Three Years In

Report: Most Denver families get first choice schools, but tension between proximity, school quality persists

A student at Ellis Elementary.

More than a quarter of Denver families who send their students to Denver Public Schools used the district’s SchoolChoice system to choose a school in 2013, and most of those who participated were placed in their first choice school.

But Denver families may struggle to balance often-competing priorities—a school’s proximity to home and its quality according to the district’s rating system—when choosing schools.

Those are some of the findings of a new report focused on Denver’s SchoolChoice system released by A+ Denver, a local education advocacy and research group, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, a national research organization with a focus on school choice.

The report, released today, includes data from the first three years of the SchoolChoice system, which was introduced in late 2011 to streamline the application process for families. At the time, there were more than 60 applications, each with its own timeline, for the Denver public schools. Now, all the city’s programs, including magnet and charter schools, are listed on a single application.

One aim of the new system was to increase the accessibility of the city’s best schools to families and students throughout Denver.

“I feel really confident that we now have three years of data that show the system works,” said Van Schoales, the chief executive officer of A+ Denver. “It does what it says it’s going to do.”

Some 27 percent of families in the entire district used SchoolChoice this year. That number has remained close-to-constant for each of the past three years. Most of those are families with students entering either Kindergarten, 6th, or 9th grade.

The report shows that most of the same schools have remained popular for each of the three years the system has been in place.

Families with special education students were more likely than families whose students are in general education programs to use the system. That’s a change from previous years, when general education students were more likely to choice into schools.

Families that are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch were slightly less likely to use SchoolChoice.

More than three-quarters of families receive their first-choice school—though the report shows that the percent of kindergarten families receiving their first choice dropped from just over 80 percent to 74 percent this year.

Schoales said low-income families were actually more likely to get their first-choice school than upper-income families. But, he said, those families were also choosing lower-ranked schools.

That is likely because those lower-rated schools are close to home. Citywide, most families still choose schools that are close to home. Just 19.9 percent choose schools out of their own region. But Schoales said that many schools, especially in the southwest and northeast parts of the city, still struggle academically.

Lack of public or district transportation paths to farther-away schools remains a barrier, especially for low-income families or families who live in parts of the city where there are fewer highly-ranked schools, according to the report. The report does note a steady increase in the percent of the city’s schools that earned high scores on the district’s School Performance Framework.

The report has a number of interesting details about who’s using the system and how. For instance, most families either list just one choice or include all five. (Schoales said he had heard of families trying to “game” the system by listing their first choice second; he said that was not likely to achieve the desired result.)

There are also differences among racial and ethnic groups: 84.7 percent of white students participated in the choice program, compared to 75 percent of bi- or multi-racial students, 71.1 percent of Hispanic students, 63.3 percent of black students, and 63 percent of students identified as “other” used the system.

More students who scored in the top quartile on standardized math tests used SchoolChoice than students in the bottom quartile—75.4 percent compared to 63.2 percent.

Denver was one of the first districts in the country to create a unified application system, but such systems are becoming increasingly common. An earlier report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that Denver parents felt more well-informed about the choice system then parents in other cities around the country. Denver’s sytem

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.