‘endrew f.’ plaintiffs speak out

Parents of Colorado student to Betsy DeVos: We are not a ