charter schools

Charter schools continue to grow in Memphis and Shelby County

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

A gradual but seismic shift in the governance and operation of public schools is taking place in Memphis schools, as the number of charter schools run in the city by Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District continues to boom. 

Ten charter schools, some overseen by the state and some by the regular school district, will open their doors for the first time in Memphis next year, and many charters that already exist are adding grades. 

Local education leaders say they are looking toward New Orleans, where 90 percent of students attend charter schools, as a model for improving public education in a historically troubled district.

As in New Orleans, both the traditional school district and a state-run district – here, the Achievement School District, or ASD – can authorize charter schools in Tennessee. Currently, most charters in the district are authorized by Shelby County Schools and more students attend those schools, but that balance could shift over time. The ASD, which started running schools in 2012-13, can take over any school ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, which includes 69 schools in Memphis.

Charter schools are publicly-funded and are held to the same academic standards as other public schools. In Tennessee, charter schools are technically part of the school district that authorizes them. But they have independent boards, and the nonprofits that run them have total control over their schools’ budget, hiring, curriculum, and schedule – responsibilities traditionally taken care of by a district’s central office.

The number of charters in Shelby County has been growing since 2002, as local and national philanthropists have supported local (“homegrown”) and national charter school operators looking to set up shop in Memphis, as the state’s original law has gradually been loosened to permit more schools (a cap was removed) and to allow more students to attend those schools (initially, only students in low-performing schools could attend a charter). Federal education policy has also encouraged the growth of the sector and funded it through grant programs; a bipartisan bill promoting charters was recently floated in the federal House of Representatives.

More charters means an evolving, and likely shrinking, role for the regular school district’s central office: Managing charter schools consists mainly of overseeing schools’ performance, rather than the staffing, curriculum, budgeting, and other services the district provides to traditional public schools. More students attending charter schools means the district must support its other schools with a dwindling pool of funds, as money follows students to their new schools.

While many public school leaders and teachers have viewed charter schools as competition, Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said he welcomes the changes, as long as they are improving education for Memphis students. The district has already given some “charter-like” powers, such as school-level hiring, to some of its principals, and its budget says that approach is likely to expand.

The hope is that schools that operate outside of the current bureaucracy will be more efficient, effective, and/or innovative. The school system in Memphis, which has a majority African-American and low-income student population, has, with some exceptions, long had a reputation for unsafe and low-performing schools. Advocates say charter schools provide an option for parents and students who are dissatisfied with their regular public school, and that increasing enrollment illustrates that there is a demand for such options. They also argue that high-performing schools will attract students, while low-performing schools will be shut down.

But the long-term implications of more charter schools for teachers, students, and the existing system are complex. Other school systems with large portions of charter schools have struggled to regulate schools’ admissions and discipline policies and financial practices, and research has shown that the quality of the charter schools varies just as much as the quality of regular public schools.

And some questions remain unanswered: State legislators have been debating who should be able to run charters, who should be able to attend schools run by the ASD, what to do when boards veto charters, and what to do with charter schools who are ranked in the bottom five percent in the state, among other issues. The Tennessee Charter School Center, which advocates for and incubates charter schools, says districts need to work on being strong authorizers for the schools.

All of this change has been overshadowed in recent years as the Memphis metropolitan area has undergone a historic merger between the urban and suburban school district, and subsequent plans to “demerge” the system as suburban leaders have created their own new school districts.

But the decentralization of the school system as the charter sector grows, and competition from the ASD, may ultimately represent a more profound shift in how public schools are run and operated.

Growth in 2014-15:

  • Shelby County Schools will have 41 charter schools in 2014-15, up from 39 this year.
  • There will be four brand-new Shelby County Schools-authorized charter schools – Memphis Rise Academy, Vision Prep, City University School of Independence, and the DuBois High of Leadership and Public Policy.
  • Two schools in the DuBois network , run by former Memphis mayor and schools superintendent Willie Herenton, closed  earlier this year.
  • The state-run Achievement School District is opening seven new schools run by charter operators, five of which are taking over existing schools and one, run by KIPP, that will be a “fresh start.” The ASD is also opening two alternative schools called Pathways.
  • Thirteen Shelby County-authorized charter schools are adding a grade next year. Six schools within the ASD are also adding a grade, and Klondike Prep is adding three.

