School Choice

At school closings meetings, school choice groups learn the lay of the land in Memphis

A table set up at a screening of a documentary about the parent trigger act.

The school district auditorium in midtown Memphis was crowded Tuesday night, as the Shelby County school board’s debate over which schools to close before the 2014-15 school year reached its culmination. For many of the students, parents, alumni, teachers, community members, and media present, this was the last in a series of community meetings about the closings over the past two months.

Near the section of room marked for district officials, under a sign that read “Remember, it’s all about our students,” sat some another group of people who had been to almost as many meetings as anyone in the room: Field organizers for StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution, two school choice advocacy groups.

Representatives from at least one of the school choice advocacy groups in Memphis attended nearly every meeting. Parent Revolution, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), StudentsFirst, and Stand For Children were among the groups that attended the meetings.

The 140,000-student Shelby County Schools plans to close ten schools next year as part of an effort to “right-size” the district. District officials considered closing as many as 13 schools, citing declining enrollment, deteriorating facilities, and low academic performance. Some forms of school choice in Shelby County, including the growing charter school sector and the new state-run school district, have contributed to declining enrollment in some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

The school closings meetings drew passionate crowds of Memphians, many of whom are not currently affiliated with any of the advocacy groups. Many of the protesters are connected to schools ranked in the bottom five or 10 percent in the state – the same group of schools targeted by the vouchers and  within the group targeted by the parent trigger law, which would include the bottom 20 percent of schools.

Not every group was present at every meeting. But organizers said the meetings allowed them to understand the issues affecting Memphis parents and schools.

“Being new to Memphis, we have a lot of ground to cover,” said Jennifer Littlejohn, the state director for BAEO. “It’s been important that we’re listening, that we’re attending events that are important to parents. If a school is closing and there’s an opportunity to convert it to a charter school, we want them to understand what that means and what that looks like.”

Mario King, a field coordinator for StudentsFirst in Shelby County, attended several closings meetings, including Tuesday night’s vote.

“We’re always searching for new outreach – but we don’t want to capitalize or engage in anything that comes out of anything that could be negative,” said StudentsFirst’s King. “We don’t search for new members at meetings like that. We ask, how can we step in and be effective and make this better.”

But, he said, “It gave me an opportunity to meet the superintendent, to have one-on-one conversation with parents about school choice and parent empowerment and so on. I was able to really capitalize on the school meetings by meeting those parents,” he said.

Those focused on the closings had mixed feelings about the groups’ presence. “I’ve met them,” said Katrina Thompson, who helped organize the efforts to remove Northside from the closings list, of Parent Revolution. “There are some parts of what they’re talking about that I’m not in agreement with. I think parents should be involved, but as an educator, I know parents don’t have enough information about education of children because that’s not their background. ”

“Most of people don’t even know that they’re there,” Thompson said. “But I’m sure sure he’ll be reaching out now that Northside’s staying open.”

After last night’s closing meeting, Bridget Bradley, the president of the PTO at Westhaven Elementary School, said that she was approached by a StudentsFirst representative, but she was so distraught about the district’s plan to close her school that “I really couldn’t talk right then.”

Each of the advocacy groups has its own set of priorities, but several are promoting changes that could reshape the educational landscape in Tennessee.

Parent Revolution is focused on a new parent trigger bill, which would reduce the number of parents who must sign a petition to convert a public school into a charter or to use that threat as leverage to encourage the district to improve the school if they’ve gained a critical mass of students. Tennessee already has a parent trigger law, but it requires more than 60 percent of parents in a school to sign on.

StudentsFirst is supporting the new parent trigger bill and a new school voucher bill as part of its a slate of priorities. BAEO also supports vouchers and the trigger bill change.The Tennessee Federation for Children, which promotes school vouchers, even shared a meeting space with a school closings protest earlier this month. Stand For Children is currently promoting just the Common Core State Standards and is agnostic on those school choice laws.

