Against a muted response to the year’s test scores, New York’s charter sector stands out

PHOTO: Grace Tatter/Chalkbeat

New York City students outperformed the state average on this year’s reading tests, but with consequences for low scores receding and year-over-year comparisons off the table because of changes to the test, reactions to the news have been muted.

One notable exception: The city’s charter sector, which far outscored the rest of the city on both reading and math at a moment when lawmakers’ support is far from assured, quickly touted its performance. Other groups pointed out that deep disparities in the scores of different kinds of students remain. And some advocates suggested that they were just happy that more students sat for the tests at all instead of opting out.

Here’s what we’re hearing. We’ll update with reactions as they come in.

Charter advocates took the opportunity to tout their sector’s performance.

“Today, it’s more clear than ever why so many New York City families have chosen to send their children to charter schools. The city’s charter schools continue to deliver extraordinary results for disadvantaged students and have eliminated the achievement gap that otherwise persists across the city and the state. Progress is taking place across the board—for African American, Latino and low income students, as well English language learners and students with special needs. This was the goal when charters first opened 20 years ago and remains the goal today.” — James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center

“The 2018 test score results for math and ELA make it clear the comparison between charter schools on average and the state average isn’t even close — which is significant because the state average includes incredibly well-resourced, low-need districts. The data reaffirm what an estimated 150,000 students and their families already know: charter schools work relentlessly to support high achievement.” — Empire Charter Consultants, a new national group working to support charter school growth:

Some charter advocates alluded to looming policy battles ahead …

“Year after year, these assessment results show that the expertise in closing the achievement gap is found abundantly in the city’s charter sector. While Mayor de Blasio boasts he ‘came into office to shake the foundation of the system’ in reality, the city is just changing who gets to go to the schools it thinks are good. None of the City’s strategies increase the number of quality seats. The only people focused on that are the city’s charter school operators who are ready, willing, and able to open more schools if the cap is lifted.

If combined into a district, New York City charter schools are larger than the Big Four school district combined and perform three times as well. I hope charter critics won’t dismiss these results and will instead seek to replicate and scale them.” — StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis

… while others focused on what their own schools are doing well.

“Children from all backgrounds can achieve exceptional results when given access to great schools. When you focus on the whole child, you develop a passion for excellence, whether it’s in the classroom, on the soccer field, or at chess and debate tournaments.” — Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy, where 91 percent of students were proficient in reading and 98 were proficient in math

Others called attention to deep disparities reflected in the scores.

“It is always positive to see scores improve, but the fact is we cannot be sure what these changes mean because of the recent changes to the test. These scores could be more meaningful if we stopped playing politics and provide consistency in assessments and evaluation. We must embrace educator-driven reforms that ensure quality data is being collected and shared in a timely manner that allows educators to measure achievement and improvement from year to year.

“What we do know for sure is that we still have significant work to do to close the persistent opportunity gaps that exist for low-income students and students of color. For the commitment to equity and excellence to become a reality we need to continue working to elevate the teaching profession, create safe and supportive learning environments where all students are welcome, and fully implement New York’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act.” — Evan Stone, a co-founder and CEO of Educators 4 Excellence, a teacher advocacy group

“In reviewing the test scores for New York City students, we are concerned about the persistent gaps that exist for students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELLs).  Teaching students to read is one of the most fundamental tasks of schools. We are disappointed to see a 40 point gap in reading scores between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers and a 40 point gap in reading scores between ELLs and students who were never ELLs.  With the vast majority of ELLs and students with disabilities failing to score proficiently in reading, the City must do more to support these students and ensure that they receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction that targets their individual needs.” — Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York

And some were just happy that New York students took the tests at all.

“The combination of high standards and aligned assessments is creating real progress in classrooms across New York. What’s more, the state’s recent reforms to the assessments, from shortening the assessment period to having New York teachers help write the actual tests, are working – with student proficiency levels improving and achievement gaps in communities of color shrinking. And as a testament to buy in across the state, this year marks another year of increasing overall participation in the assessments, meaning that teachers and educators have more and more information to build lesson plans and structure classroom time. While teachers and students still have a lot of work ahead of them, today’s strong results mean we are another step closer to our ultimate goal: ensuring that every child in New York, no matter where he or she grows up, has access to a great education.” — Brian Fritsch, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition formed to generate public support for the state’s testing program

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.