Big Shift

State board increasingly siding with charter schools on appeals, prompting Colorado districts to rethink their role

Ana Gramajo, left, is the co-director of HOPE Online Action Academy in Aurora. Here she works with a student on reading. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

When charter schools in Colorado feel like local school districts aren’t giving them a fair chance to open, they can ask the state Board of Education — a seven-member board of elected officials — to serve as referee.

Charter schools don’t file an appeal every time they are turned down. But when they do, the state board is tasked with making sure local school boards aren’t making a decision that could hurt the community’s chance of having school choices.

In the past three years, the Colorado State Board of Education has sided with charter schools in all but two appeals on proposed openings or other issues, according to records reviewed by Chalkbeat.

That’s a marked decrease from data going back ten years, and it has prompted local school boards to reconsider their role as authorizers of charter schools. Some local district officials worry that the trend could challenge their ability to set high expectations for all schools.

“I don’t personally feel as a Jeffco board member I’ve been given the authority that I should have to effectively evaluate a charter school for Jeffco based on how it fits in our local community,” said Ron Mitchell, president of the Jefferson County school board. “Most of the districts in the metro area have experienced this.”

The Jeffco school board, whose five board members all are new to the process, brought in a lawyer in September and voiced disappointment when she told them their concerns about the strength of a budget or curriculum may not hold up as valid reasons to deny a charter school.

During that meeting, board members also voiced a concern that if a school doesn’t enroll enough kids it may not be financially viable — or that a charter could take so many students from a district-run school that the smaller school would be forced to close.

“I’m worried about the things that aren’t necessarily bright lines but we still don’t find satisfying, and what you just said a moment ago was if it’s not detrimental to the district then we should approve it,” Mitchell told the attorney at the meeting. “That seems to me a pretty horrible standard. Merely not being a hinderance is not much of a threshold.”

The attorney, Kristin Edgar, responded by reiterating that generally speaking, when a group of people has met the requirements in proposing a school, “we have an obligation to give this group of people a chance.”

Jeffco’s board denied a charter school anyway, citing the financial viability of the school if not enough students enroll, and other factors.

The state board last month asked Jeffco to reconsider, but on Thursday the board failed to approve an agreement with the school again. If it goes to a second appeal and the state board finds the local decision was “contrary to the best interests” of the students, the district or the community, the state board can order the school be allowed to open.

“To not allow opportunity — to guarantee against failure — is to guarantee that people will not have options,” Republican state board member Steve Durham said at that appeals hearing. “This is not a risk-free world.”

The board began siding more often with charter schools notably after changes in board leadership two years ago that included the appointment of Durham, who immediately emerged as a vocal and influential presence. However, charter appeal votes don’t always fall along party lines and the votes can vary depending on the circumstances of each case.

Aurora Public Schools, a district that has gradually warmed to charter schools and is seeing an increase in applications, last summer approved several charter schools. One school that didn’t open on time withdrew an application, and the district created a new process to allow it to join instead with another charter that was approved to do the same work in the same neighborhood.

The Aurora district last year also decided to close local branches of HOPE Online Learning Academy, a multi-district charter school, that was not meeting performance expectations. The state board questioned the decision and overturned it.

“I think that the belief right now is that districts are by default going to lose charter school appeals except in extreme circumstances. Anybody in the field would tell you that,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora schools. “If that’s the case, that really hampers how much of an honest job you can do with a charter proposer and really challenging what they do.”

Charter school advocates say that even though charter schools have been in Colorado more than 20 years, an appeals process is still necessary. They say it allows recourse for schools that may not get a fair shot at opening in districts that are apprehensive about all charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated.

Not all charter school appeals prevail with the state board. In 2015, the board denied an appeal of an Aurora Public Schools rejection of a charter school that proposed personalized learning — or tailoring instruction to each student’s needs — and a strong emphasis on teacher leadership.

The district cited concerns that the application didn’t outline how it would comply with state accountability laws to test students and set achievement goals. The state board majority agreed. Still, the head of the proposed charter school, teacher Roya Brown, said she valued having the opportunity to appeal.

“In our case it didn’t matter what we did,” Brown said. “It wasn’t enough.”

Dan Schaller, director of governmental affairs for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, a membership and advocacy organization, said one or two years of charter appeal victories should be viewed in the context of a longer period.

