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.”

rebuffed

Charter applications rejected by Memphis school officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.