Aye for Innovation

Denver school board approves innovation zone, granting schools new freedoms

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Students, parents and teachers made their case for the innovation zone.

Four Denver public schools will enjoy unprecedented autonomy next year after the school board Thursday unanimously approved a new “innovation zone.”

Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School and Creativity Challenge Community will be part of the zone, dubbed the Luminary Learning Network.

The four are already innovation schools, which means they have waivers from certain state and district rules. Those waivers grant them more sovereignty than traditional district-run schools but not as much as charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. The zone will allow the four to act more like charters without separating from the district.

“This is one of the most exciting things we’ve done since I’ve been on the board,” said board member Mike Johnson. “I fundamentally believe those who are closest to the students should be making more decisions about how to educate the students.”

“I’m trying to think of a time I’ve been more excited, more proud, more optimistic about what we can achieve for kids,” said board president Anne Rowe.

The schools will be overseen by a new nonprofit organization, and they’ll be exempt from “district meetings, initiatives, practices and requirements,” according to an agreement between the zone schools, the nonprofit and Denver Public Schools.

Just as revolutionary is that zone schools will have more control over how they spend the state funding attached to their students. That funding is expected to amount to $7,682 per student next year, according to the district’s proposed budget.

This year, the district held back about $2,000 per student from each of the four schools to pay for things like curriculum, teacher training and administrator salaries.

Next year, the zone schools can choose to opt out of centralized district services other district-run schools must pay for, such as help with website design, reorganization of school libraries and advice on staffing decisions.

If the zone schools turn down all the optional services, they’ll receive about $350 more per student, according to the district. The schools can use that money to either buy those services back from the district or purchase their own.

DPS is predicting an estimated $600,000 funding loss because of that flexibility, although it may get some money back if the zone schools buy district services.

The nonprofit can also raise money for the schools.

Students, parents and teachers from the four schools made their case to the school board Thursday. They wore light blue T-shirts with the Luminary Learning Network logo, a yellow star, in the center. To each board member, they handed a T-shirt and a paper bag luminary.

“The move of forming the (Luminary Learning Network) puts us as school leaders and teachers in the driver’s seat of what we believe to be best for our students,” said Frank Coyne, a leader at Denver Green School. “I’m really proud of that. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something big.”

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law that also created innovation schools. While there are 40 innovation schools in DPS, and more than 20 others elsewhere in Colorado, the state only has three other innovation zones. Several school districts, including Aurora and Pueblo, are considering them as a strategy to improve low-performing schools.

What’s unique about the Denver zone is that the four schools aren’t in trouble. Instead, the school leaders said they banded together to form the Luminary Learning Network after encountering pushback and mandates from the district they felt hindered their autonomy.

The board’s vote authorized the zone for three years. Existing innovation schools are allowed to join it if the zone schools think they are a “good fit.”

In exchange for more autonomy, the zone schools will be subject to higher achievement goals. Per the agreement, the schools must seek to move up one tier on the district’s color-coded school rating system by the end of three years.

Ashley and Cole are currently rated yellow, the third-highest tier out of five, while Creativity Challenge Community and the Denver Green School are rated green, the second highest. The agreement notes that since the green tier is so wide and getting to the highest level might not be plausible, the district and the zone will work together to figure out what is.

Other action the DPS school board took Thursday:

— The board voted unanimously to delay the openings of two schools: the Near Northeast Community Engagement School and a new STRIVE Prep elementary in the far northeast.

The schools were supposed to open this fall but will now open in the fall of 2017. Both schools had lower than expected enrollment, according to school officials. Chris Gibbons, the CEO and founder of the STRIVE charter school network, said his school’s leader also unexpectedly stepped down.

“We believe students and families deserve a strong start,” Gibbons said.

This is the second delay for both schools, which were originally slated to open in the fall of 2015.

— The board unanimously approved the contracts of four charter schools it renewed in December 2015: Odyssey School, STRIVE Prep – Lake, Venture Prep High School and Denver Justice High School. It also amended several other charter contracts.

silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.