentioned here, it is likely that the 2015 session will involve some legislative work aimed at ensuring that students in all Arkansas public schools – charters and TPS – have access to adequate school facilities.

Four New Open-Enrollment Charter Schools Approved This Week

In The View from the OEP on October 17, 2014 at 11:12 am

On Wednesday and Thursday, Arkansas’ Charter Authorizing Panel held hearings for proposed open-enrollment charter schools. The Charter Authorizing Panel is appointed by the Commissioner of Education and is comprised of the Assistant Commissioners in the Arkansas Department of Education.

In an earlier blog post, we detailed the six proposed open-enrollment charter schools that applied to open for the 2015-16 school year. In addition to the six applications for new schools, KIPP Delta submitted an amendment request to open a middle school in Forrest City, making a total of seven charter school proposals that were scheduled to be heard this week. Due to existing laws, up to six open-enrollment charter schools could be authorized in the 2014-15 application cycle.

Due to application deficiencies in two proposed schools, the Charter Authorizing Panel held hearings for only 5 of the 7 proposed schools this week (4 applications and 1 amendment request): 4 proposed schools were approved, and 1 proposed school was denied.

Approved open-enrollment charters:

  • KIPP Delta received an amendment request to open a middle school in Forrest City. The school will open with 5th grade students in 2015-16 and expand from there. KIPP submitted an amendment request (as opposed to an application), due to an existing law that allows KIPP Delta to open new campuses under its original charter.
    • Forrest City School District submitted a letter opposing the school.
  • Capitol City Lighthouse Charter School was approved to open in North Little Rock. Currently, Lighthouse Academies operates charter schools in Jacksonville and Pine Bluff. The new charter school will open with students in grades K-6 and expand by one grade level each year to eventually serve K-12.
    • North Little Rock School District presented opposition to the school, highlighting a decrease in funding from the desegregation lawsuit.
  • Haas Hall Academy was approved to open a charter school in Bentonville. Haas Hall Academy currently operates an 8-12 charter school in Fayetteville that opened in 2004. The new school in Bentonville will serve students in grades 7-12.
  • Ozark Montessori Academy was approved to open a school in Springdale. The school will initially serve students in grades K-6, but it will add a grade level in subsequent years to reach K-8. Ozark Montessori Academy stated that it will become the first public Montessori school in the state.

Denied open-enrollment charters:

  • Arkansas Connections Academy applied to open a virtual school to serve K-12 students across the state of Arkansas (with operations out of Bentonville). The charter sought to serve 1,000 students in year 1, 2,000 in year 2, and 3,000 in year 3.
    • The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators spoke against the charter.
    • The panel unanimously denied the application based off a number of concerns, including technology support and teacher capacity. The panel voted to allow Arkansas Connections Academy to resubmit an application next year.

Tabled open-enrollment charters:

  • Redfield Tri-County Charter School applied to open a charter school in Redfield, where a middle school was closed after the 2012-13 school year (Redfield had previously been consolidated with White Hall School District).
  • Rockbridge Montessori School is seeking to open a school in Little Rock to serve students in K-8 (starting with K-4).

The tabled applications were postponed due to requirements regarding communication of the proposed charters schools in newspapers. The Charter Authorizing Panel will announce when the hearings of the last two schools will take place. Additionally, we may see appeals of the current decisions made to the State Board of Education. A request for an appeal can be made by a member of the State Board of Education, the proposed charter school team, or a school district in opposition to the charter school. The State Board of Education then must reach a majority vote to hear the appeal. If last year is any indicator, we might expect to see appeals made in the upcoming months.

Furthermore, in November, the Charter Authorizing Panel will hold hearings for five proposed district-conversion charter schools (read about the applications here). As always, we will keep you posted on these upcoming hearings and outcomes!

October Joint House and Senate Ed. Committee Meeting Recap

In The View from the OEP on October 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm

The education committees of the Arkansas House and Senate met jointly on Monday, October 13th and Tuesday, October 14th to hear interim study reports on grade-level reading, leadership development, and school choice and to discuss educational adequacy.

