School Choice

O’Brien, Kiley and Poston argue conflict of interest, Amendment 66

Updated: We’ve now added the complete video of the debate.

Denver city-wide school board candidates Michael Kiley, Barbara O’Brien and Joan Poston wrangled over issues ranging from teacher evaluations, last year’s bond and mill levy to candidates’ conflict of interest on Thursday night.

“We’re the envy of the country,” said O’Brien at the end of the heated debate. “Other communities wish they had the love for their education system we have.”

The debate was the second in a series sponsored by A+ Denver, EdNews and KDVR Fox31. KDVR’s Eli Stokols moderated the debate using versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online. He also posed a few questions of his own.

Kiley took the opportunity to emphasize his commitment to community engagement, saying change can’t come from outside.

“Any change to a school has to come from the community,” he said. Kiley also attacked O’Brien’s 2003 support of vouchers.

O’Brien emphasized that she does not currently support vouchers and that the 2003 program was a pilot.

“I oppose vouchers and I can’t conceive that as a board, we’ll have to deal with that,” said O’Brien.

Besides, she said, “Denver has become a district of choice.”

Poston, who was a late entry in the race, highlighted her frustration with previous school boards and her desire to change the culture.

“I went to the board expecting a response and didn’t get it,” Poston said, referring to a petition she made in 2006 for installing cooling systems.

Here are some of the most discussed topics of the debate:

Conflict of interest

O’Brien’s previous involvement with the school district through her non-profit organization Get Smart Schools, which works with schools with high levels of low-income students, prompted some of the most heated back and forth in the debate.

Kiley said it represented a conflict of interest and would prevent her from dealing with all schools equally.

“So now if she’s voting for a given school, she’s got an interest in the school [she works with] but the community has an interest in the neighborhood school,” said Kiley. “The board needs to answer to the community.”

O’Brien said she had spoken with the school district lawyer and that it did not represent a conflict of interest except in “1 percent of decisions.”

Kiley suggested it was not a disinterested assessment, saying that “the DPS lawyer will work for you if you’re on the board.” He emphasized that he would be an independent voice on the board.

“The distinction is that I don’t run in a certain political circle,” said Kiley. “I’m not part of a political machine.”

O’Brien said she was happy to talk about her non-profit and that she was proud of her work. The school board needs “people who have real world experience,” O’Brien argued.

She praised Kiley’s work at his children’s schools but said she had a broader range of experience.

Amendment 66

Not all candidates supported the proposed tax increase which would alter the state’s school finance policies as well as raise $950 million in tax dollars for education.

Poston opposed the amendment, saying it would take control of the budget out of the hands of the community and the district and place it in the hands of the state.

“That’s another level away from the neighborhood,” she said.

“But, Joan, most of our money already comes from the state,” O’Brien countered. O’Brien said she supports the tax measure, citing the additional funds it would bring to Denver students.

Kiley supported the amendment, saying “I think it makes some good structural changes.” But, he said, for it to be effective, the community would have to be able to trust the school board’s judgement in the administration of the funds.

Bond and mill levy

Last year’s bond and mill levy remained a divisive issue in this debate, as candidates argued over district accountability and community engagement.

Kiley, who supported the mill levy but not the bond, said that he was in favor of the mill levy in part because of the funding for early childhood education. But he was concerned about a lack of accountability for the bond money.

“My concerns [on the bond] were that there were very vague areas of spending,” Kiley said. He said his fears were realized when the district purchased a new administration building, using funds from the bond.

O’Brien countered that the new administration building, which is at 1860 Lincoln St., was paid for by selling off other district properties. She also said that the bond paid for classroom space for the early childhood education Kiley supported.

“I think it’s really important not to create confusion where there’s transparency,” O’Brien said. “You don’t try to withhold $466 million in physical improvements from our kids.”

Teacher evaluations

All three candidates supported SB-191 but for different reasons. The bill created a new system of teacher evaluation and replaced forced placement, where teachers could be placed in schools by their district, without the agreement of either the teacher or the school’s principal. SB-191 instituted the practice of mutual consent, by which both the principal and the teacher would have to agree on the the placement.

