Future of Schools

Vouchers, merit pay spice Dougco forum

HIGHLANDS RANCH – Anger on both sides of Douglas County’s controversial school voucher program, its equally controversial performance-pay plan for teachers and the perceived politicizing of the school board drove debate at a candidates forum Monday night, as six of the eight people seeking a seat on the county school board came together to field questions submitted by voters.

Douglas County school board candidates share a laugh during Monday's forum. From left, challenger Kevin Reilly and incumbent Craig Richardson, who oppose each other in District A, and Gail Frances, running in District C.

Douglas County voters will be asked this fall not only to fill three of seven seats on the school board, but also to approve a $20 million mill levy increase for operating dollars and a $200 million bond issue, questions 3A and 3B on the Douglas County ballot.

On Monday, one candidate indicated he won’t be voting in favor of the increases and two more were lukewarm in their endorsement of them, citing lingering mistrust of the school board and its policies.

“I have never before voted against a mill levy or bond issue,” said Kevin Reilly, a Highlands Ranch neuropsychologist who is one of four candidates seeking election to the board from District A, in northwest Douglas County. He said he won’t be voting for 3A and 3B because he fears the increases would fund vouchers and pay-for-performance, and nothing else.

Gail Frances, running for school board in District C in opposition to the voucher plan, said she wants to support 3A and 3B, but feels trepidation. “What I’m hearing from parents and neighbors and teachers is that they’re very concerned about the fiscal responsibility of this board, and concerned about what will happen with this money. Will it be used to fight on behalf of this voucher program?”

District legal bills are mounting

Craig Richardson, the incumbent from District A – appointed to the seat a little over a year ago to fill a vacancy – steadfastly denied that monies generated by 3A and 3B would be used to pay court costs.

The district has already incurred more than $360,000 in legal bills fighting to support its voucher plan, which would have used public money to help send up to 500 Douglas county students to private schools this fall. Last month, Denver District Court Judge Michael Martinez ruled the plan unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction against it. School officials say they will appeal, but the issue has divided the community, with many insisting public schools have no business subsidizing private- and religious-school tuition fees, and others insisting anything the district can do to expand parental choice is worthwhile.

“Not one dime from 3A or 3B will be used for the Choice Scholars program,” Richardson insisted. “It will be used for capital projects, and it will be used to keep class sizes from getting out of control, and to start paying great teachers.”

More than $380,000 has been donated to a district legal fund to defend the voucher program, including $330,000 from the Daniels Fund and $50,000 from oil and gas developer Alex Cranberg. In addition, the Daniels Fund is offering a $200,000 match – meaning district officials have to come up with a similar figure to secure that funding.

Performance pay also based on ‘market value’ of teachers

Richardson is a keen supporter of the district’s revamped performance-pay plan for teachers, calling it “transformational.” The plan would pay teachers based on their performance ratings and on their “market value,” with teachers in hard-to-fill subjects garnering greater salaries than their peers. “If you’re a calculus teacher, and you’re doing a great job, I think you should earn six figures,” Richardson said. “Teachers who prefer a culture of entitlement will find other opportunities.”

But Susan McMahon, a Parker woman seeking to oust incumbent Justin Williams in District F, said she fears competition taken to the extreme in schools. “When it gets so extreme that our professionals are fearful of sharing their best practices from one school to another, then we’re going down the wrong track,” she said.

The debate Monday was cordial and polite, with most of the questions submitted in advance and read by Eldorado Elementary school principal John Melkonian, who made sure each candidate had equal time to answer each question and with no real sparring among the candidates or with audience members. But Richardson, as the only incumbent at the forum, was clearly on the hot seat in regard to vouchers. The board voted 7-0 to pursue the controversial program, and has consistently voted to pursue its legal defense.

“My view is that at the center of competition is parental choice,” Richardson said Monday in response to a question about competition in Douglas County schools. “Parents are the most accurate decision-makers about what works for any child. The more we empower parents to make informed choices, the likelier we are to see better educational outcomes.”

Candidates bash politicizing of school board

Beyond the issue of vouchers, several candidates criticized the existing board for placing party politics ahead of educational considerations. Two years ago, the Republican Party transformed what had traditionally been a non-partisan school board race when it endorsed – and successfully elected – a slate of four candidates, dramatically altering the shape of the school board. All the candidates endorsed by the teachers union went down to defeat.

On Monday, Susan Meek, a candidate in District A, pledged not to accept funds from any union or political party, and urged her fellow candidates to do the same. “I want to begin the process of removing politics from the school board,” she said. Meek knows better than many how partisan politics has infused education in Douglas County. Until March, she was communications director for the school district.

Kevin Reilly said that he, too, will accept no donations from any partisan group or union. “I’m not endorsed by any party. I’m running out of concern for re-establishing some balance in terms of the board’s decision-making,” he said.

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson appears to be cracking open the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

But on the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do what’s generally considered among the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said that the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 110 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a city where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.