Charter Schools

Public will weigh in as district recommends closing one charter school, renewing three

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
City University Schools founder and chancellor R. Lemoyne Robinson stands outside the school on June 1, 2015.

Update Nov. 30: The hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4 at the school board auditorium, 160 S. Hollywood St.

Shelby County Schools is recommending a vote to close City University Boys Preparatory. But Memphis school board members want to give school leaders and the public a chance to weigh in before they decide whether or not to shutter the 10-year-old charter school.

This is the school board’s first review of charter school renewals, which happens every 10 years. District officials are also recommending the extension of contracts for City University Liberal Arts High School, Freedom Prep and STAR Academy — all charters in Memphis.

This isn’t the first time City University’s school for boys has been in danger of closing. Back in 2015, the district threatened to shut it down for low academic performance, but ultimately gave the middle school another chance. If the board votes with the district’s recommendation, its students will need to find a new school at the end of the school year. City University currently serves 88 students in grades 6 to 8.

A hearing is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 11, but Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, along with some board members, want to fast-track the process so parents have more time to find another school if the board affirms the recommendation. According to state law, the board needs to vote by Feb. 1, but Hopson is suggesting a final decision before winter break, which begins Dec. 20.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management, during a meeting with charter leaders.

“We’re starting as early as possible so parents can know what situation they will find themselves in,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management.

The hearing is in step with a two-year effort to mend relationships between charter and district leaders. The recommendations from discussions between the two entities are still being finalized in district policy. Board member Miska Clay Bibbs said it was clear during those meetings charter school leaders wanted an “opportunity to be heard,” and to dispute decisions they oppose.

Leon said the district graded the four schools up for renewal or revocation on their academic performance, facilities, and financial health over the past decade. His team started collecting data and information from the schools in 2017 and conducted site visits to gather on-the-ground observations.

City University Prep fell short on student achievement and growth, Leon said, noting renewing the charter would not be “a wise investment or in the best interest of students.”

“In many ways, past performance can predict future performance,” he said. “If it was likely this school could have turned a corner, we would have seen it by now.”

By contrast, Freedom Prep, City University Liberal Arts High School, and STAR Academy have shown adequate academic progress, Leon said. For STAR Academy, that means district leaders believe the K-5 school merits adding sixth grade to its offerings.

On the last round of state tests, 12.3 percent of students at the City University middle school scored at grade level in English and 9.2 percent scored at grade level in math. Over the course of its history, City University achieved its highest scores during the 2014-15 school year, with 31.8 percent and 25.8 percent scoring at grade level in English and math, respectively. Districtwide, 23.9 percent of students were at grade level in English and 28.6 percent were at grade level in math last year.

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.


A new proposal aims to ratchet up oversight of Indiana’s most troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

Indiana lawmakers quietly took an initial step Wednesday that could eventually lead to the closures of the state’s most troubled virtual charter schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

A provision to stop school districts from overseeing statewide virtual charter schools was tucked into a widely supported proposal to require students and their families to take an annual orientation before they can enroll in an online school. The bill passed the House Education Committee by an 8-0 vote and will be sent to the full House for consideration.

The move would prevent Daleville Community Schools, the oversight agency for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, from renewing those charters. Indiana Virtual School’s charter agreement runs through the 2020 school year. Daleville has not publicly posted the charter for Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which opened in 2017, so it is unclear when it expires.

If the two virtual charter schools were to remain open after their charters expire, the bill would require them to seek what education leaders hope would be a stronger oversight agency — a statewide charter authority such as the Indiana Charter School Board or Ball State University.

Bill author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he was “trying to do more than engagement, and improve the performance of our virtual charter schools.” He has previously told Chalkbeat that he does not think school districts should oversee large, statewide virtual charter schools.

Read more: Why Indiana education officials want to stop this school district from overseeing online schools

Daleville schools superintendent Paul Garrison attended the committee hearing and testified in favor of the orientation requirement — his suggestion to make the onboarding process an annual requirement was added to the proposal — but he did not address the authorizing provision. Chalkbeat was unable to reach Garrison or Indiana Virtual School Superintendent Percy Clark for further comment.

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy have in recent years had some of the lowest graduation rates in the state. In 2018, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy graduated just 2 percent of its 1,009 seniors, and it also failed to test enough of its students to receive an A-F letter grade from the state, Chalkbeat found.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation showed that as Indiana Virtual School ballooned in size and posted dismal academic results, it had business ties that stood to financially benefit its founder.

Despite receiving $1 million in fees last year to oversee Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, education officials have raised concerns that Daleville is not holding the schools accountable.

“They’ve done a terrible job, and it would be my strong preference that they not be protected any further for their atrocious performance,” Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry has said.

Chalkbeat’s investigations and the continual low performance of virtual charter schools prompted the state board to recommend stricter regulations, including strengthening the oversight of online schools and improving engagement efforts with students.

Read more: Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

The authorizing provision also seeks to stop other school districts from following in Daleville’s footsteps, closing what some see as a loophole in Indiana law. School districts are only allowed to authorize charter schools within their boundaries, but they are not expressly prohibited from overseeing virtual charter schools.

Last summer, a Chalkbeat investigation examined an agricultural school that sought to open as a full-time virtual charter school overseen by the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district. But state officials warned the district that they believed it did not have the authority to oversee a statewide virtual charter school, and Indiana Agriculture and Technology School backed off its plans, opening instead as a blended school offering half of its instruction online and half in-person.

challenging the charters

Illinois requests $1.5 million in interest-free loans for charter school fund

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

At its first meeting since the inauguration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois State Board of Education on Monday agreed to ask the state for $1.5 million in interest-free loans for charter school facilities and classroom technology.

The board included the funding in its $19.3 billion preliminary recommendation for public education in the fiscal year starting July, $7.2 billion more than this year’s budget. The final recommendation will be made in February and heads to the governor and General Assembly for approval.

In his first speech after taking the oath as Illinois governor, Pritzker made few concrete promises on education, focusing instead on the task of balancing the Illinois budget, overhauling the state tax code, and finding new revenue. As a candidate, he had pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion.

In coming months, Pritzker will have the chance to replace several members of the State Board of Education whose terms are expiring. That could impact the board’s approval of charter-related budget items, as well as herald a new direction on controversial charter-related legislation like the state charter commission, which can approve charters rejected at the district level.  

The state’s Charter School Revolving Loan Fund grew under former governor Bruce Rauner, who sought to promote charter schools.

Unlike some other states, Illinois doesn’t provide funding for charter school facilities, and neither do most districts. That means charters must acquire facilities funding through bonds or other financial deals.

The state created the fund to help build, acquire and improve charter classrooms, and to provide supplies, textbooks and other equipment. Schools could apply for up to $250 per student in funding.

In 2016, the legislature increased the per-pupil loan amount to $750 per student, despite objections from some legislators.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, which drafted the 2016 bill that increased per-pupil funding through the loans, said he was pleased the draft budget includes more money for the fund, but that $1.5 million doesn’t meet the needs of charters when local districts don’t fund facilities facilities.

“Charters have huge facilities needs in the state, and $1.5 million doesn’t even scratch the surface,” Broy said.

Broy noted that because the fund was revolving, any loans that charters received were paid back directly into the fund.

But Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a national group that advocates for public schools, criticized the fund for funneling public money to the independently operated charter schools.

“Before the state goes ahead and uses taxpayer dollars to pour into another fund to start up new charters, it’s really important that there be a careful accounting of what happened in the past,” said Burris. “I would hope that under the new governor, Illinois would put a pause button on this.”