Charter reset

Memphis education leaders are liking Tennessee’s charter school bill, despite having little initial input

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
The Tennessee Charter School Center hosted its fifth annual enrollment fair in March in Memphis. Tennessee has 107 charter schools, 71 of which are in Memphis.

Education leaders in Memphis have worked for several years to forge a delicate coalition for addressing thorny challenges that come with having the state’s fastest-growing charter sector.

So some were surprised when the State Department of Education didn’t consult them while working to overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law with a bill now winding through the legislature. Only after the bill was introduced this winter did the state seek input from charter operators, local districts and advocacy groups.

That’s protocol for the State Department, which generally writes bills based on questions and experiences collected over time from districts and schools. “It’s just the way that the administration drafts bills. … They never share bill language until it’s introduced,” spokeswoman Chandler Hopper said last week.

But the process frustrated some Memphis leaders who had no knowledge that sweeping changes were in the works.

“It seemed like someone should have reached out to Shelby County Schools,” said school board member Stephanie Love.

Love and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson first heard about the proposed overhaul in February while visiting the State Capitol to lobby against a school voucher bill in the legislature. Now that she’s reviewed the measure, Love believes the proposal is aligned with the direction of charter policies in the state’s largest district. “There may be some things I don’t like, but I believe it’s workable,” she said.

Members of the 26-member Memphis charter coalition say they’re also fairly pleased with the proposal, and they agree it’s long overdue. It’s also obvious from suggested revisions that state leaders were paying attention to conversations already happening in Shelby County.

Among the bill’s provisions are an annual fee paid by charter operators to local districts to help pay for the sector’s oversight; adopting national standards for reviewing applications; and creating a detailed evaluation and revocation process — all issues that Memphis district and charter leaders have been sorting out with local solutions since they began working together last year.

Luther Mercer, who co-chairs the committee, says it’s time for the state’s law to be fine-tuned as is charter sector grows up and deals with difficult issues such as accountability, funding and facilities.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, co-chairs Shelby County Schools’ charter advisory committee.

“The bill is meant to close loopholes and bring more of a framework for charters and districts to work under,” said Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Tennessee’s charter school law has had few changes since its passage in 2002, but the state’s charter sector has mushroomed to 107 schools, including 71 in Memphis. Nashville has the second-largest pool with 30 schools.

Titled the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act, the bill would give local districts the authorizer fee they have clamored for and would require them to adopt national standards in their processes. In recent months, Memphis operators have shown a willingness to pay that fee, especially as the district’s charter office committed to standards by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Districts also would have to come up with a detailed process for revoking underperforming charter schools and a framework for outlining academic requirements for charter schools. In Memphis, fuzziness over the district’s standards resulted last year in several district-charter battles that were appealed to the State Board of Education. Ultimately, Shelby County Schools won those appeals, but not before members of the State Board chastised the district for its lack of policy clarity. The Memphis coalition has since agreed on a detailed revocation process.

Under the bill, the state must have a similar evaluation system to track achievement gaps between historically underserved student groups, financial management, and student readiness for life after high school.

It also would establish a fund to help charter operators lease or buy and improve deteriorating buildings, which is one of their biggest expenses.

One provision would require local districts to hand over student data to approved charters within 30 days of a request and prohibits those schools from sharing that information with third parties without consent. The provision would address complaints by Memphis charter operators in the state-run Achievement School District, who charged last year that the local district withheld student data that would help them to register students zoned for their schools. It also would give a nod to Shelby County Schools, which accused the state-run district of giving that information over to Memphis Lift, an advocacy group that contacted parents about school performance data.

Brad Leon, whose office oversees charters in Shelby County Schools, declined to comment about the charter school bill. However, others on the committee say the synergy between the proposal and their work in Memphis is encouraging.

“I think it should enhance the work,” said Brittany Monda, executive director Memphis College Prep.

Below is a statement from the Tennessee Department of Education about how it went about getting input from across the state to draft and revise the bill:

“One of our duties at the department is to listen to the issues that are important to the Tennessee education community, and throughout this year we heard from districts, operators, advocates, etc., about the issues that matter most to them, including those involving charter schools in Tennessee.

Based on questions and experiences we have heard from districts and schools over the past few years, and based on vagueness in some provisions of the current charter law, the department drafted a comprehensive charter school bill. After the High-Quality Charter Schools Act was introduced, we sought feedback from a wide group of stakeholders and drafted a new amendment based on that feedback.

To gather feedback, the commissioner held a call that all charter operators and all charter authorizers were invited to join. Additionally, advocacy groups like TOSS, TSBA, Tennessee Charter School Center, TennesseeCAN, and Tennesseans for Student Success provided feedback that we took into consideration. We feel the legislation in its current form reflects the input of all stakeholders and will help strengthen the charter sector in Tennessee.”