Long-term growth:

  • Shelby County Schools intends to turn some of its lowest-performing schools over to charters as early as 2015-16.
  • The district’s initial budget for 2014-15 outlines plans to “increase the number of high-quality charter schools where they’re needed.”
  • The ASD, which currently runs 23 schools, will eventually run as many as 50 schools in Memphis, all of them charters, according to its superintendent Chris Barbic.
  • The ASD has authorized several charter operators to run larger numbers of schools in the state, depending on how their first schools do: Green Dot, which is taking over its first school next year, can open as many as 10 schools, for instance.
  • Several charter operators already authorized by the ASD have not yet begun running schools: Houston-based YES Prep and locally-grown Artesian Community Schools are among the groups planning to run schools in Memphis in 2015-16.
  • The ASD has also received letters of intent from 10 additional charter operators hoping to open schools in Tennessee in the future.
  • Several Shelby County Schools- and ASD-authorized charters will continue adding grades.

Here’s a look at some of the numbers:

Charter school trends in Shelby County Memphis | Create Infographics

What are the budget implications?

Federal, state, and local funds follow students to charter schools, so as enrollment grows, the budget will shift accordingly and, over time, the portion of funds allocated to non-charter schools will shrink.

Charter school spending is the fastest-growing portion of the district’s budget: It grew by 15.6 percent, from $67.4 million to $78 million, between 2013-14 and 2014-15. That’s 8.1 percent of the total initial 2014-15 budget.  The only other budget categories that grew this year were contracted services, by 5 percent, and debt service, by 11 percent. The district also employs several employees focused on charter schools.

Charter schools can contract out to the school district for certain services. For instance, the district spent $7 million providing food service to charter schools last year.

Some issues have yet to be resolved: For instance, should charter schools pay rent for publicly-funded school buildings? The state’s senate has commissioned a study of charter school funding to help districts determine just what fees should be paid by charter schools to the school district. Currently, funds are passed through the school district directly to the charter operator, who may then in turn pay the district for some services or rent. (The state department of education has an FAQ on charter schools with more information.)

What are the enrollment implications?

Shelby County Schools is budgeting for approximately 117,000 students next year (some 23,000 students are anticipated to be departing  to attend new municipal district in the suburbs on Memphis), 12,000 of whom will attend charter schools. That means more than ten percent of Shelby County students would be attending district-run charter schools. An additional 6,000 students will attend the ASD – that’s 2,000 more than this year. Overall, in 2014-15, 18,000 of the 123,000 students attending public schools (ASD or Shelby County Schools) in Memphis will attend charter schools. That’s 14.6 percent of all students.

ASD schools are taken over entirely by charter operators and must serve all students who were previously zoned to attend the school, and the same would likely be true if the district contracts out to new charters for its low-performing schools. Those students can opt out and choose to attend a regular district school. (The district also already has an extensive “choice transfer” process and a system of optional schools for high-performing students.)

But schools that start from scratch, which make the majority of charters in the city, recruit students who might otherwise attend a traditional Shelby County School. Those students don’t all leave district schools in a group, which requires the district to shift its staffing and resources around to accommodate enrollment changes.

What are the oversight issues?

Providing oversight and accountability for independently-run public schools presents some challenges for authorizing bodies and creates a new responsibility for school boards.

In other cities, charter schools have been accused of enrolling an “easier-to-educate” group of students, either by having harsher discipline policies or by somehow rigging admissions policies, in order to inflate their scores. The schools have also been accused of not serving special education students or ELLs.

Not everyone thinks this is a bad thing: state representative John DeBerry, a democrat, says charters can give ambitious students a chance to succeed. But some prominent players in the charter school world, including KIPP, have taken steps to highlight attrition rates.

Still others have fought charges of nepotism and financial mismanagement.

In other districts where states have taken over schools, constituents have wondered why the groups losing elected control of their schools have tended to be in poor and majority-minority communities.

Transparency is also a concern: Individual charter schools and the state-run ASD do not have regular public meetings where constituents can voice complaints and concerns and learn about schools’ operations.

