Future of Schools

Legislative debate brews over ‘parent trigger’ bill

Students leave the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering during state testing week in 2014. The school is on the state's priority list and would be eligible for turnaround initiated by parents if a "parent trigger" bill becomes law through the Tennessee General Assembly.

Andrea Evans is a parent of three children in Nashville and an active member of the PTA at Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School, a public school that’s been placed on the state’s priority list twice because of low test scores.

Her challenge, she says, is that she’s one of the few active members of her school’s PTA, the organization that usually gives voice to parent concerns about education for their children.

When Evans learned from a community organizer about “parent trigger” — a policy that allows parents to instigate a school turnaround — it sounded like just the type of tool that could empower her neighbors to get more involved in their schools.

For the second year, a parent trigger bill is up for debate in the Tennessee legislature. The bill would allow parents at schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools to replace school administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator.

The bill, which would require 51 percent of parents to sign a petition before action is taken, is sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), vocal supporters of school choice options such as charter schools and vouchers.

The Senate Education Committee first saw the bill earlier this month, but delayed a vote after concerns that the percentage of parents required to trigger a school turnaround is too low. That panel is scheduled to see the bill again Wednesday, as is the House Education Instruction and Planning Subcommittee.

Parental empowerment

Parent trigger first surfaced in Tennessee last year when Parent Revolution, a California-based advocacy group that helped pass trigger laws in California and Nevada, set up shop in the state. The bill stalled in House Finance Committee, but Parent Revolution liked their chances in Tennessee and stayed. Advocacy groups StudentsFirstTN and Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) also support the policy.

So far, Parent Revolution has been part of a parent trigger action in six schools across the nation. One became a full-charter school. Another K-8 school hired a charter operator for grades 5-8 and chose to have the school system continue operating grades K-4.

Parent Revolution spokeswoman Adrienne Wallace says parent trigger gives parents more leverage, even when it doesn’t end up with signatures being collected. School officials are more likely to listen to parents, she said, when they know trigger is an option. She cited West Athens Elementary School in Los Angeles, where individual parents repeatedly had gone to the principal with safety concerns, unheeded.

“They said, ‘Look, we want to work with the district. Our goal isn’t to can everyone in the school. We don’t want to do a whole petition campaign, but if that’s what it takes . . .,'” Wallace said. “At that point, the administration sat down with them.”

When parents began organizing, the school addressed their concerns by adding a social worker and school psychologist, without a petition ever circulated.

‘This isn’t California’

Legislators seem warier of the measure this year than last year. Before the bill was delayed in the Senate Education Committee, members and lobbyists debated its merits, giving a preview of conversations to come.

Lee Harrell, lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, spoke against the bill. He said the policy is unnecessary because an elected school board already can implement the options outlined in the bill. He also warned that parents might not take into account reforms already in process, or educators’ job security. For example, one option in the bill would replace the school’s principal and half of its teachers.

“For one sheet of people to say you have to fire half your teachers – that’s very problematic in our opinion,” Harrell said.

Harrell’s point hit home with Sen. Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), who ultimately opposed the bill, despite voting for it last year. “I think that’s presumptuous,” he said. “The teachers might be great teachers.”

Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said he appreciates the bill’s focus on parent involvement, but that sufficient options for failing schools – such as takeover authority by the state’s Achievement School District – have been added in recent years.

“I want the parents to be involved, I just don’t know at this time in Tennessee. This isn’t California, it’s Tennessee,” he said.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Kelsey said the bill is necessary because administrators and board members often don’t respond to the concerns of parents – a charge that Harrell took issue with. Harrell noted that, if 51 percent of a school’s parents demanded a change, school boards would take note, even without a parent trigger law.

Evans says it’s vital that Tennessee parents — especially in communities like hers — be more empowered. If they have more options to intercede in behalf of a struggling school, she believes parents will get more involved, which could transform her community.

Parent voice is what’s missing, she said, from other reforms being tried in Tennessee. “The only way any of it’s going to work is if parents are involved,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This updated story CORRECTS the 4th paragraph in the previous version to show that the bill would allow parents at schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools to replace school administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator; NOT to close the school.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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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.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”