School Choice

Christel House rebounds after controversy and test score drop

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Christel House Academy blamed last year's big drop in ISTEP scores on online testing glitches. This year, it's passing rates jumped back up.

Christel House Academy South charter school, which was at the center of accusations former state Superintendent Tony Bennett changed Indiana’s A to F grading system to raise its grade, saw a strong rebound in its ISTEP scores in 2013-14.

After a long string of A’s, Christel House South fell to an F in 2012-13 after test scores made a dramatic drop and blamed problems with online testing as the reason. This year, it recovered nearly all of its lost ground by gaining 9 points to 71 percent passing. The school’s passing rate had been more than 70 percent the prior three years.

Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth said he was pleased to see the school return to the sort of passing rate that was routine in the past. Mayor Greg Ballard is the school’s sponsor, with responsibility for monitoring its performance and the power to decide if its charter is renewed to keep operating.

“We were impressed by Christel House’s acknowledgement of having some challenges last year and the corrections they made this year,” Kloth said. “We’re not surprised, under strong consistent leadership, to see their results improve.”

A scandal erupted in 2013 when emails shared with reporters by staff members working for Bennett’s successor, Glenda Ritz, showed Bennett and his lieutenants worried that Christel House might receive a C while they were at work on revising the state’s A to F school accountability system in 2012.

Bennett’s team made changes in the grading formula that resulted in the school maintaining its A for 2011-12. The school’s founder, philanthropist Christel DeHaan, had contributed to Bennett’s political campaign in the past.

A legislative investigation later deemed Bennett’s A to F changes “plausible” and the state’s ethics commission declined to bring charges against him based on the Christel House concerns. In July he paid a fine for a campaign law violation instead.

When Christel House was given an F for 2012-13 based on the test score drop some critics saw it is more evidence the school had received special treatment under Bennett. The school’s leaders, however, argued their scores were depressed by online testing glitches that interrupted ISTEP for thousands of students across the state and a large number at the school. The school appealed the F grade but was denied.

This year, their scores jumped back up.

“The fact that we had kids who couldn’t complete the test, it obviously had an impact,” said Carey Dahncke, the school’s former principal who is now CEO of a growing stable of Chirstel House charter schools. “We are disappointed that our appeal wasn’t granted. In our head, this makes it a little bit better.”

Kloth stopped short of agreeing with Dahncke that last year’s drop was entirely driven by the testing problems, saying there was never a definitive answer about what went wrong. The mayor’s staff expected a rebound either way.

“We look at school performance over the long term,” Kloth said. “They’ve gotten very good results consistently within (grades) K to 8. They have strong leadership and governance. We were confident the results they had were going to improve.”

Dahncke said the school made few major changes this year, as school leaders were confident they would be proven right that last year’s result was a glitch-driven aberration.

But one change the school did make was it administered ISTEP entirely on paper this year, taking a pass on the online option.

Christel House South’s focus now, Dahncke said, is on helping its students who still did not pass ISTEP to improve and putting the testing problems behind them.

“That’s water under the bridge,” he said. “You can’t go back an change it. Our supporters understood and continue to believe in the work we do. We think this verifies that.”

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.

stacking up

Tennessee inches up in national ranking of charter school laws

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

While Tennessee’s charter school law moved up slightly in a state-by-state analysis, it still ranks in the bottom half of similar laws evaluated by the nation’s leading charter advocacy organization.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Tennessee 29th out of 44 in its eighth annual report based on the group’s version of an ideal charter law. That’s up from 34th in the 2016 rankings.

The report released Wednesday is the first since the alliance updated its rubric to focus more on holding underperforming schools accountable.

Among the biggest issues is money. The report says Tennessee charter schools don’t get enough and neither do their authorizers to effectively oversee them. The group also calls out the Volunteer State on transparency and a lack of clarity over performance-based evaluations.

A charter bill that would overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter law is making its way through the General Assembly and would address some of those issues. The proposal would require charter schools to pay a fee to districts — a change that school leaders in Memphis and Nashville have long clamored for. The bill also would require districts to create clear academic performance rubrics to assess existing charters and clarify application and closure procedures.

Tennessee’s charter law has changed little since the state first opened its doors to charters in 2003. The sector has grown to 107 across the state, 71 of which are in Memphis and authorized either by Shelby County Schools or the state-run Achievement School District.

The leader of the Tennessee Charter School Center said the state’s original law was the product of “significant forethought” and that the state diligently continues to evaluate its effectiveness.

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
Maya Bugg

“We have made great strides, and current legislation in the works takes a strong next step towards addressing some of the policy challenges and opportunities across our state’s charter sector,” CEO Maya Bugg said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Adding clarity around processes and protocol, establishing consistent authorizer performance frameworks, and dedicating funds for increased access to facilities are key initiatives that will, if passed, further strengthen our policies, schools and districts,” she said.

Despite its mediocre ranking, Tennessee was one the leading states in four out of 21 categories used by the national alliance to evaluate state laws: no limit on number of charter schools, autonomous charter boards, automatic exemption from district collective bargaining agreements, and allowing for a variety of charter schools such as new and conversion.