BARRIERS TO ACCESS

Public transportation won’t solve Denver’s school choice woes, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Riders disembark a Denver city bus.

Providing all Denver middle and high school students with free public transportation is unlikely to result in equal access to the city’s best schools, according to a new analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Washington state.

The concentration of the best schools in central Denver, coupled with the city’s large size and geographic quirks, mean that only 58 percent of students could get to one of the small number of top-rated middle and high schools in 30 minutes or less by public transit, the study found.

Racially segregated housing patterns make the odds worse for African-American and Latino students: While 69 percent of white students could get to a top-rated school in 30 minutes or less, just 63 percent of black students and 53 percent of Latino students could. A similar gap exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

Lack of transportation is often cited as a barrier to school choice, even in a school district like Denver Public Schools that strives to make choice easy for families. While DPS does not promise transportation to every student who chooses a charter school — or a district-run school outside their neighborhood — the district has for six years provided shuttle bus service to students attending all types of schools in the northeastern part of the city.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised that system, known as the Success Express, in a speech in March. But expanding it to cover the entire city would cost too much.

Community advocates have been pushing instead for the city and the school district to work together to provide more bus passes to high school students. Currently, DPS gives passes to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The district earmarked $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November for that purpose, and city officials have said they’d contribute money toward the initiative too.

The study suggests free bus passes aren’t the solution.

“Our analysis shows that most of the city’s students can reasonably use public transit to get to their current school,” the study says, “but public transit won’t necessarily help them access the city’s highest-performing schools.”

The study offers other strategies to increase students’ access to top schools, including sending those who live near Denver’s borders to better-performing schools in the suburbs.

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.

unions in charters

When charter schools unionize, students learn more, study finds

A UFT organizer hands out a pro-union flier to Emily Samuels, one of Opportunity Charter School's administrators. To the left, Ana Patejdl, a teacher at the school.

When charter school teachers push to unionize, charter leaders often fight back.

That’s happened in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Unionizing, they argue, would limit the schools’ ability to innovate, ultimately hurting kids.

But a new study of California schools finds that, far from harming student achievement, unionization of charter schools actually boosts test scores.

“In contrast to the predominant public opinion about school unionizations, we find that unionization has a positive … impact on student math performance,” write researchers Jordan Matsudaira of Cornell and Richard Patterson of the U.S. Military Academy.

The analysis is hardly the last word on the question, but it highlights the limited evidence for the idea that not having unionized teachers helps charter schools succeed — even though that is a major aspect of the charter-school movement, as most charters are not unionized.

“Contrary to the anti-worker and anti-union ideologues, the teacher unions in charter schools don’t impede teaching and learning or hurt kids,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in more than 240 charter schools. “And the findings — that schools with teachers who have an independent voice through its unions have a positive effects on student performance — are consistent with common sense and other studies.”

The study, just published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, finds that about a quarter of all charters in California — 277 of 1,127 — were unionized as of 2013. Together, they taught nearly a third of the state’s students in charter schools.

Forty-four of those schools unionized between 2003 and 2013. To understand the effects of that change, the researchers compared trends in test scores of schools after they unionized to similar schools that didn’t unionize during that time.

The researchers find that unionization increased students’ annual math test scores, and those gains persisted for least three years. The students who started at the lowest achievement levels seemed to benefit the most.

Those gains were fairly substantial: In math, they were about three times the size of the total advantage conferred by urban charter schools nationwide, according to research frequently cited by charter school advocates.

The estimated impact on English scores was positive, but small and not statistically significant.

The paper was not able to explain why unionization seemed to improve student learning, though the authors say it could relate to improved teacher morale or better relationships between teachers and school leadership. Oddly, unionization seemed to lead to a decline in teachers’ years of experience; it did not have any effect on class size.

The study comes with some significant caveats. Although the researchers make extensive efforts to make apples-to-apples comparisons among schools, it’s difficult to be sure that unionization is what caused the test-score gains. If schools that were already more likely to improve were also more likely to unionize, that could explain the results.

David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said the study was well done but noted its inability to explain the results.

Griffith, who released an analysis last week showing that unionized charter schools have relatively high rates of teacher absenteeism, also pointed out that many charters without unions are successful.

“Even if this study is true for these particular schools, we have examples of really high-performing non-unionized charter schools,” he said. “It’s difficult to leap from this study to say that [for example] KIPP, which gets these fantastic results, should unionize.”

Previous research has shown middling performance for one of the most high-profile unionized charters in the state, Green Dot, while other non-unionized schools, like the Alliance charter network in Los Angeles, posted better scores.

In contrast to the latest research, a previous study of California’s charter schools found that unionization had no significant effect on test scores.

Since the findings are focused on just a fraction of California’s unionized charter schools, they might not apply to other charter schools in the state or country — or say anything about the effects of unions in traditional public schools.