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.

First Person

We’re college counselors in Chicago. We want our district to stop steering students to colleges where they probably won’t graduate.

Chicago Public Schools recently unveiled personalized “College Readiness Guides” for high school sophomores and juniors. The district hopes the reports will help continue to boost high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Andrew Johnson

As college and career advisors at Chicago high schools, we hope the guides will help, but we’re less optimistic. Some critical blind spots might make them a significant missed opportunity.

Ryan Kinney

For one, there are a number of data problems in these new reports. Student grade point averages and number of credits earned are eight months out of date — a period long enough for high schoolers to get off track or regain momentum. The reports also don’t account for whether students have even had the opportunity to meet some of the graduation requirements yet, unwittingly creating the impression that some of our students are off track when they may be doing just fine.

But perhaps the most glaring omission is not about students’ current performance, but about the success rates of the colleges they are on track to attend.

Students examining the reports will see the names of several dozen colleges color-coded according to whether each school, based on their GPAs and test scores, should be considered a “match,” a “reach,” or “unlikely.” That tells students what schools they could go to, but by itself is little help for determining which colleges a students should go to. The missing ingredient is specific guidance about identifying and comparing the colleges’ graduation rates.

Read more about Chicago’s new “College Readiness Guides.”

The significance of considering institutional graduation rates in college advising was cemented by groundbreaking research from the University of Chicago in 2008, and CPS has been wise to partner with the University’s school research arm ever since. This partnership makes it all the more surprising that the new reports fail to capitalize on the researchers’ key finding: Regardless of high school GPA, students graduate from college at higher rates when they attend more selective institutions. In other words, generally speaking, the harder it is to gain admission to a school, the more likely students are to succeed there.

So the absence of colleges’ graduation rates on CPS’s new reports represents a troubling missed opportunity. Graduates of Chicago Public Schools have been enrolling in college at increasing rates over the last decade, but there hasn’t been a meaningful increase in students’ college graduation rates since at least 2011. A powerful response to this phenomenon would be to examine more closely where CPS graduates have been enrolling, to identify colleges where our students have been less successful and where they might continue to be less successful in the future. Instead, the reports replicate the list of CPS graduates’ recent college destinations, threatening to reproduce the pattern of college enrollment without graduation.

Meanwhile, the guides place such a wide range of colleges in a student’s “match” category that they obscure the meaning of the concept. A “match” in college counseling refers to a college that is appropriately selective given a student’s academic profile. It helps a student distinguish what’s possible, but also, just as crucially, what might be ill-advised.

Yet the district’s new report often lumps together both the University of Illinois at Chicago and, for example, Harold Washington College, as “matches.” This implies that the two schools might be roughly equivalent options. Yet most college access professionals could quickly tell you that UIC admits students with an average GPA of 3.25 and has a six-year graduation rate of 58 percent, just under the national average. Harold Washington College, on the other hand, requires entering students only to have a high school diploma, and its students graduate at a rate of 18 percent.

For most students who qualify for UIC, then, it could be critical to their success to see Harold Washington as being not a “match” but an “undermatch” — a school less selective than they should aspire to. And while students and families may ultimately have valid reasons for choosing either one of these institutions, a conversation about graduation rates is critical.

Such an absence also explains why the report can list obviously high-risk opportunities like Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis as a “match” for almost every student receiving this report. While this institution reports an average GPA for incoming students of 2.69, it also maintains the dubious honor of a graduation rate of 5.6 percent. The presence of this college’s name on a district publication, and its accompanying label of “match,” clearly suggests that CPS thinks that Harris-Stowe can be an appropriate destination for our students. Given the price and the risk involved, we would never recommend such a school to our students.

The nonchalance with which CPS has presented 40,000 students with a troublesome list of college options is disappointing. While much productive work has been spent over the years in supporting our students’ college enrollment, it is clear that we must pay more attention to where we are helping students enroll than ever before. We know the district can do better, and we hope it will.

Andrew Johnson is a National Board-certified social sciences teacher. Ryan Kinney is a professional school counselor who has previously served as a CPS master counselor. Both are credentialed college and career access advisors at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park.

Piece of the pie

Colorado bill would take back money from state-authorized charter schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs

A bill introduced in the Colorado House this week would take back money set aside for state-authorized charter schools and return it to the general fund, where it would be available for any purpose.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat and former Poudre School District board member, would repeal one portion of a key compromise from the 2017 legislative session.

