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Schools Hold Themselves Accountable
Like all public schools that accept federal funds, these charter schools operate under NCLB accountability requirements. But for a variety of reasons having to do with their charter status, the schools are under additional pressure to ensure high student achievement: Their respective charters specify what they promise to do and how they will do it; their authorizers can shut them down or decide not to renew their charters if they do not perform adequately; they have governing boards whose sole job is to support and guide a single school (versus a local board of education that oversees an entire district); and their administrators and teachers sign on because of their commitment to a specific mission, as do their parents and students. At the same time, their flexibility as charters and their relative newness as individual schools enable them to shift gears quickly when change is called for.
Sound fiscal management. Many of these schools receive less funding than other public schools in the local district. For example, due to its charter school status, North Star is not eligible for the New Jersey Supreme Court-mandated Abbott Funding, additional state money given to poor urban districts so their per-pupil expenditures are equivalent to the average per-pupil expenditures of the state's wealthier suburban districts. As a result, North Star operates on 69 percent of the funds received by a comparable Newark public school. Similarly, Preuss, which exclusively serves students from low-income families, receives none of the busing money available to other San Diego public schools.
The governing boards at many of these schools take on the challenge of finding additional dollars. MATCH and North Star have used New Markets tax credits* to finance building renovations and construction. Other schools have found other creative solutions to the challenge of school funding. SEED, with community support, successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress and D.C. council to amend the D.C. education budget to provide additional operating funds. As a result, $30,500 of SEED's $33,000 per-student cost comes from the D.C. council through its per-pupil spending formula. Another $1,000 per student is allotted federal money (e.g., special education funds), leaving the school to raise $1,500 per student.
Although each school has succeeded in raising enough money to cover operating and facilities costs, lean budgets require careful planning and spending. In this, MNCS has excelled, starting from the very beginning when, because the school did not receive any start-up funds, its teacher-owners took out personal loans to get things going. The per-student cost of $9,100 is covered by state funding, and the state also provides $100,000 a year in lease aid. The city of Henderson, Minn., provided tax increment financing† to purchase and improve the site. The school does little to no fundraising and is operating with a surplus. Education Evolving (a joint venture of the Center for Policy Studies and Hamline University, both in St. Paul) reports that MNCS spends 86 percent of its funds on instruction, a higher portion than any district in the state.16 At one point, when an anticipated funding shortage made it seem as if the school would need to cut an aide, teachers made the decision to each take a $2,500 pay cut in order to preserve the aide position.
At Preuss, board members say they always have three or four versions of the budget, "plan A, B, and C," just in case they are not able to raise enough money through their various efforts.
Dedicated boards. While the average local board of education is necessarily focused on districtwide issues, charter school boards focus on and take more direct responsibility for the operation and fiscal health of the individual school. Board members at several schools say they value their ability, bestowed by their school's charter, to make decisions quickly and to empower administrators and staff to implement them expeditiously. These charter schools have very active boards, with some including parents. Board committees engage in fundraising, creating partnerships, securing buildings and facilities financing, and developing school goals and strategic planning (see fig. 10).
Draft Strategic Goals & Objectives Notes
Some of these schools are authorized by organizations (such as local school districts) that those in surrounding communities may perceive as not being fully supportive of charter schools. In these instances, principals say, the board's role is especially important in reaching out to the community to develop broader support, recruit students, and, in some instances, counter misinformation. The boards at two of these profiled schools—SEED and MNCS—are now active in efforts to replicate the school model elsewhere, seeing this as a way to broaden the effectiveness of a good program.
The board also is responsible for holding school staff accountable for results and has the authority to hire and fire the principal or director, other administrators, and teachers if they fail to advance the school's mission.
Continuous improvement. Each charter school is held accountable for carrying out the plan outlined in its approved charter and is reviewed every five or six years by its authorizer. Some of these schools are authorized by their local district, others by their state board of education. Schools also receive direction from their boards, who monitor their schools' progress and help to set new goals in response to new information or changing context. The boards at North Star, MATCH, and Gateway have all proposed modifications based on changing students' needs: North Star families wanted high school added to the original middle school program; Gateway intensified its commitment to diverse learners; and MATCH shifted some of its focus away from technology, putting more on college preparation by requiring AP classes for all students along with innovative tutoring support.
These schools also consider themselves accountable to their constituents, and a number of them regularly survey students and parents. At MNCS, teachers participate in a 360-degree evaluation, which, in this instance, entails being evaluated by peers, parents, and students. At MATCH, the principal models an openness to feedback by surveying students about how he is doing his job (see fig. 11).
As you know, you are evaluated eight or more times a year by teachers and tutors and some of you get to evaluate your teachers once or twice a year, but you never get to evaluate your principal. I believe evaluation is a very good method to help someone get better at his job. I want to get better so I am asking you to fill out the questionnaire below. You do not have to put your name, but you can. I just ask that you answer the questions with this in mind, "You want to have a principal who listens and wants to get better." Thank you.
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* For information on the federal New Markets Tax Credits Program, visit http://www.cdfifund.gov/what_we_do/programs_id.asp?programID=5. Last accessed on Sept. 12, 2006.
† For information on how tax increment financing works, visit http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/issinfo/tifmech.htm. Last access on Sept. 12, 2006.