Friday, August 21, 2009

Race to the Top and Charter Schools

During my first few weeks on the job, there have been many conversations and lots of action surrounding the Race to the Top funding. Kentucky has a consulting firm (the Bridgespan Group) that is helping with the application, and we have a number of advisory committees and lots of two-way communication planned to ensure we have the best possible application by the December deadline.

One of the “hot topics” is charter schools. Some think that since Kentucky does not have charter school legislation, we will automatically be eliminated from competition for funding. But, the guidelines only have two non-negotiable items. We must have applied for the stabilization funds, and we must show we do not block linking teacher data to student achievement data. We are okay with both these issues.

The application must address standards, data systems, teacher effectiveness and turnaround schools. The turnaround schools requirement is where the charter school issue arises. However, if you read U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remarks on the turnaround requirement, you see that President Barack Obama and Sec. Duncan focus on four options for turnaround schools. They are as follows:

Option 1 – Principal and staff start planning in the fall to turn around a low-performing school. Basically, the students stay, and many staff members leave or at least have to reapply.
Option 2 – Staff is replaced, and a charter organization or for-profit management organization is allowed take over the school.
Option 3 – Most of the staff stays, but the school makes major culture changes to the evaluation system, curriculum and instruction, time on learning, and flexibility for budgeting, staffing and calendar. This is the model that Kentucky is well-known for through school-based decision making councils.
Option 4 – Schools are closed, and students are sent to other schools.

The focus of the turnaround schools requirement is on improving student achievement outcomes. That is something everyone in Kentucky can support. We have had experience in Kentucky working with turnaround efforts that we need to build upon.

In my previous experience as a local superintendent, I have worked very well with charter schools. I think Kentucky should keep an open conversation going about the best possible solutions for raising achievement and closing achievement gaps. I feel certain the conversation will include all of the options espoused by Sec. Duncan.


  1. Dr. Holliday,

    On July 29, US Dept of Ed released proposed selection criteria for the Race to the Top competition (

    One section of the criteria is "Turning Around Struggling Schools," which includes criteria related to state's laws, procedures, funding, and facilities for charter schools.

    Do you think Kentucky will be able to respond adequately to these selection criteria? Will our application be at a competitive disadvantage?

  2. I do believe we will be able to respond to these criteria.

    The issue of charter schools is listed as a “selection criteria” under the reform area of “Turning Around Struggling Schools.” As such, Kentucky's lack of legislation enabling charter schools will count against the state, but it will not make Kentucky ineligible to apply for the Race to the Top fund. The other selection criteria in the “Turning Around Struggling Schools” reform area relates to intervening in low-performing schools. It is our opinion that our efforts since the Kentucky Education Reform Act with regard to interventions in low-performing schools could give us “bonus” points on our application and thus offset the charter school issue.

    It is also important to note that this “notice” is preliminary in nature and USDOE is currently accepting public comment that could result in changes to the language in the guidance. Many national education organizations are responding with suggested improvements in the language. Some of this public comment has urged the USDOE to ensure that:

    § in its weighting no single criteria or assurance area can by itself eliminate states from competing for RTTT

    § the Final Notice language be broadened, so that charters and "charter-like" options and other models are included among school turnaround options

  3. I worry about anything that draws critical funds and attention away from the best way to educate the most children. Why are charter schools often assumed to be a better option than improving the whole system? I've read that charter schools' application process is restrictive at best (and elitist at worst,) their emphasis on cost cutting is unrealistic, they are unfriendly to unions and can lead to a decrease in local control, which I happen to think is hugely important. Do you think Kentucky necessarily needs charter schools?

  4. Jan, those are exactly the kinds of issues that must be analyzed before Kentucky makes any decisions about whether charters are a good option for the state. We're not going to make hasty moves on charters -- but I don't want to close the door on those before we've had a chance to look at data, see cost projections, determine the best protocols for oversight and analyze other factors.

  5. Dr. Holliday,

    In one of your comments above, you say, "It is our opinion that our efforts since the Kentucky Education Reform Act with regard to interventions in low-performing schools could give us “bonus” points on our application and thus offset the charter school issue."

    Can you provide more information and some specific examples? What data do you have to support this impression?

  6. Dick --

    Thanks for your question about data and results from our turnaround efforts. Our Race to the Top team members are pulling the report together, since I asked the same question that you did. While anecdotal stories may help everyone feel good about processes, the RTTT application will require specific data showing the number of schools and districts that have come out of improvement status. While causality is extremely difficult to prove, we have to review correlations between the Highly Skilled Educator program and other department interventions to the district and school level status.