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.”

Big speeches

Emanuel tries to shore up education legacy in final budget address

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel choked up twice during his final budget address to Chicago’s City Council Wednesday morning: once when he talked about his wife, Amy Rule, and the other when he read aloud a letter from a John Marshall High School senior who lives on Chicago’s West Side.

The address highlighted millions he wants to spend to expand after-school programming, middle school mentoring, and a summer jobs initiative for Chicago teens. It also signaled loud and clear how Emanuel views his legacy: as the mayor who took the reins when the city faced a $600 million deficit and then righted Chicago’s fiscal ship, while pushing for the expansion of programs that serve public schools and children.

In the speech, he ticked off such accomplishments as expanding kindergarten citywide from a half- to a full-day, extending the city’s school day, increasing the graduation rate to a record 78.2 percent up from 57 percent when he took office in 2011, and paving the path for universal pre-kindergarten, though that initiative is still in the early stages.

“When you step back and look at the arc of what we’ve done in the past seven years, and take a wide lens view, from free pre-K to free community college, from Safe Passage to mentors to more tutors in our neighborhood libraries … at end of day, it is really no different than what Amy and I, or you and your partner, would do for your own children,” he said.

Emanuel, the former congressman and chief of staff for President Barack Obama who announced on the first day of school in September that he won’t be running for re-election, acknowledged that shoring up civic finances isn’t glitzy work — not like, say, plopping a major park in the middle of downtown, as his predecessor Richard M. Daley did by opening Millennium Park.

But, said Emanuel, “one thing I’ve learned in the past 24 years in politics is that they don’t build statues for people who restore fiscal stability.”

Outside of the longer school day and school year, the mayor stressed his work expanding programming for children — particularly teenagers — after school and in summers as an antidote to the city’s troubling violence that did not abate in his term. Amid a $10.7 billion budget plan that includes a chunk of new tax-increment finance dollars that will go toward schools, the new budget lays out $500,000 more funding for his signature Summer Jobs program, bringing projected total spending on that up to $18 million in 2019.

He also set aside $1 million for his wife’s Working on Womanhood mentoring program that currently serves 500 women and girls, $1 million more for the after-school program After School Matters, and more money for free dental services at Chicago Public Schools and trauma-informed therapy programs.

The mayor’s address had barely ended when the Chicago Teachers Union sent an email with the subject line “No victory lap for this failed mayor.” It pointed to blemishes on Emanuel’s education record, from closing 50 schools in 2013 to systemic failings in the city’s special education program — an issue that now has Chicago Public Schools under the watchful eye of a state monitor.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey called on the city’s next mayor to restore money to mental health clinics and social services, fund smaller class sizes, broaden a “sustainable schools” program that partners community agencies with languishing neighborhood schools, and invest in more social workers, psychologists, nurses, librarians, and teachers’ assistants.

In his address, Emanuel did not talk about some of the tough decisions the school district had to make during tough budget years, such as the school closings or widespread teacher layoffs that topped 2,000 that same year. 

He did, however, stress his philosophy that investments in children must extend beyond the typical school day. In the letter from the Marshall High School senior, the teen wrote that, until his freshman year of high school, “I never saw or met any males like me who lead successful lives.” The letter went on to praise the nonprofit Becoming A Man, a male mentoring program that has expanded among Chicago schools during Emanuel’s tenure.

The teen intends to attend Mississippi Valley State University next fall, the mayor said. When Emanuel pointed out the young man and his Becoming A Man program mentor in the City Council chambers, many in attendance gave them a standing ovation.



Schola Latina

With school board approval, new Detroit Latin School plans to enroll students as soon as next fall

Plans for the new Detroit Latin School involve renovating the former Brady Elementary School building on Detroit's west side.

Detroit students in grades 5 through 7 might start enrolling as soon as next fall in a new school focused on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The new Detroit Latin School, which hopes to eventually serve students in grades K through 12, won approval from the Detroit school board Tuesday night to enter into a 99-year, $1 lease for an abandoned school on the city’s west side.

The school is one of two new schools opening next year as the district makes a play to recruit some of the 30,000 Detroit children who currently commute to the suburbs for school.

When news of the school first broke last month, some critics grumbled that the district should focus on supporting its existing schools rather than opening new ones. The 106-school district has dozens of buildings that are half-full or in serious disrepair. Others wondered why a district overwhelmingly serving African-American students is backing a school that emphasizes European culture rather than building additional Afrocentric schools.

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he hopes the Latin school’s unusual curriculum will appeal to families who might otherwise shun the district and will keep students — and the state funds that come with them — in the district rather than see them flow to charter or suburban schools.  

Board members, who approved an agreement for the Latin school in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, said they hope the district will hold the new school to high academic standards and will push to make sure that ancient African cultures such as Carthage and Kush are incorporated in the school’s curriculum along with Greece and Rome. They also called on the district to add Afrocentric programs to its schools.

“I’m pleased with this and excited,” said board member Misha Stallworth. “I like the classics but I also hope that as we continue to look at new school opportunities, we can pursue subjects that are a little more reflective of our community.”

According to an agreement approved by the board Tuesday, the new school will be run by the George Washington Scholars Endowment, an organization founded in 1785 that has opened similar schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The Detroit version will be a traditional district school, subject to school board oversight and policies. Teaching staff will be district employees and members of district unions, though some administrators will work for the endowment.

The district will pay for routine maintenance and operations, while the endowment plans to raise money — as much as $75 million — to support the school and to renovate the former Brady Elementary School on the city’s west side.

The endowment, which will operate the Latin School in another district building for two years while the Brady campus is being renovated, has ambitious plans involving a four-building campus in a traditional quad configuration. The campus will include a lower school serving grades K through 6, an upper school serving grades 7 through 12, a science and technology building, a “center for rhetoric and performing arts,” and a dormitory.

The agreement authorizes the school to house about 20 international students in the dorm.  

It’s not clear what happens if the endowment falls short of its ambitious fundraising goals. The agreement approved Tuesday calls for the property to revert back to the district if it is no longer being used as a traditional public school.

Also not clear is what happens if the school struggles academically or doesn’t meet the district’s expectations for serving students. The agreement approved Tuesday largely spells out the financial relationship between the district and the school and doesn’t go into detail about the school’s curriculum or academic policies beyond specifying that they will align with Michigan state standards.

The agreement states that if the district terminates the lease, it would have to repay the endowment for its renovation expenses — a provision that one school board member encouraged the district to reconsider as it negotiates the final language for the lease.

“I would push you to think about the terms under which you can cancel the lease,” said board member Sonya Mays. “There’s a requirement in here that we would have to pay back for the first 20 years. I would hope that we can carve out …. If they don’t meet academic standards or something like that. So just making sure that [repayment] is not sort of a blanket requirement on our end.”

Vitti said the district will require the school to meet or exceed the district average for academic performance.

The Latin school will be open to all Detroit residents but admission will be selective, based on grades and a student interview — not on standardized tests. The school will open initially with just fifth, sixth and seventh grades. It plans to add additional grades once it moves to its permanent building in 2021.