“I do feel like it provides really important checks and balances,” Schaller said. “I would point back to the track record of how it has played out over time. Over the balance of time it has been very balanced.”

The most recent data from records of state board meetings and hearings show that between 2014 and 2016, the state held 12 appeal hearings and voted to uphold the local decisions against charter schools twice. Between 2011 and 2013, the board heard the same number of appeals but upheld local decisions eight times.

At times, the state board is united. The board’s July decision to turn back Aurora’s attempts to kick HOPE schools out of the district boundaries was unanimous, with board members saying parental choice trumped the school’s poor performance on state tests.

Jane Goff, a Democratic state board member from Arvada, said she has never changed how she applies the standard of review for appeal hearings. She said trends in appeals change in part because boards of education change and “people come in with varying points of view.”

“I do consider myself to have a record of balance on these decisions. For the most part, I tend to support the districts,” Goff said. “I believe that in almost every case the district has done a thorough job of vetting the applications.”

But, she added, the recent trend of siding with charters could be because more groups from outside of school districts are seeking to open charter schools, leading to skepticism on school boards.

Durham, the former board chairman, did not respond to Chalkbeat questions.

It’s unclear whether the board’s stance on charter appeals will shift again in light of November’s election. Democrats now control the board for the first time in nearly five decades, and Boulder Democrat Angelika Schroeder has replaced Durham as chair.

In Aurora, the process for reviewing and authorizing charters is changing under Lamont Browne, a former principal and charter school leader who is new to his role as the district’s executive director of autonomous schools. District officials said they are still trying to set a rigorous process with high standards.

“We feel like we have authority, absolutely,” Browne said. “The state board’s wishes or past decisions or practice does not impact our process. If the state board decided to uphold or to overturn, that is outside of our hands.”

Officials said the charter consideration process in Aurora may often include discussions or conversations with charter applicants about details like location, budget or curriculum, even if those are details staff won’t use to recommend an approval or denial of a charter.

Kate Mullins, executive director of Vega Collegiate Academy, the charter school that was modified to join another in Aurora to open this fall, said those discussions are important.

“Communication is the number one most important thing,” Mullins said. “In my brain, you really want to communicate with the district as soon as possible to ask, ‘What do you feel like the district needs?’ to make sure you are proposing a school the district and community wants and needs and deserves.”

deep cuts

New York City teachers don’t get paid maternity leave. Their paychecks prove it.

PHOTO: Emily James/Courtesy photo
Brooklyn high school teacher Emily James with her children.

Susan Hibdon opened her front door and saw nothing but white.

It was a day that would go down in tabloid headline history after schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared it “absolutely a beautiful day,” despite a forecast calling for 10 inches of snow. For Hibdon, a Brooklyn high school teacher, it was memorable for a different reason. It was exactly six weeks after she had given birth, which meant it was time to go back to the classroom.

She kissed her infant goodbye and headed into the wet February weather.

“If you want to pay your rent, you have to go right back to work,” she said. “That’s not just bad for the mother who just gave birth. That’s bad for everybody.”

New York City teachers have no paid maternity or family leave, a policy that takes a toll on teachers’ paychecks and creates deep gender inequity in an education workforce that is about 77 percent women.

Hibdon and fellow teacher and mother Emily James recently launched an online petition calling on the United Federation of Teachers to negotiate for paid leave, which is not included in any of the city’s contracts with unionized workers. Almost 78,000 people have signed on, and the women will present their request at the union’s executive board meeting on Monday.

“I think the irony of it sticks out to many people: These are women who are paid to raise children and they aren’t paid to raise their own children,” Hibdon said.

As it stands now, teachers who want to take paid time off after having a baby must use their sick days. The policy only applies to birth mothers, putting a strain on those who become parents through adoption or surrogacy, and fathers who want to take a leading role in the earliest moments of parenthood.

“We talk so much about parents being active in their child’s education,” said Rosie Frascella, a teacher who has also pushed for paid leave policies. “Well, let’s let teachers be active in their child’s education.”

For teachers, the policy packs a financial blow on multiple levels.

If a mother wants paid time off after giving birth, the only option is to use sick days. Women are limited to six weeks of sick time after a vaginal birth, and eight weeks after a C-section.

