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2013 National Charter Schools Conference: 5 Big Takeaways

We took some time to collect our thoughts from the National Charter Schools Conference in Washington, D.C. last week and came up with a shortlist of our favorite takeaways. Also, if you weren’t following our live coverage, you can check it out on our Twitter page (@SchoolChoicer).



1. Rappers and Conferences don’t mix(tape).

Yep, we said it. Pit Bull is much better at rapping into a microphone than orating through one, but hey, when Mr. Worldwide is available to open your conference you’re not going to turn down that opportunity. The truth is, Armando Perez is a valuable member of our school choice revolution. The best part of his speech was the sincerity of his delivery: he really does care about the accessibility of school options to families seeking them, so we know he’s not using the movement as self-promotion.

You could tell that he was nervous in front of what Jane Pauley referred to as “the wonkiest crowd in Washington,” and he even admitted that we made him nervous. The crowd had unfair expectations because he had been billed as one of the headliners, when in reality most of the people at the conference were there to learn about running a school, network with colleagues, and catch up on important legislative updates. Listening to Mr. 305 read off a piece of paper wasn’t exactly the early morning pick-me-up those wonks needed. Now, if he had rapped about charter schools…


2. The general sessions were awesome.

Having a rapper there made it entertaining, but the rest of the panels were star-studded as well. The first set included Dr. Craig R. Barrett (Chair of Intel), Dr. Michael L. Lomax (Pres/CEO of UNCF), Ana Ponce (Camino Nuevo), and Margaret Spellings (Former Sec. of Ed.). They went back and forth with one another under the moderation of Jane Pauley (Today Show and Dateline), generally leaving partisanship at the door. The conversation was so stimulating that we forgot to add hashtags to our Tweets…#sorryaboutthat

The next day we got to hear from DC Mayor, Vincent Gray, in a surprise appearance. Current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, followed that up with a pretty bland address compared to Howard Fuller, who blew the roof off the place with an impassioned delivery reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr. The CEO of Amplify and former Chancellor of NYC Schools, Joel Klein, was able to follow that up with plenty of Tweetable material as well, this time with hashtags.

All in all, there wasn’t a single dull moment in the general sessions, but plenty of people had to leave in the middle of them to make it to breakout session meetings.


3. The best breakout session we were able to attend was the 2013 Legislative Gains, Setbacks, and Emerging Policy Trends.

Although most of what came out of this meeting was bad news, sessions like this help us all realize just how big the movement really is. Some of us get so wrapped up in running our schools or fighting the local district/union that we lose track of the larger picture. This type of session also covers a lot of what both AmericanSchoolChoice and NAPCS do on a daily basis, which is zoom out to 10,000 ft. and examine the revolution as a whole. The session was led by Todd Ziebarth and Lisa S. Grover, Ph.D. of the NAPCS.

Here were some highlights of that meeting:

  • Some major gains in gubernatorial and legislative elections in November 2012 (e.g. North Carolina)
  • Also some losses in Nov. elections (e.g. Maine’s legislature flipped in the wrong direction)
  • State budgets remain tight so expect funding equity and facilities support to stay on the back burner
  • State accountability and teacher evaluation systems are in flux because of ESEA waivers
  • Charter cap restrictions are a problem in six states: MA, MS, NH, OH, OK, and TX (Note: MA may lift cap, NH may lift moratorium, and TX is expanding its cap from 219 to 309)
  • New Jersey might place a moratorium on all charter schools
  • Notable charter law activity arose in 3 states with no charter law: KY, MT, and NE
  • 12 states took steps to improve charter funding and facilities support, most notable being DE, FL, ID, IN, NV
  • 8 states took steps to strengthen charter school authorizing and accountability, most notable being ID, IN, NV, and TX


4. NACSA is cracking down on underperformance.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) is a organization that specializes in charter school authorization. More specifically, they counsel charter authorizers on maintaining higher standards and issue recommendations of acceptance or denial for charter applications submitted to authorizers in their portfolio. In other words, if charter school authorizers in the United States had a federal regulatory body the same way investment banks are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, NACSA would be that regulatory body.

NACSA had a representative at the conference last week who helped lead a session called Charter School Closure: Politics, Policy, and Practice. The handout (which is linked here) shows what we here at AmericanSchoolChoice have been saying for over a year now: the reason charter schools are considered no better than district schools is because so many charter schools occupy the very top and bottom of every performance measurement. This “averages” their scores out and hurts our grading against district schools. When charter schools perform well, they perform extraordinarily well, but when they underperform, they fail miserably.

NACSA wants to purge the country of consistently underperforming charter schools, partially in an effort to cleanse the charter system of dead weight, but also as an ethical responsibility to students and families. According to the conversation that day, 5,800 charter schools are failing, 900-1,500 of those are in the bottom 15%, and that bottom 15% includes roughly 800,000 kids. At ground level, there are many reasons for failure, which range from a challenging or at-risk student population to funding problems that limit teaching resources, but at the end of the day we have to be held accountable for failure regardless of circumstance.

We posed a hypothetical question to the panel: What if a charter school is failing as a result of its management company and it chooses to hire a new CMO/EMO and turn things around – would NACSA still recommend immediate closure? This question stemmed from a real life scenario of five schools in Indiana authorized by Ball State that were all recently denied renewal. Several of those were run by a board whose management company recommended they completely privatize two of the schools upon denial. In doing so, they defaulted on $3.6 million in state loans and had to tell their students to take advantage of the state’s voucher system in order to stay in the schools. Instead of the state losing those loans, the public system losing those kids, and the taxpayers still having to pay for them in a private school, wouldn’t NACSA prefer to allow the board to maintain their charter and seek a new operator for the school?

The answer was, unsurprisingly, “We would still recommend immediate closure of the school.” NACSA is taking a very hard line on charter school authorization now, which is a direct result of boards hiring the wrong management company…. A message to all you board members out there: Do your research and hire the right management company, because NACSA won’t give you a second chance.


5. The conference brought Choicers from 50 different states together under one roof.

We met every type of School Choicer imaginable.

  • Charter school teachers were there to learn about new techniques and classroom management.
  • Charter principals came to share information on school administration and hiring practices.
  • Charter school board members were busy networking with one another and trading stories on school governance.
  • Charter policy makers and community leaders were roaming the conference looking for new ideas on legislative tactics, shareholder mobilization, and general updates on the national movement.
  • Charter school management companies sent representatives to study up on network budgets, facilities bond financing, and operational structure.
  • Charter school vendors had rows upon rows of kiosks offering every kind of service a charter school would ever need.
  • Charter school veterans were advising.
  • Charter school rookies were absorbing.

It was a beautiful thing, and at the end of every day you saw groups of people leaving together to have drinks or dinner who had been perfect strangers only hours before. You might hate their football team, but the 2013 National Conference reminded everyone why they joined this revolution in the first place.

It was great to walk into a room of several thousand people every morning and know that you were all there for the same thing. Race didn’t matter. Income didn’t matter. Religion didn’t matter.  We were all there under a single premise: A nation founded on choice should be given one, and if we don’t provide that choice, nobody will.

Finally, what better way to cap off a school choice conference than with an Independence Day celebrated in the capital city of the greatest nation in the world.

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