Saturday, February 27, 2010

Charter schools to become Federal schools?

The Obama administration plans to significantly expand the flow of federal aid to charter schools, money that has driven a 15-year expansion of their numbers, from just a few dozen in the early 1990s to some 5,000 today. But in the first Congressional hearing on rewriting the No Child Left Behind law, lawmakers on Wednesday heard experts, all of them charter school advocates, testify that Washington should also make sure charter schools are properly monitored for their admissions procedures, academic standards and financial stewardship.

The president of one influential charter group told the House Education and Labor Committee that the federal government had spent $2 billion since the mid-1990s to finance new charter schools but less than $2 million, about one-tenth of 1 percent, to ensure that they were held to high standards. “It’s as if the federal government had spent billions for new highway construction, but nothing to put up guardrails along the sides of those highways,” said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Charter schools operate mainly with state financing, and with less regulation than traditional public schools. A provision of the No Child law offers federal startup grants, usually in the range of $150,000 per school, to charter organizers to help them plan and staff a new school until they can begin classes and obtain state per-pupil financing. The federal money has provided crucial early support to many successful charter schools, but has also attracted many people with little education experience who have opened chaotic schools that have floundered.

The administration’s proposal for rewriting the law would increase federal financing for charter schools to $490 million in 2011 from about $256 million in 2010. It would also, for the first time, allow the funds to be used to finance additional schools opened by a charter operator, if the original school has been successful.

Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who is the committee chairman and helped write the No Child law, said in opening the hearing that the law’s requirements for annual testing had placed a spotlight on students across the nation who were falling behind. “But we also know the law didn’t get everything right,” he said, “and we cannot afford to wait to fix it.”

Much debate on Wednesday focused on whether charter schools educate disabled children in the same proportion as regular public schools. Thomas Hehir, a Harvard education professor, said that national research on that question had been inadequate, but that his work in the San Diego, Los Angeles, Boston and other school systems had shown that “charters generally serve fewer children with disabilities than traditional public schools.” Furthermore, Mr. Hehir said, charters in some cities educate only a minuscule proportion of students with severe disabilities like mental retardation, in comparison with regular public schools. That, he said, undercuts the assertions by some that charters are outperforming regular schools.

Eileen Ahearn, a project director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said that charter schools faced unique challenges in educating disabled students but that many nonetheless do so successfully.


British private schools condemn 'social engineering'

Labour’s mission to “socially engineer” university admissions is built on flawed evidence, according to independent school leaders. Ministers are using unreliable research in an attempt to “blackmail” institutions into taking a larger number of pupils from the state sector, it was claimed.

Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents 250 top private schools, insisted most “independent-minded” academics and admissions tutors were resisting Government pressure by continuing to prioritise the brightest pupils irrespective of background. But, writing in The Daily Telegraph today, he warned that their ability to select could come under threat.

His comments came as another top head – Richard Cairns, from fee-paying Brighton College – called for all university applications to be “anonymised” to avoid any prejudice during the admissions process.

Vice-chancellors are already warning of a squeeze on university places this year following a record rise in applications. Despite the rush, Prof Steve Smith, the head of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said this month that institutions should still be allowed to make lower grade offers to pupils from poor-performing schools as part of the drive to “widen participation” to university. He quoted research from the Government’s Higher Education Funding Council that suggested students from state schools were more likely to get good degrees when compared with independent school peers on a like-for-like basis.

But Mr Grant said the evidence was “wholly unreliable” because it failed to take account of the fact that privately-educated pupils often took tougher courses. According to national figures, they are far more likely to study subjects such as the sciences and languages at university. Teenagers from the independent sector also take up more places at elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.

The comments came as another headmaster said higher education applications should no longer feature the names of pupils’ schools to end the row over admissions and place all candidates on an equal footing. In a speech to the Army and Navy Club in London, Mr Cairns said: “No bright sixth-former - from a private school or a comprehensive school - should feel that there is some hidden prejudice against them. “In consequence, all applications to university should be anonymous. After all, when they sit their own finals exams their papers are sat anonymously. So it should be at the point of application.

“That way, universities cannot be accused of discrimination, sixth-formers will be certain that they will be judged on their own particular merits and, if state schools continue to be under-represented in our leading universities, ministers will have to face up to the fact that it is their fault - and act to address it.”

He said parents who paid for private education – often “going without new cars and holidays” in the process – increasingly feared their children would miss out on university. “So far, such fears are utterly unfounded,” he said. “Brighton College has 60 former pupils at Oxford or Cambridge, four years ago there were only 25. Nevertheless, the fears persist and that increases uncertainty in all quarters.”


Australia: Frequent weapons seizures in Queensland government schools

Not quite up to the machine pistols that are sometimes seized in British schools, though

MORE than 80 suspensions for violence with weapons or "objects" are handed out every week in Queensland state schools. As the State Government vowed to crack down on student violence and bullying yesterday, figures obtained by The Courier-Mail highlighted the extent of the problem. The figures, released by the Education Department, show more than 10,000 suspensions were handed out to state school students for "physical misconduct involving an object" over the past three financial years. More than two students were expelled every school week last financial year for the violation, with 89 recorded, up from 65 in 2003 to 2004.

Yesterday, Premier Anna Bligh announced state, Catholic and independent school representatives would form the Queensland Schools Alliance Against Violence, which will make recommendations on the best ways to stamp out the growing problem. It follows a recommendation from Professor Ken Rigby in his report on how the state is dealing with bullying, and the alleged fatal stabbing of 12-year-old Elliott Fletcher in his school's toilets at Shorncliffe last week.

Premier Anna Bligh acknowledged there was an "alarming culture of school violence", with the alliance set to address it. But Opposition deputy leader Lawrence Springborg accused the Government of "more talk and no action", saying it had established a youth violence taskforce in 2006 and claimed to have implemented its recommendations in 2009.

Education figures show there were 2797 short suspensions for "physical misconduct involving an object" in state schools last year, down from a six-year high in 2007 to 2008 when 3064 were recorded. But long suspensions – between six and 20 days – have climbed annually over the past six years in the category, reaching 456 in 2008 to 2009.

Education deputy director-general Lyn McKenzie said the type of objects used in the suspensions could include pencils and sticks, as well as knives. Replica guns have also been wielded by students.

Ms Bligh said while bullying had always existed, the playground no longer ended at the school fence and had been radically changed by technology, including social networking sites. She said the alliance would focus on preventative measures but also look at security and violent incidents in schools, including the use of weapons. The group is expected to meet within the weeks and start delivering recommendations within months.


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