Riding the Success Express

How limited transportation undermines school choice — even in Denver, where an innovative shuttle system has drawn Betsy DeVos’s praise

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
School officials help students getting off the Success Express buses at University Prep in Denver last week.

Six years after Denver Public Schools created an innovative bus shuttle system to help get students to school, the effort has expanded and evolved but the larger problem it sought to fix remains.

The system, called the Success Express, was introduced in 2011 in northeast Denver with the goal of helping families choose high-quality schools as the district was changing the choice process and overhauling low-performing schools in the far northeast part of the city.

The Denver school district for years has received national praise for simplifying the school choice process, but providing adequate transportation continues to be barrier to real choice. Districts nationally still have looked at the Success Express as a model — one of relatively few examples of an urban district trying to tackle broader transportation challenges.

The 92,000-student district was spotlighted again last week when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the Success Express in a speech celebrating “out-of-the-box approaches.”

“This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options,” said DeVos, who has championed expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools.

For a number of reasons — including limited resources, logistical difficulties and the hardships of getting multiple agencies with different goals to agree on a plan — solving the transportation puzzle remains elusive in Denver and other cities.

A research report last month from the nonprofit Urban Institute identified transportation barriers in five cities, including Denver, and called choice an “empty” promise for many families.

While the Success Express has grown, it still only serves a limited part of the city. At the same time, school district and city officials are not on the same page with the region’s transportation agency about a separate proposal to increase transportation for another group of students by providing more public bus passes for high schoolers.

When it launched in the far northeast part of the city, the Success Express provided transportation to 18 area schools — including district-operated schools and charter schools. Today, the shuttle on average takes almost 3,000 students to 35 schools just in that area. The district replicated the model last year with two new routes in west Denver for middle school students.

In all cases, the routes include all school types in the area, including charter schools, district-managed schools and innovation schools, which are district-run but operate with many of the same freedoms as independent, publicly-funded charter schools.

Welcoming a mix of different school governance structures — an approach known as “the portfolio model” — has been a hallmark of Denver Public School reforms over the past decade.

“We’re happy to be part of the larger system,” said David Singer, executive director and founding principal of University Prep charter school, which has two schools on Success Express routes. “It has provided increased choice for families across our community. Our families by and large have had a positive experience.”

Outside the Success Express routes, most charter schools don’t provide transportation, though some off the routes have chosen to purchase bus service from the district.

In other cities, options are far more limited. In Detroit, charter schools that have opened as replacements for district-run schools do not provide transportation. That has left several families traveling dozens of miles to get their kids to the new schools.

There’s little argument about how innovative Denver’s system is. But it has it shortcomings.

For example, families in the zone of a Success Express shuttle can get free transportation to any school in their home region. But if they choose to go to a school outside the shuttle’s reach — one that’s farther and more difficult to get to — they’re on their own.

Some families who are able to drive their kids to school are choosing to skip the Success Express because of the time kids would spend on the bus.

“One parent would say, ‘My student’s on the bus for 45 minutes when I can drive to that school in 10 or 15 minutes,’ but that’s the tradeoff,” said Nicole Portee, the executive director of transportation for DPS. “We’re covering a large geographic area.”

Finding a way to transport every student who chooses to go to a school other than the one in their neighborhood is not likely to ever happen, officials admit.

“From a systems perspective, we don’t have enough resources,” Portee said. “If you imagine a city street that has 10 homes on it and every home has a different school of choice, you would need thousands and thousands of buses.”

Todd Ely, director for the Center for Local Government Research and Training at the University of Colorado Denver, co-wrote a study on the Success Express and has looked at transportation models in other cities and called Denver’s a good idea but only one piece of a hard-to-solve puzzle.

“As far as better systems, I don’t think there is (one),” Ely said. “The more you have kids coming from the same neighborhood, going to different schools, the more expensive and complicated the transportation service needs to be. I don’t think we really have an answer aside from these piecemeal or ad-hoc solutions.”

DPS, in fact, is working with the city and advocacy groups on another initiative that fits that definition: getting more bus passes for high school students.

DPS doesn’t provide yellow bus service for high school students outside of the Success Express regions, but instead gives a bus pass for public transit to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The groups working on the plan, including the district officials, acknowledge that the Success Express has not been, and won’t be, a solution for all students city-wide and are looking at other plans that could help.

The district estimates it purchases about 2,500 Regional Transportation District bus passes for high school students monthly. Some schools also use their own budgets to buy bus passes for students who don’t qualify for a district-provided one.

The idea the city of Denver pitched to RTD would allow the district to purchase yearly passes for students instead of monthly passes — at considerable savings — charging the rate given to businesses. That could allow the district to quadruple the number of passes it gives students.

DPS padded its bus pass budget with $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November. Denver city officials said they also would contribute money to pay for the passes.

But according to city officials, RTD officials are not ready to commit, wanting first for a task force that just started meeting this month to complete research on RTD’s many different passes and rates.

City officials say they want to proceed now rather than waiting, saying new data on student bus use could inform the task force’s work.

“We want to be able to remove some barriers, so if a family wants to go take their kid to a school across town because that’s the best fit for their children, we don’t want them to be prohibited,” said Dionne Williams, deputy director of children’s affairs for the city of Denver.

The discussions illustrate how difficult the issue is to solve. In the meantime, transportation remains an important factor for families and students considering schools.

Haydn Roberts, a 17-year-old student at DSST Cole, a charter school in northeast Denver, said that when his family chose to send him to Cole, they had considered East High School and DSST at Stapleton first, but ultimately went with Cole because of transportation concerns.

Taking the bus to East was a direct ride, while taking the bus to the other schools would have meant getting on multiple buses and extending his commute.

“Sitting at the bus stop that long, my family decided that would not be safe for me,” Roberts said.

For the city, transportation is important for school choice, but also for students to get to recreation centers, libraries and other services that are free for students with the My Denver card. It’s also about giving students transportation to summer jobs.

In other cities that have tried to lower transportation barriers, the struggle is often about money. While school districts want to save their money to spend in the classroom, transit agencies can lose millions providing free or reduced cost passes to students.

“Just like any other government agency, we have to be fiscally responsible,” said Nate Currey, a spokesman for RTD. “We get a lot of requests. Anytime we offer a discounted fare, it does cost us money.”

Currey did not have any estimates on potential fiscal impacts from the proposal

“Bottom line is we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for everybody,” Currey said.

City officials said the conversation isn’t over and that they are now looking into possible alternatives while RTD’s task force finishes its work.

DPS officials said their work improving Success Express and transportation in general is ongoing.

“We have to work within those constraints that will never change,” said Portee, the transportation director. “It doesn’t limit our ability to continue trying to think about how we serve our students.”

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.