Future of Schools

State board finalizes role as alternate charter school authorizer

PHOTO: G. Tatter
The school board observed a presentation on charter school authorization at a meeting in July.

Although it happened three years ago, the local school board’s rejection of  Great Hearts Academies is still commonly evoked in Nashville to describe the sometimes complicated relationship between local districts and charter management organizations.

In 2012, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools board rejected an application from the the Arizona-based charter management organization to open a school in an upper-income Nashville neighborhood. The board turned down the application even after the Tennessee Department of Education signaled that the application was strong and a rejection would lead to a hefty fine.

But local school board members said they worried that the school would be inaccessible to low-income families and rejected the application anyway. The education department said the turn-down violated state law, and withheld more than $3 million in state funding from the district.

In March, the General Assembly passed a law that allows the State Board of Education to authorize charter schools in the counties with the highest number of failing schools. Charter school operators’ applications still go to their local boards of educations first, but now, if denied, they can appeal to and be authorized by the state board.

Consequently, had that rejection happened today, Great Hearts would have had the option of appealing Metro Nashville’s decision to the State Board of Education, which is now able to authorize charter schools.  The appeal would have been upheld and the school likely would have opened.

Granting the state board this power was a direct response to the Great Hearts situation, said Justin Testerman, the chief operating officer of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

On Friday, the board will finalize its role as authorizer when it votes on the the policies it will use to hold the schools it authorizes accountable. The proposed framework contains the academic, financial, and organizational benchmarks by which board members will evaluate the schools they authorize annually. It was adopted from  the National Association of Charter School Authorizers,  a Chicago-based organization that consults with authorizing agencies and advocates for charter schools.

Supporters of the new law say it will allow more high-quality charter schools to operate in the state, because local districts are often resistant to charter schools, no matter their strengths. Opponents say that local officials have more knowledge about the potential financial and academic impacts charter schools might have on their school system.  

Wendy Thompson, a newly-appointed state board of education member from Nashville and former education adviser to the mayor, said she is hopeful about the impacts of the board’s new role.

“If we (the state board of education) do it well — and we will — we’ll be able to add to the sector in a quality way,” she said.

Most other states have multiple options for authorizers. Until the new law passed, Tennessee charters could only choose between local school districts and the state-run Achievement School District.

Authorizing a charter school requires a lot of work after the initial application approval, and this will be the board’s focus on Friday.  The state board of education will also have to monitor schools, renew their charters, and close failings ones. In July, when the board underwent a four-hour National Association of Charter School Authorizers training to be authorizers, Chairman B. Fielding Roylston predicted that those steps would be the most complex for the board.

“Measurement in the education area is difficult, and I think it’s going to be the part that’s most challenging,” he said.

Tennessee’s biggest charter authorizers, Metro Nashville Schools, Shelby County Schools, and the Achievement School District have a national reputation for being rigorous authorizers. So far, the state board of education appears to be as well: the board has upheld the local school boards’ decisions for all of four appeals its heard so far. Three of the appeals they heard were from charters in Memphis: the Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation, Military Academy of Culture and Technology Charter School, and the Emerge STEM Collegiate Charter School.

Board members will decide on two more appeals on Friday; one for a school in Robertson County, and the other for a school in Fayette County. In both cases, executive director Gary Nixon has requested the local boards’ rejection be upheld.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.