Cause for concern

U.S. education chief knocks ‘uneven’ Michigan charter schools but urges caution in school closings

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor

The Obama administration’s top education official urged Michigan school leaders to think through the consequences of closing potentially dozens of struggling schools in Detroit and across the state.

“The key question is: What are they being replaced with?” asked U.S. Secretary of Education John King in a Wednesday interview with Chalkbeat. “What are the opportunities that will be available to students instead?”

The secretary says Michigan has a poor track record for improving schools — and such poor supervision over charter schools that the privately-run, publicly funded schools do not offer a strong alternative to district schools.

“I worry a lot about the charter sector in Michigan, which has very uneven performance,” King said. “There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters.”

So as Michigan considers shuttering low-performing schools — and as Gov. Rick Snyder sorts through dueling opinions about whether a new Detroit schools law requires his office to close every school in the city that’s posted at least three years of low test scores — King called on state officials to improve struggling schools, rather than just close them.

“Frankly, the track record for Michigan on school improvement to date is not great,” he said. “The key question is: Will the state put in place quality opportunities for students, whether that involves closure as a step or not?”

Chalkbeat spoke with King as he prepares to visit the Detroit area on Friday to highlight a program at Warren’s Proper Tooling manufacturing plant that gives high school apprentices on-the-job experience.

He’s also planning to visit a high school in Flint to discuss school-based health programs in the wake of the water crisis there.

But while he’s in town, King said he plans to ask questions about the state of schools in Detroit.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Detroit … is to get a better understanding from folks locally of what the challenges are,” he said. “Certainly it appears that inadequate resources have been invested in many of the schools.”

King said he couldn’t comment on the federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed last month against Snyder and state education officials alleging that the poor state of Detroit’s district and charter schools amounts to a violation of children’s constitutional rights.

But he said the Obama administration supports “the principle that all students in a community deserve an education that prepares them for college and careers,” and noted that he doesn’t think Detroit children are getting that.

“I certainly worry when I see the academic outcomes,” he said. “There are many students who are not getting the preparation for college and careers that they need. I don’t think anyone can look at the academic outcomes in Detroit and not be worried about students and the future of the city.”

King’s comments about charter schools are bound to be controversial among advocates for the privately managed schools. Michigan charter-school supporters routinely point to charter school test scores, which on average are slightly higher than district schools in Detroit.

They note that charter schools do close for poor performance, including five that were shut down last year, and that the new Detroit schools law, which could force the closure of both district and charter schools in the city, also includes tougher requirements for charter school authorizers.

But King said he doesn’t think Michigan has same high standards for charter schools as states like Massachusetts, which he says do a better job of ensuring that the schools “deliver results in exchange for greater autonomy.”

“There are individual [Michigan] charter schools that do seem to be performing well,” he said. “But on the whole, I don’t think the sector had been adequately monitored and adequate steps have not been taken to ensure that charter schools are consistently a better option.”

As he prepared to visit both Detroit and Flint, King drew parallels between Detroit’s schools crises and the problems in Flint, where toxic lead levels that were in the city’s water for more than a year could lead to serious medical, mental, and cognitive impairments in as many as 27,000 children and their parents.

“Ultimately the challenges in Detroit and Flint are both part of deeper problems, in which I think government has not served its citizens as well as it should and hasn’t prioritized equitable outcomes for all communities,” he said. “How the Flint situation came to be and the slow response I think reflects a lack of concern for folks in Flint and it certainly is connected to a long history of issues around race and class.”

Allowing Detroit’s schools to become “under resourced,” he said, is part of the same issue.

“The specifics are different,” he said. “But there is a connection in terms of how invested is the state government in ensuring opportunities and civil rights for all citizens.”

In Flint, he said, “inadequate attention has been paid to protecting the people of Flint in terms of the water quality and inadequate attention has been paid to the children of Detroit in terms of ensuring quality educational opportunities.”

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”

budget bump

Mayor’s budget includes funding for homeless students, 3-K for All, and air-conditioned classrooms

PHOTO: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveils his executive budget.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2018 executive budget, unveiled Wednesday, was hailed as a win by advocates who successfully pushed for the restoration of $10.3 million in funding for homeless students omitted from his draft budget.

“We are disappointed that we had to fight to get the $10.3 million restored,” said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children, “but are relieved that the mayor has restored the funding.”

The mayor’s $84.9 billion budget funds several other education priorities, many of which were first revealed in January. New additions include a sweeping plan to extend universal pre-K to 3-year-olds, announced Monday, and a five-year plan to install air conditioning in all city classrooms.

The “3-K for All” initiative builds on the mayor’s existing Pre-K for All program for 4-year-olds, his most significant education commitment to date. Extending the program to younger children will cost the city $36 million in fiscal year 2018, ramping up to $177 million in fiscal year 2021. With additional funding from city, state and federal sources, it could eventually serve 62,000 children.

“This is spending money where it will have the biggest impact,” the mayor said Wednesday. “Doing that [early education] investment the right way will facilitate everything else we’re trying to do in education.”

Equipping all classrooms with air conditioning will cost the city more than $28 million over five years, the mayor said, calling it an essential change. “Talk about everyday things that parents care about and kids care about and teachers care about,” he said. (Hot rooms are more than just uncomfortable: A study released last year found that Regents test-takers in New York City were less likely to pass if they were tested on hotter days.)

The restored $10.3 million for homeless students will pay for dozens of social workers in schools with high populations of homeless students through an initiative called “Bridging the Gap,” an Afterschool Reading Club program for children living in shelters, and teachers based in shelters who are charged with boosting school attendance, among other initiatives.

While advocates praised the mayor for including that funding, they said it’s still far less than is needed to truly address the crisis.

A recent report from the city’s Independent Budget Office found that the number of students who spent part of the 2015-16 school year living in a homeless shelter rose by 15 percent over the previous year, to nearly 33,000. Those students are clustered at a relatively small number of schools — 155 district schools each have 10 percent or more of their students living in shelters.

“Even with the increase to 43 Bridging the Gap social workers,” Levine wrote in an email, “most of these schools will not have a social worker to focus on this population.”