hope for hope

HOPE Online gets reprieve from State Board, will continue operating in Aurora

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

The State Board of Education on Thursday blocked Aurora Public Schools’ efforts to kick a struggling online charter school out of the district’s boundaries, saying that parent choice trumped the school’s poor performance on state tests.

In June, the Aurora school board followed the advice of Superintendent Rico Munn and ended its agreement with HOPE Online Learning Academy, blocking the schools from operating this fall.

The reasoning: The multi-district online charter school has consistently failed to meet state benchmarks on standardized tests, and the district saw no proof it was trying to improve.

After HOPE officials appealed, the State Board voted unanimously Thursday to overturn the  decision, allowing HOPE to operate its five centers in the district for another three years. APS and HOPE officials must sign an agreement within 30 days.

“The fact that a school like HOPE might have a low performance rating pales in comparison to a parent who has a student that doesn’t want to go to school,” said State Board member Pam Mazanec, a Republican from Larkspur. “We have to give these parents options.”

HOPE Online is one of a few charter schools in Colorado that operates in multiple school districts. While students at other online-based schools may work exclusively from home, HOPE students are required to attend a learning center daily during the school year.

In Aurora, HOPE schools operate in settings ranging from strip malls to churches.

HOPE Online is on the state’s watch list for poor academic performance — as are several APS-run schools. But APS is not held accountable for HOPE’s performance on the state’s rating system because the school is chartered in Douglas County.

If the state’s struggling schools don’t improve by 2017 they will begin facing sanctions in 2017. The State Board will decide those sanctions from a list including closure, putting the schools under new management or some of their operations under new management.

Some state board members said they they believed HOPE, which serves a large population of students from low-income homes and English language learners, deserves more time to improve.

“I think it takes much longer than the five years to get any results, especially with hard-to-serve schools,” said board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat. “I think the research shows that it could be up to 10 years.”

Board vice chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said the centers deserved more time but that the state board would hold the charter accountable when it was time.

“It will still be the responsibility of this board to look at the turnaround schools,” Schroeder said. “But now’s not the right time.”

Superintendent Munn said he respected the board’s decision, adding that he believes their vote means they’ll consider Aurora’s demographics when making decisions about his schools on the state watchlist.

“By a unanimous vote, the State Board has held that our accountability framework should consider the unique circumstances of schools and the communities they serve,” he said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the State Board and the Colorado Department of Education under this new guidance.”

Van Schoales, CEO of A-Plus Colorado, an education reform group doing work in Aurora, said the board’s reversal sets a terrible precedent.

“This has huge ramifications that go beyond Aurora,” he said. “It takes away any bar for school quality in the state of Colorado. According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.

HOPE administrators told the State Board centers in Aurora that serve mostly low-income students are making strides.

“We’re well above average growth,” said Janet Filbin, HOPE’s director of student achievement, referring to results from an early education literacy test.

Aurora isn’t the first school district to try to evict HOPE. The Eaton school board tried twice to shutter HOPE’s learning center in the district near Greeley. The State Board overturned those decisions.

Munn’s recommendation to shutter HOPE was a part of a school improvement agenda that includes setting free a cluster of five schools from some state and district policies and turning over a low-performing elementary school to a Denver-based charter network.

Correction: This article has been corrected to attribute a quote to Van Schoales, not Rico Munn. Schoales said: “According to the state board, what several said was all that mattered was what parents wanted. That is the equivalent of selling a Pinto to a family,” a reference to the 1970s car known for exploding into flames in rear-end collisions.

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”