Future of Schools

New guides push school choice for parents, families

PHOTO: Submitted

Shelby County parents have abundant options when deciding where to send their children to school, but there are few, if any, resources to help them navigate the often intimidating process.

Understanding school choice in Memphis, which is home to the majority of the state’s lowest-performing schools, can require copious amounts of research that some choice advocates on the state and local level are hoping they can simplify for parents. But their help comes with a slant away from traditional public schools.

Earlier this month, the Beacon Center of Tennessee released a statewide school choice booklet, which the center’s CEO says will give parents access to information about private, charter, homeschool and virtual school options. Traditional public schools are not included in the booklet. The Beacon Center, which is based in Nashville, is a free-market think-tank that advocates for unfettered school choice, limited government, and “individual liberty.”

The organization held a press conference  Oct. 8 to launch the release of the booklet, which was co-sponsored by several other pro-school choice organizations: Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO,  Agudath Israel, Education Freedom Alliance, Public SchoolChoiceOptions.org, Tennessee Charter School Center and Tennessee Federation for Children.

“We’re in agreement that parents need a school choice booklet, and this is the first resource that is statewide,” said Jennifer Littlejohn, state director of BAEO.

Approximately 83,000 children in Tennessee attend a failing school, according to the Beacon Center’s presentation.

The booklet has sparked some controversy because of its pointed exclusion of traditional public schools.

“(It) covers both private and public options available to Tennessee families,” said Justin Owen, CEO Beacon Center of Tennessee. “At this time, (public schools) districts differ so greatly in the menu of options that it would be difficult to include in a statewide booklet, so our focus was to provide the general choice options currently available.”

The absence of traditional public schools in the booklet concerns the Tennessee Education Association.

“Our stance is that Tennessee children deserve great public schools and diverting money through vouchers to a private or charter school strips our public schools,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which represents the majority of the state’s public school teachers. “We find the booklet to be misleading and doesn’t fully inform parents. Public schools should have been mentioned.”

An upcoming online choice guide for Memphis will include traditional public schools along with private, charter and virtual options. This effort is being led by Memphis parent Ginger Spickler, who also also serves as communications director  for Memphis Opportunity Scholarship Trust, or MOST, an organization that helps low-income families pay for private schooling.

Spickler said her website will be similar to a STL City Schools, which offers parents explainers on the four types of schools in St. Louis — regular public, public magnet, public charter, and private — and the steps to researching local schools.  It’s being funded by a local philanthropist “with a strong interest in education,” Spickler said. She said the philanthropist wanted to remain anonymous. Spickler didn’t know when the site will launch.

Simply producing guides for parents won’t help them gain access to the best educational options for their children, said Cardell Orrin, director of the Memphis chapter of Stand for Children, a national parent organizing group.

“It’s one thing to have the tool, but parents should know how to use it and why they should,” Orrin said.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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Mapping a Turnaround

This is what the State Board of Education hopes to order Adams 14 to do

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Javier Abrego, superintendent of Adams 14 School District on April 17, 2018.

In Colorado’s first-ever attempt to give away management of a school district, state officials Thursday provided a preview of what the final order requiring Adams 14 to give up district management could include.

The State Board of Education is expected to approve its final directives to the district later this month.

Thursday, after expressing a lack of trust in district officials who pleaded their case, the state board asked the Attorney General’s office for advice and help in drafting a final order detailing how the district is to cede authority, and in what areas.

Colorado has never ordered an external organization to take over full management of an entire district.

Among details discussed Thursday, Adams 14 will be required to hire an external manager for at least four years. The district will have 90 days to finalize a contract with an external manager. If it doesn’t, or if the contract doesn’t meet the state’s guidelines, the state may pull the district’s accreditation, which would trigger dissolution of Adams 14.

State board chair Angelika Schroeder said no one wants to have to resort to that measure.

But districts should know, the state board does have “a few more tools in our toolbox,” she said.

In addition, if they get legal clearance, state board members would like to explicitly require the district:

  • To give up hiring and firing authority, at least for at-will employees who are administrators, but not teachers, to the external manager.
    When State Board member Steve Durham questioned the Adams 14 school board President Connie Quintana about this point on Wednesday, she made it clear she was not interested in giving up this authority.
  • To give up instructional, curricular, and teacher training decisions to the external manager.
  • To allow the new external manager to decide if there is value in continuing the existing work with nonprofit Beyond Textbooks.
    District officials have proposed they continue this work and are expanding Beyond Textbooks resources to more schools this year. The state review panel also suggested keeping the Beyond Textbooks partnership, mostly to give teachers continuity instead of switching strategies again.
  • To require Adams 14 to seek an outside manager that uses research-based strategies and has experience working in that role and with similar students.
  • To task the external manager with helping the district improve community engagement.
  • To be more open about their progress.
    The state board wants to be able to keep track of how things are going. State board member Rebecca McClellan said she would like the state board and the department’s progress monitor to be able to do unannounced site visits. Board member Jane Goff asked for brief weekly reports.
  • To allow the external manager to decide if the high school requires additional management or other support.
  • To allow state education officials, and/or the state board, to review the final contract between the district and its selected manager, to review for compliance with the final order.

Facing the potential for losing near total control over his district, Superintendent Javier Abrego Thursday afternoon thanked the state board for “honoring our request.”

The district had accepted the recommendation of external management and brought forward its own proposal — but with the district retaining more authority.

Asked about the ways in which the state board went above and beyond the district’s proposal, such as giving the outside manager the authority to hire and fire administrative staff, Abrego did not seem concerned.

“That has not been determined yet,” he said. “That will all be negotiated.”

The state board asked that the final order include clear instructions about next steps if the district failed to comply with the state’s order.

Changing fortune

Late votes deliver a narrow win for Jeffco school bond measure

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Voters in Jefferson County narrowly approved a $567 million bond request that will allow the school district to improve its buildings.

Jeffco Measure 5B, the bond request, initially appeared to have failed, even as voters supported Measure 5A, a $33 million mill levy override, a type of local property tax increase, by a comfortable margin. But as late votes continued to be counted between Election Day and today, the gap narrowed — and then the tally flipped.

With all ballots counted — including overseas and military ballots and ballots from voters who had to resolve signature problems — the bond measure had 50.3 percent of the vote and a comfortable 1,500 vote margin.

In 2016, Jeffco voters turned down both a mill levy override and a bond request. Current Superintendent Jason Glass, who was hired after the ballot failure, made efforts in the last year to engage community members who don’t have children in the district on the importance of school funding. This year’s bond request was even larger than the $535 million ask that voters rejected two years ago.

“We are incredibly thankful to our voters and the entire Jeffco community for supporting our schools,” Glass said in a statement. “The 5A and 5B funding will dramatically impact the learning environment for all of our students. Starting this year, we will be able to better serve our students, who in turn will better serve our communities and the world.”

The money will be used to add new classrooms and equip them, improve security at school buildings, and add career and technical education facilities.