Who's In Charge

What an author’s visit to Memphis tells us about competing ideas for the district’s future

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Marcus Robinson, left, CEO of Memphis Education Fund and author David Osborne at an event Tuesday in Crosstown Concourse.

When education insiders gathered earlier this week to hear from the author of a new book about school governance, they were also getting a glimpse into one big idea that’s reshaping local schools.

The author was David Osborne, and his new book, “Reinventing America’s Schools,” argues that city school districts should stop directly running schools, and should instead hand that power over to non-government groups like charter schools.

It’s a model that some leaders in Memphis, including those who brought Osborne to town, are giving close attention. Among them is Marcus Robinson, the leader of the Memphis Education Fund, which hosted the event with Osborne. Robinson came to Memphis a year ago from Indianapolis, one of the cities Osborne highlights as a beacon of his favored model.

Originally called Teacher Town, last year Memphis Education Fund changed its name and adopted a new mission: to improve every aspect of local schools, not just teaching. But what efforts exactly would get the fund’s support has been unclear.

If Robinson does endorse Osborne’s vision and pushes leaders at Shelby County Schools to embrace charter schools, he and the Memphis Education Fund could find themselves on a collision course with the Shelby County Schools board.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

Currently, Shelby County’s schools chief, Dorsey Hopson, has made clear that he sees the district as competing with the charter sector, not receding to allow the sector to flourish or even existing peacefully alongside it. And throughout the presentation with Osborne, at least one school board member sitting in the audience, Stephanie Love, audibly made her displeasure known.

Robinson tried to appease Love and others in attendance who expressed skepticism about Osborne’s vision, while still backing a key requirement of it. “No matter how you do school or who is governing it, none of it works to get our kids up the ladder unless there is a high level of accountability to close a bad school,” he said.

Many aspects of schooling in Memphis puts it on the right track, according to Obsorne’s assessment. The state’s turnaround initiative, the Achievement School District, offers choice for parents, third-party operators running schools, and, at least in theory, consequences for schools that don’t deliver results. (Osborne lauded the district’s test scores, at times exaggerating their performance.) The school district has also supported an initiative to give some schools more autonomy in exchange for accountability. And a robust charter sector offers more choices for families, and deepens pressure for schools either to attract families or have to close.

But the school board and Hopson, its chosen leader, have been reluctant participants in some of those initiatives. While Hopson says he supports a portfolio district in theory, his administration has at times worked to undermine such a transition.

A searing example came in recent robocalls to parents, encouraging them not to allow charter schools to have access to their contact information.

In his presentation, Osborne said resistance from superintendents and school boards is the biggest obstacle to revamping school districts in the way he believes will make a difference for students. He suggested that school boards actually work against letting public will influence districts’ direction.

“If we are on a school board and we’re elected, and we have thousands of employees and they all vote in school board elections at which turnout is often 10 or 15 percent, we better not get them too angry at us or we’re going to lose our jobs,” Osborne said. “Same with the superintendent.”

Robinson echoed that sentiment, saying that the cities Osborne extols had “a lot of courage” to make systemic changes and close low-performing schools. He also said that in those cities, “the agents of change [are] the school board, not the principal.”

Since arriving in Memphis, Robinson has worked to import ideas from Indianapolis. He brought several of his deputies from that city, and next week, the Memphis Education Fund is paying for school board members to travel there.

Whether board members will be receptive to what they learn is unclear. After Obsorne’s book talk, Love defended the board as already having made unpopular decisions, such as to close nearly two dozen schools over the past five years.

If Osborne’s plan were the golden ticket, she said, schools across Memphis would be further along. But she said schools that the board does not supervise, including those run by the Achievement School District, are not held to the same standards.

“There is no real accountability across the board for all of our educational options,” Love said. “It sounded good, but it’s unrealistic.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.