turnabout

Signaling waning enthusiasm for charters, Chicago officials move to deny all new applications

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
The operators behind Moving Everest, a charter school in Austin, wanted to open a second campus in 2019, but Chicago leaders are moving to deny that proposal.

Chicago Public Schools is recommending that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide that is making the city appear less hospitable to the independently operated public schools.

CEO Janice Jackson recommended in a news release Monday closing two underperforming charter schools, Kwame Nkrumah Charter School in West Roseland and Urban Prep West in University Village, both for poor academic and financial performance.

“The recommendations made today follow comprehensive reviews of school performance, applicant quality and need,” Jackson wrote in the statement, “and we believe it is in the best interest of our students to deny all new school applications this year and close the two poor performing charters who have failed to provide students the quality education they deserve.”

The surprising recommendation comes just weeks after the state elected a new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, who said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters. The issue has also surfaced in Chicago’s mayoral race, with candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declaring last month in a union-sponsored forum that she did not support opening new charters. Other candidates who attended the event did not say where they stand.

Eight charter operators had originally submitted proposals to open next school year, but five later withdrew. The three proposals left on the table included a charter middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood called Kemet Leadership Academy; a citywide high school operated by the established management group Intrinsic; and an elementary campus in Austin run by a small operator called Moving Everest. Moving Everest currently operates one other school in Austin.

At least two of the groups, the nonprofit organizers behind the Kemet proposal and the executive director of Moving Everest, said they plan to appeal the district’s decision to the state charter commission, which has the authority to reverse school board decisions in charter cases but rarely does so.

Political momentum has gathered to curb the authority of the commission, but legislators have not been able to gather enough votes.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” said Michael Rogers, the founder and executive director of Moving Everest, who said he was not surprised by the decision. “I know CPS well through the whole process at this school, and I think they look at what they are doing with an objective eye. But I also think there are other forces that come into play. Politics plays such a huge role in this, that it becomes the easy route, or the safe route, to deny.”

District staff recommended denying the Moving Everest proposal because district officials visiting the operator’s current campus found results “insufficient” and doubted the program’s ability to serve English language learners. That campus, which serves 444 students, is rated a Level 2-plus. The highest rating in Chicago schools is a 1-plus.

Donnie Brown, a project manager with Kemet Academy’s operator, Project Simeon 2000, said that Chicago has opened up new schools, including charters, in recent years, but they “have not impacted black boys and their grad rates and made any significant differences.”

The school district’s release said the Kemet proposal should be denied because the proposed curriculum “is incomplete and unproven” and the applicant had not “developed a clear instructional approach.” The recommendation also raised concerns about leadership capacity and finances. Project Simeon 2000 leaders appeared at board meetings earlier this year to make passionate pleas for their project.

Brown told Chalkbeat that parts of Kemet’s curriculum come from area colleges and universities: an accelerated literacy program developed with the University of Illinois and a math program from professors at Chicago State University. The model also stresses the value of male teachers and mentoring for improving outcomes for at-risk Chicago boys.

“Our model is to keep kids engaged and change the paradigm for success,” said Brown, who said he believes the model apparently challenged district thinking, since it was not something you can “pick up off the shelf and put in place.”

“We feel like all the pieces are in place, and we are ready to go,” he added. 

In a release, the district said location problems and an inability to to meet a need for high-quality education contributed to the recommendation against Intrinsic.

Enrollment has plunged in Chicago schools in recent years, and the district started the school year with 10,000 fewer students than the previous year.

In more frank language than usual, the district’s release Monday said that concerns about finances led to its recommendation to close Urban Prep West and Kwame Nkrumah.

The district cited Kwame Nkrumah’s Level 3 status — that’s the lowest rating in the district — for two years, financial and operational concerns and the school’s failure to follow a mandatory improvement plan.

“Additionally, the district’s site visits suggest that the school lacks the capacity to provide students a high quality education, and higher quality school options exist for students in the community.”

The district cited “financial concerns” as the reason why it was recommending the revocation of Urban Prep West’s charter. The school, which serves 213 students and is rated a Level 2, had not been able to get off its academic warning list, the release also said.

Its operator, Urban Prep, has garnered attention for its approach to education for young black men and runs two other campuses in the city that are also rated Level 2. But during a site visit to the University Village campus, the release said, “the school did not demonstrate a capacity to deliver a high quality education to students.”

This school year, the Chicago district oversees 142 non-traditional campuses, either charter, contract or option schools.

In October, Chicago issued warnings to five other charter schools and one contract school tagged as underperforming. The district announced Monday it will keep the contract school, Plato Learning Academy in South Austin, open next school year and will review it again next fall. This year, Plato merged two campuses in an effort to centralize operations.

The district believes it is appropriate to provide the school an opportunity to demonstrate significant progress under its new structure before it is considered for potential closure,” the release said.     

