charter compact

Memphis plan looks at thorny challenges of school district sharing buildings with charter operators

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Freedom Preparatory Academy's high school is housed in the former Lakeview Elementary School owned by Shelby County Schools.

A proposed guideline for charter operators’ use of buildings owned by Shelby County Schools just scratches the surface toward addressing one of the most costly aspects of running a charter school.

The school system’s Charter Advisory Committee wants the criteria for charter access to start with student achievement and alignment with district priorities.

But the panel’s recommendations don’t touch on shared services for building maintenance and how the district prioritizes capital funds, an issue that emerged this year when a leaky roof impacted students in Libertas School of Memphis, a state-run charter school housed in a district-run building in Frayser.

The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday night on the Charter Advisory Committee’s recommendations that also include proposals to levy a management fee on charter operators and to establish a process for revoking charters from operators who aren’t meeting minimum expectations.

Navigating facilities issues are among the thorniest challenges for stakeholders in need of ground rules for Memphis’ growing charter sector. About a fourth of Shelby County Schools are now charter schools, and the district also is the landlord to some charter operators in the state-run Achievement School District.

At last week’s work session, several school board members said the proposed guidelines aren’t specific enough. And Rodney Moore, the district’s general counsel and chief legal officer, voiced “serious concerns” about the legality of some, though he didn’t offer specifics.

But Chairman Chris Caldwell said the board should treat the proposed guidelines as guiding principles.

“These would not be binding, but they certainly would be serious considerations we can go and incorporate in our final product and reflect on,” Caldwell said. “But I think that too much hard work has been done, too much good work has been done, to do anything that would stall this effort.”

State law does not provide specifics in working with charter operators on facilities but does require local districts to make available “underutilized and vacant properties” without disrupting a district’s plan for the property.

The facilities proposal is mostly based on a policy in Denver, which considers a charter operators’ past academic performance, student enrollment, and the district’s overall facility planning when approving or denying an operator’s request to use district buildings.

Since the district does not have a formal mechanism to establish such priorities, the proposal calls for the creation of an assessment to show what academic needs are prevalent in different parts of the city. The assessment would help rank which charter schools should have access to district buildings based on the building condition, expected building utilization rate, school performance, program needs and parent demand.

expansion plans

Betsy DeVos promises an expansive school choice plan, says opting out would be ‘terrible mistake’ for states

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In a speech to the advocacy group she previously led, Betsy DeVos hinted that an aggressive plan to expand public funding of private schools through the federal government is on the way.

The U.S. education secretary offered few details about the plan, which she said would be voluntary for states. And with an administration besieged by controversy, a skeptical Congress, and disagreement among even school choice supporters, it faces an uphill battle.

That did not deter DeVos in her speech at the annual American Federation for Children conference in downtown Indianapolis.

“The president is proposing the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history,” she said, soon after being greeted by a standing ovation from school choice supporters. “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

School choice comes in many forms, but DeVos and the American Federation for Children have long advocated for vouchers and tax credit programs that provide public money to families in order to pay private school tuition. While proponents argue these initiatives provide a lifeline to low-income students, critics say they drain resources from public schools and are ineffective at improving student achievement.

Indeed, DeVos was met with protests from several dozen teachers and public education advocates who criticized her plan before it had even been released. Voucher programs “rob a majority of the students — we’ve got more than 90 percent of the kids in this country sitting in public schools,” Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith told Chalkbeat after a rally held before DeVos’s speech.

Even certain school choice supporters are critical of a federal proposal.

“School choice would not only risk being branded as TrumpChoice, but it would be fronted by an unpopular and divisive president,” wrote Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Democrats who are open to school choice but who despise Trump might wonder if they’re missing something when it comes to school choice.”

One prominent school choice supporter, Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, has already backed the proposal. Still, few seem to expect it to become law. In 2015, a bid to give states the option to use federal money to fund private school tuition was easily voted down in the Senate.

In her speech, DeVos emphasized that the administration’s proposal would devolve power to the states, thought it’s unclear how she would accomplish this seemingly paradoxical goal through a federal program.

“We shouldn’t view this as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits all school choice proposal,” she said. “We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money.”

The last line was perhaps an allusion to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, though she didn’t specify how the Trump administration’s plan would work differently.

Insofar as states will have a choice about school choice, DeVos is clear which direction she thinks they should go.

“Let me be very clear, I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education,” DeVos said. “But those are decisions states must make — no two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same, and that’s a good thing.”

The secretary offered a bevy of options that epitomize the “open system” of choices that families should have access to: “It shouldn’t matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools – or in an educational setting yet to be developed.”

Earlier in the evening, Indiana’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb appeared, and former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference on Tuesday. Although New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke to the group in previous years, no current elected Democrat appears on this year’s agenda.

DeVos seemed keenly aware of the increasingly partisan breakdown on school choice issues, particularly on school vouchers.

“The oldest school choice program in the country was started by the Democrat,” she said, referring to Milwaukee’s long-running school voucher system. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this: education should not be a partisan issue.”

Currently about 450,000 students use a voucher or tax-credit funded scholarship to attend a private school.

Recent research in Indianapolis, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. has shown students receiving a voucher saw their test scores drop. There is little research on tax credit programs, partially because many don’t require participating students to take their state test or any test at all.

Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and under-serving those students. Existing voucher programs also allow private schools discriminate against LGBT students.

Proponents point to evidence that public schools improve in response to competition from vouchers, as well as older studies showing that some students attending a private school are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

When Chalkbeat asked Secretary DeVos, as she was leaving through a side entrance, what she thought of recent research on school choice, she responded only, “We’re not taking questions.”

feedback wanted

After seven months, recommendations due from Denver task force on African-American equity issues

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Allen Smith of DPS’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team talks about the formation of the task force at a press conference last year.

After a critical report documented concerns about how African-American educators and students in Denver are treated, Denver Public Schools assembled a task force of more than 100 parents, teachers, community members and district staff to brainstorm ways to respond.

The group, which has been meeting for the past seven months, will reveal its recommendations at a public meeting Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Bruce Randolph School, 3955 Steele Street in Denver. Attendees will have a chance to review and react to the recommendations before they are presented to the Denver school board, which is scheduled to happen next month.

The Denver Public Schools African-American Equity Task Force was formed last fall in the wake of a report commissioned by the district. Summarizing conversations with 70 African-American educators, the report noted black teachers felt isolated and unaccepted, and passed-over for promotions. The educators also reported that black students were being left behind academically and disciplined more harshly than their white peers.

District statistics show black students are suspended at higher rates than white students and earn lower average scores on state English and math tests.

“We have institutional racism,” school board president Anne Rowe said at an October press conference about the formation of the task force. She said that while DPS is committed to equity, “we have a lot to do.”

The task force was comprised of several layers, including six working groups that each tackled an area of concern. For example, one group was charged with examining the causes of disproportionate student discipline and coming up with recommendations for alternatives to suspension. Another group looked at how to better recruit and retain black educators.

Allen Smith, associate chief of the district’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, who led the efforts, noted Monday that the task force has identified “a number of possible next steps.”

“I know the root causes impacting our community are broad, deep and interconnected,” Smith wrote in a statement.

He added that, “We are excited about building trust by sharing the results of this first phase of work and [getting] feedback on how the African-American community’s experiences will be different once we are successful.”