gates grants

In latest move, Gates Foundation looks to help — and learn from — charters serving students with disabilities

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s new charter school strategy is taking shape.

The foundation has made four grants in recent months focused on helping charter schools better serve students with disabilities. That’s one of the ways Bill Gates said last fall that the influential foundation would focus its education giving over the next five years, along with efforts to grow networks of schools and improve curriculum. (The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

The foundation hasn’t made a public announcement of the new investments, but its website lists four groups that have been awarded money for the work.

Last month, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools was granted nearly $1.2 million “to elevate policy-advocacy for students with disabilities in charter schools.” The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools got $300,000 “to support national charter policy-advocacy on growth, quality and special education integration.” And the National Center for Learning Disabilities netted $700,000 “to help build an evidence base for supporting students with disabilities.”

In July, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington, won more than $1.2 million “to identify the instructional, curricular, organizational, cultural, and policy conditions associated with effective delivery of special education in charter schools.”

The four grants amount to a relatively modest total of about $3.4 million. Gates, the biggest philanthropic funder of education in the country, said last year that the foundation planned to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years on U.S. education, about 15 percent of which would go to charter school efforts.

“We are investing in charters initially for this work because we believe they have the autonomy and flexibility to innovate; and because we acknowledge that research shows that historically charter schools have underserved students with disabilities, in terms of numbers and levels of support,” Gates deputy director Don Shalvey said in a statement.

A 2013 national study showed that 8 percent of charter school students qualified for special education services, but 11 percent of students in nearby district schools did. It’s not entirely clear why the difference exists; critics argue that charter schools are more likely to push needy students out or not enroll them in the first place, while some charter officials say it reflects their decision not to unnecessarily label students who need extra academic help.

One New York City-focused study found that the special education gap in elementary school was because fewer disabled students applied to charters and fewer charter students were classified as disabled, not because special education students left charters at a higher rate. Nationally, charter schools suspend students with disabilities more frequently than traditional public schools. Other research on this question is fairly limited.

Shalvey said the goal of the grants is to review “what has worked in the past,” including in charter schools that are successfully serving students with disabilities, and “produce the knowledge that will help us scale beyond the initial group of charter schools.” Additional grants will be announced in the coming months, according to the foundation.

Gates has given money to other charter school efforts in recent months as well: The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition netted nearly $530,000, and the foundation is spending $9.8 million to help construct a Green Dot charter high school in south Seattle. The City Fund, a new group founded by a collection of education leaders who support the “portfolio model,” received $10 million for work in Oakland; in other cities, this approach has meant the expansion of charter schools.

Outside of charter schools, Gates has made a number of $90,000 grants to help school districts with college advising.

Nope

Tennessee sides with Memphis and Nashville boards in rejecting four new charter schools

Members of Tennessee's State Board of Education listen to recommendations on charter school appeals during their two-day meeting in Cookeville.

Pitches by four charter groups to open new schools in Memphis and Nashville fell short on Friday as Tennessee’s State Board of Education affirmed the decisions of local school boards to reject their applications.

Voting with recommendations from its staff, the State Board unanimously denied the appeals based on shortcomings in the groups’ plans for academics, operations, or finances.

Among those denied were appeals involving two out-of-state networks. California-based Aspire was seeking to open a middle school in Memphis, and ReThink Forward had hoped to launch a K-8 school in Nashville through a partnership between Florida-based Noble Education Initiative and Trevecca Nazarene University, which is in Nashville.

The other appeals were filed by Memphis-based Capstone Education Group, which already runs three local schools under the state-run Achievement School District, and Avodah International, a new Memphis group seeking to open a high school in the city’s south side.

Tennessee has sought to raise the bar for its charter sector under a recently revised state law and a new school improvement plan in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In Memphis next spring, seven charter schools are set to close for landing in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s newest list of priority schools.

“We do care deeply about having the best schools in front of our children. … We believe charter schools can be a great option,” said Chairwoman Lillian Hartgrove after the board’s vote. “But by the same token, we have our process, and it’s a very thorough process to ensure that we’re approving charters that should be approved, and not approving charters that should not.”

The appeals were filed after school boards in Shelby and Davidson counties voted down the groups’ applications in August.

Under Tennessee law, the state board can overrule a local body if it deems the decision contrary to the best interests of students, the school district, or the community — and can even oversee the school itself if the local district still declines to work with the charter operator.

But the state board’s staff found all four appeals lacking based on their reviews and public hearings.

Memphis-based Capstone came closest to meeting all the criteria, but its glaring weakness was not identifying a neighborhood or location for its proposed school, said Tess Stovall, director of charter schools for the state board.

Capstone will heed that advice when it submits another application next year, said Executive Director Drew Sippel, whose organization was trying to place the school where it would be needed most based on the latest school closings within Shelby County Schools.

“I think our servant-hearted approach actually became an impediment to our approval as an operator. The next time, we’ll pick a neighborhood well in advance,” Sippel told Chalkbeat after the vote.

The application by ReThink Forward, a group chaired by Trevecca President Dan Boone, was the only one submitted this year to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. While partnering network NEI already operates seven schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida, the state’s staff graded their proposal short in all criteria.

This was the fourth year that the Nashville district has shied away from charters. Since 2015, that school board has approved only one application.

By contrast, the charter sector has grown steadily in Memphis and Shelby County since Tennessee opened the door to nonprofit charter schools beginning in 2003. In August, Shelby County’s school board approved nine more charters for next fall, including the six Compass Community Schools that will replace the soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Once those open, Shelby County Schools will have 63 charters — by far the most in the state.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”