StudentsFirst has 35,000 members in Tennessee, according to Calvin Harris, a spokesman for the group. The group does not have a current estimate of how many of those members are in Memphis.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) opened its Tennessee chapter in January. “Tennessee is the next mecca for education reform,” said Littlejohn. “We support school choice in Tennessee and want to empower black families around school choice.”

BAEO also supported a school choice rally last week, which used a program that allowed participants to send an email to their legislator supporting school choice via text message. Littlejohn said the group was too new to have an official tally of members.

Parent Revolution also arrived in Memphis in January.

Marydee Moran, the regional campaigns director for Parent Revolution, said that she thought the parent trigger law could fill a gap in the education reform movement here. “There’s still a sort of top-down drive to reforms and things that are happening to the community, rather than ground-up,” she said. She said Parent Revolution’s goal was to train parents and enable them to have more control over the changes to schools in their community. The group has just 15 or so members so far, but has been canvassing and hopes to recruit more parents.

At a screening of a documentary about the parent trigger law hosted by Parent Revolution, a small but engaged crowd questioned StudentsFirst representatives, a BAEO field organizer, state representative John Deberry, a Democrat, and one of the parents who promoted the original parent trigger bill in California. In the crowd were Northside and Westhaven community members, who heard about the screening at the closings meetings.

Bradley, the Westhaven PTO president, asked Deberry if the trigger bill would help keep Westhaven open it is current form. “I don’t want a charter,” she said. She said after the meeting that she had decided she couldn’t support the parent empowerment bill.

Stand For Children, which has been in Memphis since 2005, recently reorganized and is currently focusing on promoting the Common Core State Standards rather than actively promoting the voucher law or parent trigger; the group just hired a new executive director and a new Memphis director, Cardell Orrin. “We’re just monitoring,” Orrin said. Orrin said that since Stand For Children is in transition, “we didn’t want to come in and get halfway involved.”

Stand For Children’s Orrin noted how many parents and community members had organized themselves around the school closings. “They’ve done it on their own,” he said. “We need to see if they want training, if they want to move forward after this issue – how do we support them and that community.

At a rally at Cane Creek Baptist Church earlier this month, Michael Benjamin, the director of the Tennessee Federation of Children, spoke to a thinning crowd who had just listened to superintendent Dorsey Hopson defend the need to close schools and a parent leading a protest against the closures. Representatives from StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution were in the audience for his presentation, though most of the protesters left before Benjamin’s presentation.

Benjamin asked the thinning crowd to support a voucher bill, which did not pass last year. “They said Memphis didn’t support vouchers,” he said. “They said black folks didn’t support vouchers. No matter what our differences are, we have to come together on the kid issue. The only thing we need to focus on is not private, public, charter – it’s are we giving more opportunities to parents to put kids in best environment possible.” He asked the audience members to send a text message that would automate an email to a congressperson.

Superintendent Hopson, when asked about the connection to the school choice event and his speech on the closings, said, “No, no, I’m not part of that.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the advocacy group Parent Revolution as Parent Empowerment. The bill the group is lobbying for is the Parent Empowerment Act.

Clarification: Representatives from at least one of the school choice advocacy groups in Memphis attended the majority of the school closings meetings; not every group was at every meeting.


Senate plan to expand parents’ access to state education dollars dies in committee

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee heard SB 534 on Wednesday.

A Senate plan that would’ve given parents of students with special needs direct access to their state education funding was killed yesterday — for now.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said during the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill that there would be no vote on Senate Bill 534, which would’ve established “education savings accounts” for Indiana students with physical and learning disabilities. The plan would’ve been a major step forward for Indiana school choice advocates who have already backed the state’s charter school and voucher programs.

Kruse said there were still many questions about the bill.

“I don’t want a bill to leave our committee that still has a lot of work to be done on it,” Kruse said.

The Senate bill was one of two such plans winding its way through the 2017 Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1591 would create a similar program, but it would not be limited just to students needing special education. Authored by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, the “radical” proposal is meant to give parents total control over their child’s education.

“The intent of 1591 is to give parents the choice and let the market work,” Lucas said. “…I want to get this conversation started.”