That bill required school districts to share money from mill levy overrides, a kind of local property tax increase, with charter schools that they had authorized. It also said that the legislature should set aside state money for schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, a state entity, to serve as the equivalent of that mill levy money. This money is on top of the base per-pupil funding that goes to all schools, much of it provided by state dollars.

This new proposal doesn’t affect charters that are authorized by districts, which would still be required to share additional local property tax money. But it does away with the fund within the state budget that provides extra money to state-authorized schools.

The Charter School Institute oversees 39 schools serving more than 18,000 students.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get traction. Kipp is the sole sponsor right now, and charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support at the Capitol in the past. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the founder of the New America charter network, which has schools authorized by the Charter School Institute as well as by local districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run nonprofit organizations. Opponents see them as siphoning students and money from traditional, district-run schools, while proponents argue they provide much needed diversity of school types within the public system and with that, options for parents and students.

The 2017 legislation passed with bipartisan support but divided Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. This is the first legislation of the 2019 session to attempt to roll back gains made by charter schools under previously divided state government.

The 2018-19 Colorado budget includes $5.5 million, roughly $300 per student, for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local mill levy money they don’t get, and the proposed 2019-20 budget calls for that to almost double to $10.5 million. “Fully funding” the charter institute schools — meaning providing them the equivalent of what they would get from local property taxes if they were authorized by their districts — would cost $29.7 million.

Kipp said that with education funding tight, the state cannot afford to share with charters. She calls the plan to spend state money to make up for local property tax revenue “taxation without representation.” Mill levy overrides are approved by voters in those school districts, while there is no equivalent special tax approved statewide to help charter institute schools — or any Colorado schools, for that matter.

“You have a person who has never voted for a mill levy override, and their school may be drowning, and their tax dollars are going to another district,” she said.

Mill levy overrides, which can amount to thousands of dollars per student, provide important supplemental funding in districts where voters agree, but they’re also a major contributor to inequity in Colorado school finance. In the case of charter schools, the 2017 legislation means district-authorized schools benefit from those dollars, and state-authorized schools get some extra money from the state.

But district schools in places where voters have turned down requests for additional property taxes don’t get any additional money, even as the state continues to withhold money from schools under the budget stabilization factor.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, calls the bill “very disappointing.” The extra state money, known as the mill levy equalization fund, represents a fraction of the money that charter schools would get if they had district authorization and access to mill levy overrides. It’s also a tiny fraction of the more than $7 billion that Colorado spends on K-12 education.

“We’re starting from way behind on funding equity,” she said. “To say that any charter is getting more than their share is just inaccurate. We still have a long way to go.”

Lewis sees the taxation question differently than Kipp. Parents are paying higher property taxes to support their district schools, while their children in charter schools don’t see the benefit. Meanwhile, charter schools have to pay for their buildings out of operating costs, meaning they have less money for teacher salaries and other educational needs.

At Mountain Song Community School, a 300-student Waldorf charter school in Colorado Springs, the extra $300 per student has allowed the school to hire an additional special education teacher and classroom aides to better serve students with disabilities.

“Our costs are rising rapidly because more and more severe needs students are coming to our schools,” said Teresa Woods, principal at Mountain Song. “Districts have economies of scale. As a single school, we’re doing the work that a district would do to meet our students’ needs, but we don’t have any resources to pool.”

“If the mill levy funds were cut, it would definitely cut into our ability to meet the needs of all our students, and we’re mandated by law to serve those students, including severe needs students,” she added.

At the Thomas MacLaren School, another Colorado Springs institute-authorized charter school serving roughly 800 students, administrators have treated the mill levy equalization money as one-time funds and used them for building upgrades, but if that money were reliable each year, the school would raise teacher salaries, which lag far behind those in the surrounding school district, Executive Director Mary Faith Hall said.

The Colorado Early College network, serving more than 2,900 students on campuses in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, and Fort Collins, has used the additional money to provide bus transportation, to increase teacher salaries, and to cover some tuition, books, and fees for college courses. The early college model helps students earn college credit while still in high school, with many students graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

“The CEC Network of schools would be devastated to lose this funding” Chief Executive Administrator Sandi Brown wrote in an email.

Kipp said these financial challenges don’t mean the state should kick in more money than it does for district-run and district-authorized schools. These issues are embedded in the charter school model, she said, and it’s not the state’s job to solve them.

“Charter schools have always said they can do better for cheaper,” Kipp said. “So do better for cheaper, and don’t ask for disproportionate share.”