Poston, who said she is a staunch supporter of increased accountability, said there would be no need for forced placement if teachers performed at a high enough level.

“If you get good evaluations, you won’t have forced placement,” Poston said.

O’Brien supported mutual consent, saying that principals could not be held accountable for school performance if they can’t be in control of hiring.

“If you’re going to hold someone accountable, they have to have control over who they hire,” said O’Brien.

Kiley was ambivalent about the merits of mutual consent but supported the bill overall. The problem, he said, was in the district’s leadership.

“Forced placement isn’t in the interest of kids, but mutual consent creates its own problems,” Kiley said. Ultimately, “we need a different kind of administration.”

School Choice

One of the top ranked high schools in the state just joined Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Herron High School is the latest addition to the IPS innovation network.

One of Indianapolis’ most sought after charter high schools just joined Indianapolis Public Schools — an unusual shift in a relationship that has long been competitive.

The IPS board voted to add Herron High School, a charter school on the northside, to the district portfolio of innovation schools at a meeting Thursday. Board member Elizabeth Gore was the only one to oppose the measure.

The move is the latest example of district collaboration with charter schools, which were seen in the past as rivals for students.

“Way back at the beginning, there was this huge animosity between IPS and charter schools,” said Herron board chair Joanna Taft, who has been involved with the school since it opened in 2006. “It’s really exciting to be able to see the charter schools and public schools start coming together.”

Herron and a second campus expected to open this fall, Riverside High School, are now under the IPS umbrella, but the schools still retain virtually all of their independence. The teachers are employed directly by the charter network and are not part of the IPS union. And unlike most innovation schools, neither campus is in an IPS building.

The deal offers the charter schools an influx of cash and extra control over which neighborhoods they serve. IPS will add well-regarded schools to the list of high schools on its books, and it will get credit for Herron’s test scores and other academic outcomes when the district is assessed by the state.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the district wanted to add Herron to the innovation network so the classical liberal arts curriculum is available to more IPS students.

“The access to the classical model, which currently doesn’t exist in our district and … has a strong track record of success is obviously appealing to us,” Ferebee said. “We want to ensure that we give our students access to this option.”

Both Herron and Riverside are located within the boundaries of IPS, but the schools also draw students from nearby township and suburban communities. About half the students who attend Herron live in IPS boundaries, said Taft.

The school, which regularly ranks among the top Indiana high school, has historically drawn high-achieving students from IPS. But it has faced criticism for having student demographics that don’t mirror the community. Herron enrolls about 35 percent students of color, compared to about 80 percent of IPS students. Additionally, about 32 percent of Herron students are poor enough to get subsidized meals, less than half the rate in IPS.

Because IPS educates so many poor students, it gets more money from the state. Next year, the district is expected to receive a base rate of nearly $7,000 per student from the state, while Herron will receive about $5,500. Under the agreement approved tonight, IPS will give Herron and Riverside $6,000 per student next year.

If the school’s demographics fit the projections from the state, the district would be giving the charter schools more than $475,000 on top of what they would normally get from the state.

Herron leaders are taking steps to increase the number of low-income students they serve, said Taft. In addition to joining the innovation network, Herron will participate in EnrollIndy, a planned unified enrollment system that will allow students to apply to Herron and other charter schools through the same website as IPS schools.

Ferebee also said joining the new enrollment system should help increase the number of low-income students at the schools.

“We have been very intentional with this agreement around ensuring that the student population with these schools mirror as much as possible our IPS population,” said Ferebee.

As innovation network schools, Herron and Riverside will also be able to give students from the surrounding neighborhoods first dibs on seats at the schools, which could increase the number of students who live within IPS boundaries. (With a few exceptions, charter schools are required to admit students by lottery.)

That was one of the most important reasons Herron wanted to join the innovation network, said Taft. Riverside staff have been working closely with neighborhood leaders around the new campus, and they wanted to be able to give local students priority in admission.

That’s an attractive prospect for board member Kelly Bentley, because the nearby students who will get an edge come from within the IPS boundaries.

“I think that Herron is an excellent academic program,” she said. “I’m really excited that our students will have a better chance of getting into that program.”

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.