The Board of Education is set to vote on the recommendations Wednesday.

Yana Kunichoff contributed reporting to this story.

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:



Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

charter activism

Acero strike pushes charters to the front of the education labor movement

Teachers protest Acero Schools Veterans Memorial School Campus on Dec. 4, 2018.

When Christian Herr saw in a news alert earlier this month that Acero charter teachers in Chicago had gone on strike, he felt a mixture of admiration and pride.

“I was just really excited, especially for a lot of the things they were specifically asking for,” Herr said.

Herr is a science teacher at Chavez Prep Middle School, the first charter to unionize, in Washington, D.C. The demands of Acero teachers felt in line with what he hoped his union would bring — protections for undocumented students, a shorter school year, and better pay.

The nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers, when some 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job earlier this month, reverberated across the country. It grabbed the attention of charter teachers like Herr and their employers, as well as of the broader education community that may have regarded charters as on the fringes of their interests — until now.

Herr, whose union like Acero’s is associated with the American Federation of Teachers, said, “I am proud that we are both part of the same national group.”

National labor experts, union officials and charter teachers say the impact of the strike won’t hit the industry immediately — but when it comes, it could be big.

“I think it’s historic,” said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K–12 equity and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank aimed at reducing inequality. “I think this strike could be pivotal in expanding a movement that right now is small but has the potential to grow a great deal.”

The charter strike could link two disparate, and sometimes hostile, groups:  teachers at publicly run schools and those in charter schools. The strike also could portend changes for the charter sector itself and the future of unions more broadly.

Experts estimate that 10 percent of charter schools are unionized. The American Federation of Teachers represents 7,500 charter school employees at 236 schools in 15 states. Chicago has the highest proportion of charters with union contracts, at 25 percent, but Los Angeles has more union teachers at charters.

Acero teachers succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day, in part because as private employees they could legally bargain over more topics.

That win, said Steven Ashby, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, could go a long way to convince other charter teachers that unionizing could help solve problems in their classroom.

“More charter teachers may strongly consider organizing after seeing what a short strike can get them,” Ashby said. “For those that are already unionized, I think they may be less likely to take tiny, incremental change, and instead look at the example of Chicago and say: Look, we can really win.”

Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, agreed.

“It seems like a very good signal for other charter schools that if they were to unionize, they would be able to get the outcomes they want,” Strunk said. “It’s a bellwether moment where this could spawn consecutive striking situations by other unionized charters.”

But efforts to unionize charter teachers still face challenges. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that labor unions could no longer collect fees from employees on whose behalf they negotiate, but who haven’t joined the union as full members.

Janus dealt a blow to public-sector unions. But unionizing charter school teachers could be a way for unions, like the Chicago Teachers Union, to continue to build a membership base.

Henig says that means they need to continue to attract members who think they have something to win. “A more militant union in some ways may be a more exciting one to attract members,” he said.

But what about the traditional approach of bodies, like the Chicago Teacher Union, as charter skeptics?

Strunk said unions that have been anti-charter would have to walk a fine line to walk when unionizing charter schools.

But, she said, it’s also possible that with more teacher input spelled out in stronger contracts, charter schools may become better for students.

“Unions’ reasoning has been that charters are not good for kids for many reasons,” Strunk said. “If now they can bring charters into the fold and create union contracts that resemble the traditional contracts they’ve negotiated, they might feel differently about the benefits these schools will have for kids.”

The strike also highlighted the similarities in contract demands of charter teachers and educators at district-run schools — about class size, budget cuts and workloads.

“Even though they are operating in two different systems that in some ways have been designed to bang heads with one another, the key issues that teachers face are often pretty similar,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political education at Columbia University.

Kahlenberg sees the precedent-setting strike harkening back to the original ideas around charter schools sketched by Albert Shanker, considered one of the original visionaries of charters, as laboratories where new ideas in education could be tested and teachers would have more input.

“Shanker very much wanted charter schools  to be a place where teachers had a greater voice in how schools are run,” he said. “I think we are coming full circle back to Al Shanker’s vision, in this case through the use of a strike.”

In Chicago, the effects of the strike could be felt sooner rather than later. The Chicago Teachers Union is actively negotiating 10 contracts at charter networks, two for the first time.

And teachers at the Noble Network who unsuccessfully have tried to unionize for several years and whose founder recently resigned after allegations of improper conduct with alumni, watched the Acero strike closely.

“Educators at Noble have been talking about it with their colleagues,” said Casey Sweeney, lead organizer with Chicago ACTS, which has unionized charter schools and is under the umbrella of the Chicago and the state- and national-level teachers unions.

“It would have been hard to imagine a charter strike when the Acero union was first certified” about five years ago, Sweeney said. “But it has made me incredibly hopeful for what is possible, for educators at Noble, to win.”