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.”

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.

And then there was one

This year’s list of school voucher bills just got shorter in Tennessee

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sen. Dolores Gresham (right) chairs the Senate Education Committee. On Wednesday, she tabled a $71 million voucher-like proposal for consideration next year.

Tennessee lawmakers advocating for vouchers and similar school-choice programs are now rallying behind a single bill.

One tuition voucher bill died Wednesday in committee due to a lack of votes, while a more expansive voucher-like measure was tabled until next year. And the sponsor of a third bill, which would expand another voucher-like program for special education students, pulled that proposal from consideration as well.

After the flurry of action in the Senate Education Committee, voucher advocates only have a proposed pilot program in Memphis to focus on, and that bill appears to have momentum. Sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, the measure passed a House education committee on Tuesday, and heads next to the House Government and Operations and Senate Finance committees.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire

The voucher bill that stalled Wednesday was similar to one that almost became law last year. Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the proposal would have impacted students in districts with “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent, which includes Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson. It garnered only four of the five votes needed to pass, with four senators electing to pass, and one voting no.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dolores Gresham announced that she was tabling until next year her voucher-like proposal that could shift up to $71 million annually in public dollars toward private education services.

Gresham, a Republican from Somerville who chairs the panel, said she wants to flesh out her proposal based on what other states, including Nevada and Arkansas, are doing to fund their massive school-choice programs.  

“I need some time to look at what they’re doing, because that might be very helpful in the future for us to fund empowerment scholarships,” she said. “I’m very excited about what I see happening across the country.”

Gresham added that momentum is building at the national level, too, now that Betsy DeVos is U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump. DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, has made a career of advocating to give parents more flexibility on how to spend public education funding.

“I’m excited to see what the new secretary might bring to the table,” she said.

Gresham’s bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville, would allow any parent to use up to $7,000 of public school funding toward private schools, tutoring or other educational services through Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The proposal would be similar to a program that went into effect this year for special education students, but far more sweeping.

All of Tennessee’s 1 million public school students would be eligible to participate, though the program would be capped at 9,600.

The state’s new voucher-like program for special education students was created by the legislature last year, and Kelsey was seeking this year to expand it. But the bill faced opposition due to the potential cost to public schools, and he took it off notice on Wednesday.