charter schools

Best of 2014: As state prepares to list lowest-scoring schools, new high stakes for charters

For a picture of how Tennessee’s new charter school accountability law might play out on the ground, one might do well to look to Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering.

The Memphis charter school, known as MASE, has been on the upswing since it was identified as one of Tennessee’s lowest performing schools and placed on the state’s “priority list,” which consists of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state as determined by three years of test scores, in 2012.

The Memphis City school board recommended that the school — Tennessee’s first charter — be closed when its ten-year charter came up for renewal. But funders, parents, and teachers rallied to save the school, saying those scores didn’t tell the whole story. After hitting a low point in 2010-11, most of the school’s scores have gone up, and in 2013 MASE earned the state’s highest ranking on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which measures growth in students’ test scores, in three of four categories.

But unless MASE continues to post dramatically improved scores, it could find itself on the chopping block again. The law, passed this spring, mandates the closure of charter schools whose test scores put them on the priority list. That means that MASE must get out and stay out of the bottom 5 percent or risk being closed — and that schools that find themselves in MASE’s place in future years might not have the chance to turn their act around.

MASE’s story illustrates the problems legislators aimed to tackle with the new law — and suggests the challenges that come along with mandating closure for low-performing schools. Those challenges include the prospect of shuttering some schools that might actually serve students well.

“Even if it’s on the priority list, it doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t quality teachers,” said Tiffany Jones, the mother of four MASE students. “It doesn’t mean the students aren’t quality students.”

A new focus on the bottom 5 percent of schools

School quality was legislators’ main concern when they agreed to strict accountability rules for charter schools this spring. Under the new law, a charter school on the priority list will be subject to having its charters revoked after the end of the school year in which it isidentified as a priority school. That means schools on the new priority list released this summer could close as early as 2015.

The law also brings consequences for low-performing charter schools more closely into line with regulations about what should happen to low-scoring district-run schools. The state’s current school accountability system, enacted in order to win a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, makes schools in the bottom 5 percent eligible for a number of turnaround efforts. Those include placement in the state-run Achievement School District or in districts’ innovation zones, both of which may turn schools over to a charter operator as a strategy for school improvement.

In Shelby County, the district cited schools’ priority status in decisions to close 10 non-charter public schools this summer.

“If we’re going to close the bottom 5 percent schools, if we want to consider Shelby County schools for state takeover, we should definitely make sure the schools that are in the bottom 5 percent that are already charter schools are treated no differently,” said Kevin Woods, chair of the Shelby County school board. He said the board planned to take on low-performing charter schools even without the new law.

But state representative John DeBerry, a Democrat from Memphis, said he thought the law was now harsher on charter schools than on public schools. District-run schools on the priority list can escape closure by being overhauled by new managers, but the law’s only stated remedy for charter schools is closure.

The current priority list includes three charter schools, but that may well climb when the new list is released because of charter schools’ share of the city’s schools is growing.

Filling a void in charter school accountability

National and local advocates applauded the legislature’s tough-love approach to charters. They say the law eases charter authorizers’ path to closing low-performing schools and will improve the quality of the charter sector in general.

“The law’s purpose is to stay consistent with the mission and intent behind the formation of charter schools: more autonomy for more accountability,” said Lee Harrell, the director of government relations for the Tennessee School Boards Association, which backed the bill.

That was the bargain that MASE struck when it won the state’s first charter in 2003. But for the first decade of its existence, the school faced few consequences for declining performance.

Only when its charter came up for renewal last year did the school’s authorizer strive to hold the school accountable for boosting student performance. That’s because before the new state law, there was no prescribed approach for Tennessee charter school authorizers with low-performing charter schools.

“There needed to be clear guidelines and performance benchmarks to hold schools accountable. That process didn’t exist,” said Greg Thompson, the director of the the Tennessee Charter School Center, which supports the publicly-funded, privately-run schools. Thompson’s organization supported the legislation, which reflects a national trend of laws aimed at closing low-performing charters.

The fuzzy regulations are one reason that no Shelby County charter school has ever closed solely due to poor performance.

District officials recommended to the school’s board that MASE be closed in 2012, saying that the school “clearly no longer challenges students” and that it had strayed from its plans to deliver an extraordinary, STEM-focused curricula. But after the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a co-founder of the school, petitioned the board to consider the school’s upward trajectory, its seven years of solid scores, and its high graduation rate – and after legal counsel reassured the board that if the school was still struggling in two years, it could be shut down – the Memphis board voted 18 to 1 to keep it open.

Other Memphis charter schools have been closed for reasons that went beyond academic performance. Yo! Academy was shut in 2008 due to a combination of fiscal and academic concerns. Yo! Academy said it had not been given the chance to remediate students who came in far beyond grade level, and later sued the school district, claiming it had breached its contract —  a situation that TSBA’s Harrell said illustrated the need for the new law.

“A lot of time, in some of these areas, it’s been so difficult to close a school procedurally and legally,” he said.

Strict regulations, but questions about what they will accomplish

The new law leaves little room for interpretation. Any charter school on the new priority list will be slated for closure, pending a single public hearing to verify the data that landed it there. The only exception is for charter operators in the Achievement School District and those are already turning around low-performing schools. They will have to land on the priority list twice to trigger the automatic closure clause.

The law requires charter authorizers to establish a transition team to communicate regularly with students and families, ensure that all relevant parties know the school is about to close, and ensure that instruction is continuing for students who attend the school.

Families will also need to be informed about where their children can attend school once their charter school closes — a tricky task in Memphis, where 69 public schools, more than a quarter of the city’s total, are on the current priority list.

“When we were first placed on the list, students received letters about other schools that they could attend. But, believe it or not, when we looked at those schools, most of them were doing worse than us,” said Ketia Francis, who led MASE’s middle school turnaround.

MASE took a hit when it landed on the priority list. Enrollment plummeted, from more than 600 students to closer to 300. Close to 15 percent of the school’s teachers, including some top performers, left. Media attention spotlighted shortcomings. A long-standing partnership with Christian Brothers University ended. And declining enrollment brought a shrinking budget.

But parents and teachers rallied. Parent Jones, who drives her children 35 minutes to the school each day, said morale in the building remained high. Francis, then the new middle school principal, worked to change the school’s culture, hired new teachers, and started using a new series of interim assessments. Middle school students had extra math courses and tutoring. The school is planning to revamp professional development for teachers and renew its focus on STEM next year.

But the school’s struggle also spurred increased attention and investment from charter school supporters, including the Bioworks Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundation.

MASE’s new executive director, Jammie Poole, argued that had the new law been in effect the last time the priority list came out, his school might not have had a chance to make improvements.

“It makes sense if the state creates this list and says, here’s what we want to see along the way, and then you can get off the list. Here’s the support to get off this list that you may need,” he said. “But if it’s just the list, and you close, I don’t know if that’s productive.”

Either way, he said, he is optimistic that MASE won’t be on the state’s new priority list.

“We’re rebranding,” said Poole, who previously led turnaround schools in Chicago and a network of schools in Massachusetts. “It’s been 10 years and a lot has happened. … But if you come back here in three weeks, you’ll see a different school.”

“This year, if we do what we anticipate doing, we will be off that list,” he added.

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.