Shelby County Schools plans to create a “compact” with its charter schools, similar to agreements between districts in Nashville and elsewhere, to facilitate greater coordination between charters and the district, according to its budget.

How does having more charter schools affect students?

Charter schools’ programs vary by school, so students’ experience in the schools will also vary. Charter schools’ sizes vary, but they tend to be smaller schools: The largest, Soulsville, has 600 students, while others, such as the Arrow Academy of Excellence, are as small as 50.

Charter schools can set their own discipline policies and codes of conduct, so expectations for behavior may change for some students. Some may also have longer school days or years. Coursework may also be different than in regular public schools, though students will still have to take state-mandated tests. Students may be attending school with peers from around the city.

Research has suggested that a positive “peer effect” in charter schools may improve student performance. Results for the schools in Tennessee so far are mixed.

How does having more charter schools affect teachers?

Teachers have more publicly-funded organizations competing to hire them. Schools can offer salaries, benefit packages, school days, and career trajectories that differ from the regular school district. Some have longer school days and years than the regular district. Most charter schools are not unionized, though, since 2011, even unionized teachers do not have collective bargaining in Tennessee.

Demand for teachers with high rankings  on the state’s accountability system is likely to be high.

Local funders and organizations have banded together to brand Memphis as “Teacher Town.” The ASD and charter schools have banded together to recruit teachers both from within and outside Memphis who are interested in starting up new schools aimed at helping low-income students. Many charter schools employ large numbers of teachers from alternative certification programs like Teach For America and Memphis Teacher Residency, which are also expanding in Memphis.

In schools taken over by the ASD or converted to charters by the district, existing teachers will likely have to reapply for their jobs. Others may eventually lose their current jobs if regular district schools continue to lose enrollment.

How does having more charter schools affect parents?

Parents must research charter schools to determine how to apply – there is currently no centralized application system in Shelby County Schools. Parents often choose charter schools due to their smaller size and reputation for better safety and discipline than traditional public schools.

Charters may have different expectations for parent involvement or avenues for engagement than regular public schools. Many charter schools do not provide transportation.

Where does Memphis stack up nationally?

Last year, Memphis was ranked 48th in the country among school districts in terms of number of students in charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The anticipated growth will likely boost it higher on that list. Shelby County Schools will also be the first district in Tennessee with at least 10 percent of charters as a market share.

Having many charter schools is increasingly common: More than half of public school students in Washington, D.C. and Detroit attend charter schools. Other districts have voluntarily converted to an all-charter model, though that model looks slightly different than having independent operators come in.

Some key philanthropists and education leaders in both the ASD and Shelby County are modeling their plans after is New Orleans, which had some 83 percent of students in charters last year and which has seen leaps in its test scores and graduation rates as its charter sector has grown.

Memphis, like New Orleans, is likely to have a mix of homegrown and national operators running schools and teachers teaching in schools. And Memphis, like New Orleans, will have schools authorized by both a state-run district and the local school board.

The shift is spurred by the belief that the market-based model of reform will help improve education for kids stuck in a chronically-underperforming school system; bolstered by the increasing popularity of education reform-oriented organizations like charter schools and Teach For America among business leaders and students in elite universities; eased by a state legislature that has loosened charter school laws and federal programs supporting the schools; and funded partly by local and national philanthropists who have given charter school leaders and organizations funds for start-up or programs.

But while New Orleans’ turnaround happened almost overnight – many schools were taken over by a state-run district in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and then gradually turned over to charter schools – Memphis’ change is happening more gradually. 

And New Orleans has a complicated legacy: Among other charges, some have decried the dwindling power of a locally-elected school board (the state-run Recovery School District runs most schools in the city); others have claimed that the change displaced veteran teachers; others have pointed out that many students never returned to the city after Hurricane Katrina.

ASD executive director Chris Barbic has said the current shift in Memphis is a way for education reformers to prove that their models can work without some of the complexities that dogged New Orleans.

The outcome remains to be seen.

The map below shows charter schools in Memphis. Blue schools are adding a grade; yellow schools are new next year.

RIP

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.

Enroll

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?”