Future of Schools

State withdraws charter for network that Tony Bennett pushed for

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his team wanted BASIS charter schools to come to the Hoosier state so badly they put on a full-court press in 2011 to change state law to make locating in Indiana easier for the national network, and others like it.

But after all of that, BASIS has yet to open a school in Indiana, and the Indiana Charter School Board voted today to withdraw the charter it awarded the company because there still is no plan in place for the school to launch. Board members said they hoped BASIS might reconsider Indiana again in the future.

“They are a high-performing charter network that was hoping to expand in several regions,” said Emily Richardson, director of legal affairs and policy for the state cchool board. “In our recent communications with them, they have indicated that Indiana was not in their plans for the next few years. That raises concerns as to their application and school model … whether what we initially awarded to them will be the same as what will open.”

BASIS stalled its plans to open a school in Indianapolis partly due to concerns about teacher licensing in the state and per-pupil funding levels, Richardson said.

“We have one of the most flexible teacher licensing systems in the nation,” Richardson said. “We have reassured them on that front. Our per-pupil funding rate is lower. Their funding would come in at around $6,500 per student, which is a little bit lower than they like to see.”

But BASIS spokesman Phil Handler said Indiana’s per-pupil funding model is the primary reason why it cancelled its plans in Indiana. He said Indiana’s teacher licensing rules did not factor into the decision.

“We will continue to evaluate opportunities to open a BASIS charter school in Indiana,” Handler said in a statement. “But the funding mechanism here in Arizona is lean — and in Indiana, it is much leaner. As such, we have no concrete plans in Indiana right now.”

During the 2011 legislative session, Indiana education officials pushed to loosen teacher licensing rules for charter schools, with Bennett arguing that Indiana would not be able to recruit some of the best charter schools, which he said produce impressive academic results without always using traditionally licensed teachers.

The Arizona-based for-profit network BASIS, was a prime example.

To lure BASIS — the network operates 15 schools in Arizona, Washington D.C. and Texas — Bennett and his supporters shepherded through a 2011 law that allows some charter school teachers to avoid certification, instead requiring a bachelor’s degree, content expertise, and that their new employers provide basic teacher training on the job.

Only 10 ten percent of a charter’s full-time teaching staff can be licensed this way unless it receives a waiver from the state, according to Indiana code. The rest of a charter school’s full-time teachers need to either have state teacher certification or be on the path to receiving it.

BASIS, founded in a state with among the loosest teacher licensing rules, applied and was approved for its Indiana charter shortly after. But BASIS Indianapolis, which aimed to provide an accelerated liberal arts education to 700 middle and high schoolers in Northwest Indianapolis, never open as planned that next fall.

In Indiana, the debate over teacher licensing is ongoing. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett in 2012, along with the state’s largest teachers union vehemently oppose loosening requirements for licenses. They say that plans to allow college graduates to teach if they have earned a 3.0 grade point average and have about three years experience in a field related to their subject area provided they can pass a content exam could lead to less qualified teachers.

Proponents say students can benefit from teachers who have recent experience in the field and who can apply subjects like math to the real world.

State charter board chair Maureen Weber called the withdrawal of BASIS’ charter the “less happy news” of the day — the board also approved the expansion of a Carpe Diem charter school.

The organization had high expectations for its Indianapolis school, according to its original application.

“It is not hard to imagine a school where the students are held to the highest possible academic standards, where they are asked to take responsibility for their own work, and where the teachers are both highly qualified and motivated to help students in any way possible,” according to the application. “Yet imagining this kind of school is not enough. At BASIS, we bring these ideas to life every day.”

BASIS schools also have faced criticism from those who say the students are tested too much, and from those who question the network’s decision to allow a for-profit company to manage its finances, saying that blocks the transparency needed from those in the business of educating children.

Board member Virginia Calvin said she was not worried about the network eventually resubmitting an application to the board.

“They make a valid point in terms of the per-pupil (allocation),” Calvin said. “We can’t ignore that as Hoosiers. If they’re rated as outstanding, they’ll be back.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.