school closures

Memphis board votes to close City University Boys Preparatory charter school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
About 40 parents, students, and supporters of City University Boys Preparatory asked the Shelby County Schools board to keep the school open.

After 10 years, City University Boys Preparatory will close at the end of the academic year.

Shelby County Schools recommended closure of the middle school in Whitehaven following a scheduled evaluation to determine if the district should renew its 10-year charter.

“Kids were regressing at City University Boys Preparatory,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management. “Students were getting further and further behind.”

There were three other charters up for renewal, including a high school in City University’s network. But their academic performance merited a recommendation to stay open, Leon said.

The school board’s 6-3 vote Tuesday wraps up the only evaluation of charter schools eligible for renewal under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s leadership before he leaves in January. Board members Stephanie Love, Miska Clay Bibbs, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman voted to keep the school open.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lemoyne Robinson, chancellor of City University charter schools.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon to review the recommendation, Lemoyne Robinson, the charter network’s chancellor, said poor test scores were caused in part by the district defaulting on promised academic interventions and resources that he said were part of an annual fee the school paid to the district.

“When given what they needed, and what they’re promised, and what they paid for, they excelled,” Robinson told school board members.

Robinson said after the hearing that the former Memphis City Schools under Superintendent Kriner Cash provided access to several data management systems, a practice standardized test, and curriculum support for teachers.

But district leaders said there was no record of a contract that outlined those resources. And even if there were, “because of the autonomy charter schools have, this district has never had the philosophy or extended the opportunity to provide academic interventions to charter schools,” said Bill White, the district’s chief of planning and accountability.

Robinson also cited issues with the online rollout of the state’s standardized test, and relied heavily on evidence of the district’s own opposition of using the scores to make high-stakes decisions. But middle school students at City University in Memphis have taken state tests on paper, not online.

Charter schools are private organizations funded by public dollars that were created to give those nonprofits more control over teacher employment, curriculum, and school operations compared with district-run schools. In exchange for the extra autonomy, charter schools have more oversight by the local district.

About 40 parents, students, and school supporters came to the hearing urging board members to keep the school open.

“The experience at City is unlike any other school that I’ve been to,” said Malcolm King, who is a senior at the network’s high school and graduated from the middle school. He cited $750,000 in college scholarships and enrollment in two dual enrollment classes as proof of the school’s ability to prepare students.

“I would hate to see all the work go to waste,” he said.

Enrollment at the City University middle school for boys had reached its peak of 121 in 2012, but lost about a third of its students in 2014. By August, just 88 students had enrolled. Test scores had put the school in danger of closing in 2015 and also of appearing on the state’s priority list for the bottom 5 percent of schools. By state law, any charter school on that list must be have its charter revoked by the local district.

On the last round of state tests, 12 percent of students at the school scored at grade level in English and 9 percent scored at grade level in math, which was better than previous years and helped the school’s score in the district’s evaluation, Leon said.

Over the course of its history, the school achieved its highest scores during the 2014-15 school year, with 32 percent and 26 percent scoring at grade level in English and math, respectively. That’s when Robinson said his charter network chose to pay for resources he said he was denied after the city and county school systems merged in 2013.

Only four charter schools in Shelby County Schools performed more poorly than City University’s school for boys, Leon said.

That data spanning 10 years prompted district leaders to recommend charter revocation because it’s unlikely the school will significantly improve if allowed to stay open, Leon said. For comparison, 24 percent of students districtwide last year were at grade level in English and 29 percent were at grade level in math.

Eddie Jones and former district teacher Edmund Ford Jr, who are county commissioners that provide local funding for the district, came before the board to support the school.

“Almost four of the 10 years, you really couldn’t count their scores,” said Eddie Jones, whose district includes the middle school. “One [year] the state said throw it out. You had one with technical difficulties, and one you could not use.”

He added that if the board voted to close the charter school, it could set a precedent for the state to use the same test scores to close district-run schools.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.