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.”

New Arrivals

Advocates decry Fariña’s explanation of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

The city pointed out that combining current and former English Language Learner graduation rates, 57 more students graduated this year. Fariña also said that while she is working to help more English learners graduate, it is harder for students to earn a diploma if they start off years behind.

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.