A hearing for the House bill has not been scheduled in the House Education Committee, led by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Education savings accounts are slowly gaining attention across the U.S.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice.

But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.


How bad timing and poisonous politics killed a $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit

PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.

A sophisticated new enrollment tool that was supposed to make signing up for school easier in Detroit won’t be of much use to the thousands of families whose children could be displaced by upcoming school closures.

Despite the more than $700,000 and countless hours of planning that went into creating a single application for Detroit’s competing district and charter schools, the effort has been put on hold indefinitely — a victim of bad timing, poor planning, and a toxic political environment.

“It’s a shame,” said Karey Reed-Henderson, a former charter school leader who served on the planning committee for what came to be called Enroll Detroit.

“We came together. We hashed things out,” Reed-Henderson said of a process that brought together charter school leaders with officials from the Detroit Public Schools, the state-run Education Achievement Authority and representatives of community groups.

“It wasn’t always roses and butterflies but the conversation was always around what’s best for the kids and best for families,” she said.

“Unfortunately it just got muddied.”

Now, as 25 Detroit schools face possible shut-down by the state, the handful of staffers still working at Enroll Detroit hope they can use their knowledge and technology to help at least some of the roughly 12,000 children who could be affected.

But the grand vision of creating a common enrollment system similar to those used in other cities is largely dead — at least for the near future.

In common enrollment cities like New Orleans, Denver, Newark and Washington DC, parents no longer need to navigate a mix of deadlines and requirements to apply to multiple schools. They don’t need to drive around, submitting one kind of application to their local district school, another kind to district magnet schools and a host of other applications to a host of charter schools.

Instead, parents use a single application that lets them rank the schools they want for their children. A computer then crunches admission criteria and applies a lottery to assign children to schools.

Proponents say common enrollments are more equitable because most applicants have the same shot at sought-after schools. The systems also remove some of the guesswork for administrators by preventing parents from enrolling in multiple schools, then waiting until September to make their final decisions.

The systems have been controversial around the country, running into opposition in cities like Boston and Oakland because they reduce the influence some parents have had in school admissions. They can also hurt traditional districts by making it easier for families to choose charter schools.

But few cities have the deeply poisonous relationships between district and charter schools that doomed the effort in Detroit.

Here, in a city where roughly equal numbers of students attend district and charter schools, and where thousands of students travel out of town to attend suburban schools, what happened to Detroit’s common enrollment shows how difficult it can be for competing factions to come together. The tensions exposed by the issue are the same ones that make it difficult to solve other serious challenges in Detroit, such as student transportation and teacher recruitment, that would be easier to address if competing schools worked together.

That kind of collaboration isn’t dead, said Reed-Henderson who is the founder of the Metro Detroit Charter Center and the Detroit Teacher Village. “But I think the right people need to get back in the room.”

*       *       *

PHOTO: Jeffrey Loos
School advocates spent years and more than $700,000 on a streamlined enrollment system called Enroll Detroit but a pilot last year drew few participants and the effort has been largely abandoned.


Officials with the advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit (which is a Chalkbeat supporter) first proposed creating a common enrollment for Detroit in 2013.Though competition for students is fierce in a city where school funding is based almost exclusively on student enrollment, the school leaders who came together around the enrollment effort hoped they could find solutions to shared problems.

“Schools were struggling to find parents and parents were struggling to find schools,” said Dan Quisenberry, who heads the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school group that was involved in the early days of the effort.

There were risks for all parties, said Neil Dorosin, the consultant and school enrollment expert who was brought to Detroit to determine if common enrollment could work here.

“It was very threatening to the district because right now there are a lot of children who don’t make choices because they get rolled up into their district school,” Dorosin said. “It was threatening to the (Education Achievement Authority) for similar reasons. And it was threatening to charter schools who would have to play by a much more transparent set of rules.”

Individually, he said, “it’s not in anyone’s best interest, but it is in the best interest for the customer.”

As the planning group met in 2014 and 2015 to hammer out details, Excellent Schools Detroit raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from foundations and hired a tech company to build a massive database that could match students with schools.