Teachers earn one sick day per school month. In order to save up for an eight-week leave, a teacher would have to work about four years without using any sick days.

Many women haven’t accrued that many days, so they can “borrow” sick days they haven’t yet earned. Teachers run into problems, though, if they actually get sick — or their children do — since they can only borrow up to 20 sick days. Once they hit that number, any additional time off is unpaid. And if a teacher leaves the education department, she must repay any sick days she borrowed.

Hidbon learned that the hard way. She has three children — and precious few sick days in the bank. Hidbon remembers a time that she completely lost her voice, but still had to go to work.

“No one could hear me. I had to conduct my entire class writing notes on the board,” she said. “I’m supposed to be teaching and I can’t do my job because of the way the system is set up — and my students are getting the short end of the stick.”

The crunch for sick time could lead to a financial blow later in a woman’s career. Teachers are allowed to accrue up to 200 sick days, and receive a payout for unused time when they retire. The city could not provide numbers for how many sick days men versus women retire with. But it makes sense that men would rack up far more since women with children are more likely to get stuck with a negative balance.

James, a Brookyln high school teacher and co-starter of the online petition, still has a negative balance of 16 sick days — almost three years after giving birth. The problem is compounded by the fact that women are more likely to take time off when a child is sick or there are other family obligations, a pattern that is seen in professions across the board.

“There were many times when I was so sick at work the kids were like, ‘Why are you here? Miss, go home,’” she said. “But it costs a lot of money to stay home.”

Even when women don’t have to borrow sick days, they can still lose financially. The city only allows women to use up to eight weeks of their banked time. Any additional days off are entirely unpaid.

Amy Arundell, a former director of personnel for the UFT, said many mothers stay home longer because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides job protections for 12 weeks of leave.

“The people who don’t take 12 [weeks] obviously have real financial commitments” that make taking unpaid time off impossible, she said.

Women who take that time get hit with a double-punch to their salaries. Because of the way summer pay is calculated, unpaid time off results in a smaller summer paycheck, too. Arundell said the hit is usually equivalent to one paycheck.

Same sex-couples and those who become parents through surrogacy or adoption face many of the same financial setbacks, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick time after having a baby.

After years on a waiting list, Seth Rader and his wife had only weeks’ notice that their adoptive baby was on the way. Since his wife was in grad school, the couple decided Rader would stay home with their new son — even though Rader, a Manhattan high school teacher, is the primary breadwinner at home.

“In a lot of ways, I’m much more bonded with him as a father, and him to me,” Rader said. “Are we really in a place where we want to discourage fathers from taking that role?”

At the time, the couple were saving for a down payment to buy a place of their own. After the expense of Rader taking off from work, they still are.

“I think all of this has to be affecting the sustainability of teaching,” he said. “If we create a system where people can’t imagine being teachers and parents at the same time, then that’s a loss.”

When it comes to the push for family leave, teachers have been left behind even as strides are made elsewhere. New York State recently passed a mandatory paid leave policy that will cover private employees. Last winter, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a paid leave act for city employees.

But that benefit isn’t extended to workers with unions, like the United Federation of Teachers. Currently, no union in New York City has paid maternity leave, according to a city spokeswoman.

Teachers across the city are fighting to change that. The petition started by Hibdon and James calls on UFT President Michael Mulgrew to “fight for our teaching mothers.”

“They’re supposed to really care about what teachers are struggling with and they’re our voice,” James said. “I just wish that they would take this seriously.”

Both the city and the United Federation of Teachers say they have held talks to extend similar benefits to teachers. In an emailed statement, Mulgrew called family leave “an important issue for the UFT and its members.”

“In our talks so far, the city has failed to come up with a meaningful proposal,” he said.

In an article published in the UFT journal, which ran shortly after the city passed its parental leave policy, the union pointed out that gaining that benefit came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

According to the article, Mulgrew said he “looked forward to negotiations with the de Blasio administration for an appropriate way to expand parental benefits for UFT members.”

across the pond

Does England’s rapid expansion of charter-like ‘academies’ hold a lesson for the U.S.?

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants more schools to be free from what she characterizes as ineffective, bureaucratic rules.

“In too many places there isn’t the kind of autonomy at a building level to really kind of break out of that mold and do things differently to meet students’ needs,” DeVos said in a recent interview.

