Future of Schools

Dropping schools bolstered Ball State's ISTEP charter scores

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A Teacher challenge board with test results at Tindley Renaissance School. The Tindley network in Indianapolis include some of the state's highest scoring charter schools.

Ball State University’s decision to end its sponsorship of 11 low-scoring charter schools over the past two years contributed to the better overall ISTEP performance this year of 24 schools it still oversees.

Of the schools it still sponsors, about 16 percent rated in the top half of more than 1,800 schools that took the test. That’s better than the schools sponsored by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office. About 10 percent of Ballard’s 24 schools that took ISTEP ranked in the top half. (For more Marion County charter school results go here.)

But it didn’t come easily. Ball State faced criticism in 2012 for sponsoring schools with long records of low performance. Its charter school office overhauled its review process, telling its schools to expect tougher evaluations.

“We’re performing a little better than we were,” said Ball State’s charter school director Bob Marra. “What people have seen is Ball State is serious about authorizing. We’re going to look at the data and take appropriate action steps.”

In 2012-13, seven schools were told their charters would not be renewed. Then four more met the same fate last year. Of those 11, five closed, two converted to private schools and one merged into a sister charter school. Three others remain open after finding new sponsors.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” Marra said. “We’re trying to get ourselves in a better position to make those decisions.”

Most charter schools in the state rank at the low end of the spectrum, and Ball State is no different, with about 54 percent of its schools ranked in the bottom quarter of schools for percent passing math and English. But for Ballard’s office, the percent of schools in the bottom quarter statewide was higher than 70 percent.

That’s still a step ahead of the state’s six other charter school sponsors: none of them saw any of their combined nine schools ranked higher than the bottom quarter. Those sponsors include the Indiana State Charter School Board, private colleges and, in one instance, a school district.

Most of those other sponsors have only gotten into the business of overseeing charter schools since a 2011 law created the state charter board and permitted private universities to charter schools as well as public universities.

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Out of more than 1,800 schools that took the exams in grades 3 to 8

Before that, only the Indianapolis Mayor’s office, beginning under then-Mayor Bart Peterson, and Ball State had taken advantage of state laws that allowed them to approve and supervise charter schools. Sponsors oversee the schools’ managerial, financial and academic performance and shut down those that fail to fulfill their promises.

All three former Ball State charter schools that stayed open by finding new sponsors this year fell in the bottom quarter of schools in the state for percent passing ISTEP.

Marra said the state’s three major charter school sponsors, Ball State, Mayor Ballard’s office and the Indiana State Charter School Board, have improved communication in an effort to set consistently high expectations for how the schools must perform.

Still, exercising accountability is tough, he said. At some of the now-closed schools emotions ran high about Ball State’s decision.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “The law talks about accountability. It’s pretty clear what you need to do. These kids only get one one shot at this. It has to be a quality school.”

Statewide, just three charter schools ranked in the top quarter in the state: Indianapolis’ Tindley Collegiate Academy, The Discovery Charter School near Gary in Chesterton and The Bloomington Project School. Ballard sponsors Tindley. The other two are sponsored by Ball State.

For Ball State, Marra said, tougher oversight meant a focus not just on academics, but also on management of the school and of its finances. For example, another Ball State-sponsored charter school, the International School of Columbus, closed last year for financial reasons despite good academic performance, he said.

“What I’ve learned is its a three-legged stool: fiscal, governance and academics,” he said. “You can’t keep your doors open without all three.”

Here’s how Indiana charter schools that took ISTEP last year ranked for percent passing this year and how their scores compared to last year:

 

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.