Future of Schools

Shelby County board expected to close one Memphis school, revoke charter on another

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A boarded-up Orleans Elementary School is among Memphis schools closed since 2012.

In a district plagued by shrinking funding and enrollment, proposals to close schools have become an annual rite of spring for Shelby County Schools, where the school board is again faced with the prospect of shuttering more Memphis campuses.

This spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has recommended closing two more schools at the close of the school year. However, based on discussions during last week’s board work session, the proposed closures appear to be more clear-cut than the emotionally charged closings of past years.

No protest signs were waved and the crowd was light. The work session was held during the district’s spring break week but, even so, board members didn’t dispute recommendations by Hopson’s administration.

The school board is expected on Tuesday evening to approve the closure of Memphis Health Careers Academy and to begin the process of revoking a charter that will close the two campuses of New Consortium for Law and Business. The latter is a district-authorized charter school operated by SMART Schools Inc., and Hopson has recommended for a second straight year that its charter be revoked. Last July, the board voted narrowly to give the operator a one-year reprieve to address complaints of mismanagement.

The board also is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a massive maintenance deferral plan that identifies and prioritizes $476 million in critical facility repairs for the next five years.

Twenty Memphis schools have been shuttered since 2012, including three last year as the cash-strapped district dealt with a $125 million deficit. Hopson announced last week that the district faces an $86 million budget gap next fiscal year, up from an earlier estimate of $72 million, and he is proposing $50 million in cuts.

Beyond the two school closings recommended in a March 22 report, district spokeswoman Kristin Tallent said she was not aware of the school system exploring additional closings this year.

Memphis Health Careers Academy opened in 2008 with a goal of maintaining a 250-student enrollment and equipping students for certification for a career in health-related fields. But the current enrollment is just 74 students, and only three students left the school with any type of certification last school year.

Additionally, the academy achieved a TVAAS growth score of only 2 out of 5 last school year, down from a 4 the previous school year.

“With the Memphis Health Careers Academy, most importantly is that the academic performance is not consistent with its mission,” said Hopson, noting that the school employs 17 educators to teach 74 students. “That’s not, in our judgment, an efficient use of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Shelby County Schools authorized the charter for New Consortium for Law and Business in 2013 as a school of excellence for law and business education. But the school has struggled with enrollment, standardized test scores and teacher turnover. Last year, Hopson recommended closure following a district investigation for multiple violations, including failing to pay its staff for an entire month and enrolling staff illegally in a non-district insurance plan. However, board members were reticent to close the school as a new school year was about to begin, which would have forced parents to scramble to find a new school late in the enrollment process.

“At the time, our board was clear that, if the infractions continued, we would come back in March; we would move forward with the discussion of revoking the charter,” Hopson said.

District leaders say that, since that time, the consortium has continued to violate both state statutes and its charter agreement with Shelby County Schools, including accusations that the school failed to file financial audits for a second consecutive year, listed at least two students as enrolled last year while they were enrolled in other schools, failed to enter student attendance data for the first 48 days of this year, and assigned students to a teacher who did not teach them.

In addition, the school scored only 1 out of 5 in TVAAS growth for both 2014 and 2015, and its academic performance puts it in the bottom 3 percent of all schools in the state, according to district documents.

In an open letter to board members, school founder and executive director Tommie Henderson accused the district of “reckless behavior” and efforts to disrupt school operations. Shelby County Schools “strategically works against our charter school,” Henderson wrote.

Hopson said he “utterly disputes” Henderson’s accusations.

The district has scheduled community meetings next month to guide parents through their options if the closures are approved. Meetings on the consortium are planned for April 7 and April 14, and a meeting on the academy is set for April 12.

The five-year deferred maintenance plan would set priorities through 2021 based on an architectural assessment of district-owned buildings that total 22 million square feet. Roofing repairs alone would cost more than $67 million, fire systems and electronic intercoms warrants another $59 million.

The advanced age of many buildings was an important factor as the assessment found more than $476 million in needed repairs, noting that “many building systems and structure are original … and have far exceeded their life expectancy.” In fact, out of 182 schools in the district, 143 are 40 years or older, the assessment said.

Tennessee is one of 12 states that does not provide state funding toward facility maintenance and construction, according to a new report. The same report estimates the government is spending $46 billion less a year than is needed to ensure students have safe and environmentally sound schools.

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 more than $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).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

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.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

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, the incumbent running in 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 Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 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.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

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 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 the 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.