But is that autonomy itself likely to improve schools?

A new study offers a sobering answer: England’s mass conversion of primary schools to “academies,” which function in some ways like charter schools in the United States, did not produce any academic gains for students. (Incidentally, DeVos met this week with Jo Johnson, a United Kingdom education minister; a spokesperson for DeVos said the meeting focused on higher education.)

And although exporting lessons from other countries is an inherently fraught exercise, the English experience provides a cautionary tale — and aligns with research from the U.S. In short, there’s little evidence that providing schools with additional freedom will, on its own, boost student achievement.

Great Britain’s far-reaching effort to inject autonomy into its schools

England has a system of schools known as “academies” that are overseen by a board of directors and organized as nonprofits. The academies are not bound by national rules for staffing and curriculum, though they are authorized by England’s national Department for Education.

Unlike most American charter schools, many academies were existing schools that moved outside the control of a school district, either by choice or by government mandate. England also has allowed for the creation of “free schools,” which function like academies but start from scratch.

Academies first hatched in the early 2000s, and for about a decade they grew slowly and were used mostly in an attempt to improve low-performing secondary (upper-grade) schools. That initial effort did lead to significant gains in student achievement.

In 2010, a new Conservative government supported the dramatic expansion of academies, including among primary (lower-grade) schools. By the 2016-17 school year, nearly one in four primary schools and most of England’s secondary schools were academies.

Using language similar to DeVos’s, Michael Gove, then the British education secretary, highlighted the appeal of academies to skeptics of state regulation. “Schools are taking up our offer to become academies because they recognise the huge benefits – more autonomy, more power to teachers, and an opportunity to thrive, free from interference from government,” Gove said in 2011.

But this policy doesn’t seemed to have improved student achievement in lower-grade schools, as purveyors like Gove, hoped, according to a new peer-reviewed study. The analysis, conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics, finds that primary schools that became academies between 2010–11 and 2014–15 did not see gains in on the national test given at the end of primary school at age 11.

“The English government has radically restructured its school system under an assumption that academisation delivers benefits to schools and students,” the authors write. “There is neither any sign of a positive effect nor any suggestion that benefits might be increasing with years of exposure. If anything, the opposite is the case.”

Academies that were not part of what is a called a multi-academy trust — roughly equivalent to a charter management organization — seemed to have negative effects on student achievement.

To isolate the impact of “academisation,” the researchers compare schools that became academies between 2010-11 and 2014-15 to other schools before they became academies in later school years. The study does not look at measures beyond test scores or the effects of the policy beyond the first few years.

An important question is whether and how academies used their newfound autonomy. According to an analysis by the British government, about half of primary schools changed their curriculum, how they evaluated teachers, and who was in school leadership. Relatively few lengthened the school day or hired uncertified teachers.

The latest study finds that academies also received more money than schools that didn’t convert to academies. Most of those additional resources went toward administrative costs. That’s consistent with evidence from the U.S. showing that charter schools spend more on administration, perhaps because they lack the economies of scale of larger districts. The extra money may have been one reason so many schools became academies.

The research does not examine how local school districts were affected by the swift expansion of academies, but other work suggests they suffered as they lost money.

“Reduced funding forced many of the local authorities to reduce their staffs and made it more difficult for them to maintain high quality school support personnel,” wrote Helen Ladd and Ted Fiske, American researchers who looked the British academies experiment.

Does this matter for the U.S.?

The England-based research is fairly consistent with the limited research in the United States on the academic benefits of injecting autonomy into existing schools. A 2014 study found that an initiative in Chicago Public Schools to provide more freedom to principals of high-performing schools did not lead to gains in overall student achievement. Research in Boston and Denver showed that “pilot” and “innovation” school initiatives — where schools elect to take on certain flexibilities — have not improved student test scores.

The charter school research is somewhat complicated. In both Boston and Denver, those same studies show charter schools producing big gains.

In general, though, charters perform comparably to traditional public schools on standardized tests. This suggests that specific practices — rather than autonomy itself — are responsible for the success of some charters.

Ladd, a Duke professor who has also studied charter schools in North Carolina, argues that the English experience points to the limits of autonomy.

“Flexibility may be one step, but, by itself, I’ve seen very little evidence that it can address in any serious way the problems of struggling schools,” she said.