A growing sector

Over 40 percent of Newark students could attend charter schools within five years. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

In 2008, less than 10 percent of Newark students attended charter schools. Today, one in three does.

After a decade of explosive growth, Newark’s charter schools have morphed from a sideshow to a parallel school system. Fueled by former Gov. Chris Christie and deep-pocketed donors, their expansion offered thousands of families new school options — with more-established charters sometimes vastly outperforming their district counterparts. But the spreading sector also ensured the demise of some neighborhood schools, blew a hole in the district budget, and often provoked ferocious resistance to further charter encroachment, which helped propel Ras Baraka into City Hall.

Note: Figures exclude pre-K and include non-resident charter students. Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research, Julia Sass Rubin/Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Policy. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

The charter proliferation is far from over. Within five years, nearly 27,000 students who go to school in Newark — well over 40 percent of the total — could be attending charter schools, according to a projection by Rutgers University associate professor Julia Sass Rubin based on school expansions approved by the state.

Yet whether those projections are met will depend on demand by families, charter-school capacity, and perhaps even the political climate. Still, some district-school advocates are already bracing for the worst — including more school closures and potential service reductions — if the charter sector keeps expanding.

“It’s growing at an alarming rate,” said school board member Reginald Bledsoe. “It’s going to have an impact.”

Today, about 33 percent of students who attend Newark schools — or roughly 17,000 students — go to charter schools. (More than 1,300 of those students live outside Newark, since some charters can enroll students beyond the district.)

The state has signed off on nearly 7,000 more charter seats to be available by the 2022-23 school year, according to state data compiled by Sass Rubin, who teaches at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning & Policy. If all those seats are filled and district enrollment stays flat at about 34,200 students, then the share of students who go to school in Newark and attend charters could climb as high as 44 percent.

That projection — which excludes pre-kindergarten students — is based on several assumptions.

First, it assumes the district’s enrollment will remain steady — which would require the district to add new students to replace those who decamp for charters, as it has in recent years.

Second, this scenario assumes that existing charters remain open. But the state education department forced the closure of three low-performing Newark charters last year and another in January. (Those schools are excluded from the enrollment count.)

Finally, it assumes the sector will reach the full enrollment permitted by the state — which hasn’t historically been the case. This year, about 85 percent of state-approved Newark charter seats are filled, according to data provided by Sass Rubin, who is working on a statewide analysis that compares charter approvals to subsequent enrollments.

“Just because they’ve been approved,” she said, “doesn’t mean they will actually happen.”

Critics say the excess seats suggest the supply of charter schools has started to outstrip demand among families, and that charters are requesting more slots than they need.

But charter proponents push back against that claim. They point to city enrollment data showing that 49 percent of Newark families applying to kindergarten last year listed a charter school as their top choice.

Demand was highest for North Star Academy and KIPP New Jersey, which each operate several schools in Newark. More than 550 families listed KIPP as their first choice for kindergarten though only 448 seats were available across the network, which includes eight Newark schools. (Demand was also high for several district schools, including Ann Street — which had the third highest share of families rank it first — a sign that parents may care more about schools’ track records and reputations than who runs them.)

Charter operators offer several reasons why they may not fill all the seats they applied for.

Some said it made sense to stockpile extra seats during the charter-friendly Christie administration, under which the number of charter students doubled. “While the getting is good, and Christie is approving just about anything that sounds stable, why don’t we just go and apply for additional charters so we can have those in our pocket?” asked one charter leader, describing the thinking of some of his school’s board members.

Others said growth plans sometimes bump up against human limitations. In order to open a new school, charter operators must first find an ample supply of strong leaders — a challenge that can bedevil district and charter schools alike.

“When we haven’t opened in the past, it’s been because we didn’t yet have a principal that we thought was ready,” said KIPP New Jersey CEO Ryan Hill, adding that incoming principals at KIPP go through a yearlong training and school-planning process. (KIPP currently serves about 4,100 students in Newark, but has been approved to grow to 7,800 students.)

Another obstacle is securing space, as charter schools do not get state money as district schools typically do for facilities. Charters may also face political resistance: In 2012, the Newark school board voted against plans to lease four district buildings to charters — though at that time the board’s votes were non-binding.

Newark’s charter sector grew rapidly over the past decade. Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

Now that the board has regained control of the school system, it’s possible charters could have a harder time securing space in district buildings. Bledsoe, the board member, said he supports parents who choose charter schools — still, he would rather reserve district buildings for district schools.

“I don’t believe in the idea of allowing network schools to expand and we’re not expanding,” he said.

If Newark’s charters do keep spreading, more money will flow out of the district’s budget.

This school year, the district will transfer about $237 million — or a quarter of its budget — to charter schools, up from $60 million in the 2008-09 school year. Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed boosting Newark’s budget by 5 percent next year, but lawmakers must still sign off.

Newark Public Schools spokesman Paul Nedeau said the district will be able to keep investing in its schools if the state sends more money its way. He said the district is focused on “continuing to improve the quality of all schools in Newark” — charter and district — and that “the last few years show that with collaboration and thoughtful management this is an achievable goal.”

Hill of KIPP New Jersey agreed. He said his network was committed to being a “good neighbor” to the district, which was one reason why it lobbied the state for more school aid alongside Newark officials — including Mayor Baraka, who has shown a willingness to partner with the charter sector since taking office.

But even as KIPP tries to ease its impact on the district, “our first responsibility is to the families of Newark and to give them good options,” Hill said.

“If there are families who are still asking for KIPP schools that don’t have access to them,” he added, “then we’ll continue to grow.”

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new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.