Then, with the system ready to go last year, the group announced it would plow ahead with a pilot project to see how many students it could place for the 2016-2017 school year.

But just as the pilot was launching, a nasty fight was raging in Lansing over a package of bills aimed at keeping the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy.

One of the provisions in the bills would have created a city-wide Detroit Education Commission, appointed by the mayor, that would have had influence over the opening and closing of district and charter schools.

The Detroit Education Commission was strongly opposed by some charter school advocates including Betsy DeVos, an influential Michigan philanthropist who was confirmed this month as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Because Excellent Schools Detroit was among Detroit organizations backing the commission and because enrollment was one of the areas over which the commission would have had authority, the issue became politically charged. Though the commission was ultimately removed from the final legislation, the threat of it kept some charter schools away from the enrollment pilot.

“There was a big question of trust,” said Quisenberry, who said he grew concerned that common enrollment officials would steer families to district schools at the expense of charter schools.

To make things even more challenging, the Detroit Public Schools were in turmoil.

Darnell Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager who was running the district at the start of 2016, resigned amid controversy in early February.

Earley was replaced by former bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, who agreed to serve as “transition manager” until the the city schools could be returned to a locally elected school board. Because Rhodes did not want to make any long-term commitments for the district, he announced that DPS would not participate in the common enrollment pilot.

That meant that the pilot went forward with less than a quarter of Detroit schools. Of more than 200 schools in the city, just 41 participated in the pilot, including some charter schools, a private school and the 15 schools in the Education Achievement Authority.

The application system placed just 78 children — a fraction of the almost 20,000 kids who were applying to kindergarten or ninth grade, the two grades that were the focus of the pilot.

School enrollment counselors also provided advice to a few hundred additional families, including some who were displaced by charter schools that closed last year.

*       *       *

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
A multi-year, $700,000 effort to streamline school enrollment in Detroit has been tabled indefinitely.

Whether common enrollment has a future in Detroit isn’t clear.

The new Detroit school board, which was sworn in last month, has not yet publicly discussed the issue. A district official who played an important role in the planning process and a district spokeswoman both declined to comment on whether the district might someday be open to joining a common enrollment system.

Meanwhile, at Excellent Schools Detroit, a new interim director is rethinking the organization’s mission. The group’s two top officials — its longtime CEO and vice president — both left at the end of 2016.

But some Enroll Detroit staffers are still on the payroll, and they say they’re looking to use the resources they’ve created to help families affected by state-mandated school closings this spring.

State officials “are saying, ‘We want to get the kids in a higher quality school’ but what kind of chance are they going to have?” asked Maria Montoya, Enroll Detroit’s executive director.

Families won’t know for sure which schools will close until March or even later since state decisions are likely to be challenged in court. By then, many of Detroit’s most sought-after schools, including charter schools and selective district schools, will already have completed their enrollments.

Many of the schools targeted for closure are in neighborhoods that don’t have many high-performing schools and where parents have few resources to figure out which schools are taking new students and which offer transportation.

A letter state officials sent to parents suggested they reach out to districts as far as an hour away from Detroit — including some that don’t even accept Detroit kids.

Montoya said she’s hoping to adapt Enroll Detroit’s computer system to help track kids as they move to new schools, making sure their records transfer and that things like special education services are continued — details that sometimes fall through through the cracks when schools close.

She’s also hoping that over the summer, some schools will use Enroll Detroit to fill vacancies.

“Instead of using the full system, we could take the technology we have and have schools give us the seats they have available and we could do a real-time placement in June, July, and August when we know families are really applying and looking for seats,” Montoya said.

City leaders are no longer talking about a single city-wide application but there have been conversations around smaller steps such as a common application timeline that would make things easier for parents and schools.

If district and charter school leaders ever do decide to restart the full common enrollment, Montoya said the system remains available and could be fired back up.

“We have all this investment and not just in the technology,” Montoya said. “We have the folks who did our marketing. They created assets other cities have taken years to build. We have logos and tents and outreach things … We have staff and a team and knowledge. The question is: How do you move forward in this landscape?”