Grade-Level Reading

logoThe transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” that takes place between third and fourth grades was the basis of an interim study to identify strategies to help all Arkansas students achieve grade-level reading by 2020. Working group chair Angela Duran, Director of the Arkansas Campaign for Grade Level Reading, explained that entering fourth graders who read at grade level have greater success rates in high school and college. Among the working group recommendations are increased funding for the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-kindergarten program; expanding ABC and Head Start programs; evaluating the impact of school improvement consulting expenditures; improving data quality in absentee reporting; and ensuring that NSLA funds designated for summer and after-school program are spent accordingly.

Leadership Development in Education

In their annual report to the education committees, the Leadership Coordinating Council highlighted the superintendent mentoring program and the evaluation systems for principals and superintendents. All first-year Arkansas superintendents are required to complete 18 hours of professional development and 12 hours of interaction with a trained mentor. The recent increase in the number of program participants was attributed to a surge in retirements among “baby boomer” superintendents.

LEADS_FINAL_1All districts have implemented the Leader Excellence and Development System (LEADS) for principal evaluation, and the system has expanded to include other school administrators and district leaders. Later this year, a newly-developed system for superintendent evaluation will be piloted in ten schools and will include training for school board members.

Director David Cook of the Arkansas Leadership Academy (ALA) highlighted the new Student Voice initiative, which is set to expand across the state. Student Voice seeks to gather student input and “give students a sense of empowerment and ownership in their academic outcomes with the goal of improving the learning culture and closing the achievement gaps.” Arkansas Leadership Academy School Support Leader Belinda Akin described another new approach, a three-year pilot project in Pulaski County that focuses on building leadership capacity throughout a school district rather than in an individual school, which is the academy’s usual method.

School Choice

Dr. Patrick Wolf, Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, presented an overview of school choice research as part of an interim study report required by House Bill 1897. Responding to four main questions asked in the interim study, Wolf summarized the existing rigorous research on the topic, finding: 1) school choice has either positive effects or no effect, but not negative effects, on student performance and attainment; 2) public school performance improves in the presence of school choice; 3) parent satisfaction increases with school choice; and 4) choice creates cost savings. Rep. Randy Alexander reported that the School Choice Committee recommends maintaining the 3% transfer cap for schools not in academic or facility distress, requiring parents to use existing bus pick-up points for their choice school, and adding private schools to enhance choice options and better meet the demand for transfers.

Educational Adequacy

Prior to each regular legislative session, the House and Senate committees on education are required to study educational adequacy and formally report their recommendations to the Governor and House and Senate leaders. Because education is the first priority in state funding, the adequacy report’s funding recommendations are key to the budget development process for the coming biennium. As the committees met on Wednesday to finalize their report, professional development, NSLA, and teacher salaries were among the most discussed funding items. A common theme of the conversation was the need to balance district spending flexibility and legislative funding intent.

Professional development (PD) funds were cut in the 2014-15 school year as one measure to cover school employee health insurance, and committee members disagreed about whether to restore this line item or leave it at the reduced level. Some legislators pointed to conversations with teachers who said the PD they receive is not helpful. Others referred to research findings linking well-trained teachers to student achievement and noted that districts are responsible for ensuring high quality PD. (OEP Research Sidenote: While many in the field believe that good professional development is important for teacher continued growth, there is little if any rigorous evidence pointing out which kinds of professional development are effective … check this federal IES report for documentation of the lack of evidence on this opic.) In a roll call vote, the committee decided to recommend funding professional development at the lower level and reducing the required hours accordingly.

Committee members also discussed whether to recommend increasing NSLA funding, with several arguing that additional funding helps the poorest schools. Others voiced concern about problems with the NSLA funding structure. The committee voted to recommend leaving NSLA funding at current levels, with a proviso for further study.  (OEP Research Sidenote: Readers of this blog may recall that the OEP has weighed in on this question in the past, arguing essentially that a “smoother curve” funding distribution, which would allow for greater concentration of resources in the poorest school districts, would be an improvement over the existing funding scheme … for example, see our 2013 policy brief on NSLA Poverty Funding).

The most vigorous discussion was devoted to the committees’ recommendation for teacher salaries, specifically whether to raise the statutory minimum salary, require a cost of living adjustment (COLA), or some combination of the two. Advocates for increasing the statutory minimum from $29,244 to $31,000 noted the difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers in some areas, as well as the link between good teachers and student achievement. Proponents of the COLA approach said that schools with higher salaries are disadvantaged if more funding is directed to those districts paying the lowest salaries. The committee will take up the issue again on Monday, October 27 as the final item in the adequacy report due on November 1.



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