Leadership

New principal hired for Denver’s storied Manual High School

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Denver's Manual High School

Manual High School, a storied school in northeast Denver that has struggled academically, finally will have a new principal: Joe Glover, who currently serves as an assistant principal at nearby East High.

Glover will start his new job on Jan. 1, according to a letter from district administrators to Manual students, families, and community members. Glover will take over for an interim principal who is leading the school this fall. The last permanent principal abruptly resigned in March.

This was the second time this year that Denver Public Schools had tried to hire a principal for Manual. Its first attempt ended when the top prospect turned down the job.

Glover was one of two finalists for the position. The other finalist, Douglas Clinkscales, has worked at Manual since 2007 and is currently the assistant principal and athletic director.

Manual serves about 300 students, nearly all of whom are black and Latino and come from low-income families. Though the school’s enrollment is small, its significance is big.

Manual is often held up as one of the most traumatic examples of the district’s strategy of closing low-performing schools and reopening them with a new program in hopes of better outcomes. Manual was closed in 2006 and reopened in 2007. While the school has seen some successes since then, its students have continued to struggle on state tests.

Read Glover’s resume below.

Super Search

Critics see Susana Cordova’s husband’s job as a conflict of interest. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova visits College View Elementary School in 2016.

Since Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova was named the sole finalist for the Denver school district’s top job last week, critics have zeroed in on one fact in particular: Cordova’s husband is a banker who does business with charter schools.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public money but independently run by nonprofit boards of directors. In Colorado, the majority of charters are authorized by school districts — and Denver Public Schools has the most in the state: 60 of its 213 schools are charters.

Charter schools have played a key role in Denver’s approach to school improvement and have sometimes replaced low-performing district-run schools. Cordova worked in and supervised district-run schools during her time with Denver Public Schools, but community members who don’t like charters have raised concerns about her family connection to charter schools.

Cordova’s husband, Eric Duran, is an investment banker for a nationwide financial company called D.A. Davidson, which has an office in Denver. The company describes Duran as “one of the leading investment bankers in the charter school movement,” and says he’s done deals in Pennsylvania, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The deals Duran has done include one in Denver with a charter school called Monarch Montessori, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the far northeast part of the city. In 2015, Monarch Montessori issued $8.8 million in bonds to pay for the construction of five new classrooms, space for a gymnasium and assemblies, and an expanded cafeteria.

An offering document on file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notes that D.A. Davidson was paid an underwriter’s fee of $132,225 as part of the Monarch Montessori deal.

At the time, Cordova held the position of chief schools officer for Denver Public Schools and was responsible for overseeing 165 district-run schools. She did not oversee charter schools or play a role in approving charter schools.

If Cordova is hired as superintendent, D.A. Davidson has said it will not do any business with Denver Public Schools or with any charter schools in Denver during her tenure.

The Monarch Montessori deal was between D.A. Davidson and the charter school’s board of directors; the offering document was signed by one of the school’s founders, who also served as president of its board, and a special education teacher who was on the board.

Denver Public Schools was not involved in the deal. In a statement, the district said it “does not have any financial obligations with the bonds issued by charters,” and district leaders “do not influence the financing decisions by independent charter schools.”

But parents and community members who don’t like charter schools see Duran’s work as evidence that Cordova has personally profited from charter schools, which they argue is a conflict of interest and makes her unfit to be superintendent of the school system. They have raised the issue repeatedly on social media.

Duran’s job was also the subject of a submitted question at a forum Wednesday night related to Cordova’s selection as the sole finalist.

In response, Cordova emphasized that no Denver Public Schools employee — including herself — had anything to do with the 2015 Monarch Montessori deal or with two other deals that other D.A. Davidson bankers have done with Denver charter schools in the past 10 years.

She also said she’s proud of her husband, who grew up poor in Denver, sleeping on the floor of the 800-square-foot apartment he shared with his extended family. After graduating from North High School, she said he got a scholarship to college and went onto a career in finance.

“He’s spent the vast majority of his career working on things like affordable housing, public school finance, hospitals — things that I believe we all believe are important for our communities to be thriving,” said Cordova, who is also a graduate of Denver Public Schools and has worked for the district since 1989. “So I’m incredibly proud of the work he has done.”

Charter school bond deals are actually relatively rare in Denver. The only reason a charter school would issue a bond is if it wanted to build, expand, or repair its own building. But most charter schools in Denver don’t own their own buildings. That’s because the district has been more amenable than most in the entire country to sharing space in its existing buildings with charter schools for a fee, a practice known as co-location.

The Denver school board named Cordova the sole finalist for the superintendent job last week. The board — which governs the entire school district and is separate from charter school boards — is expected to vote Dec. 17 on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.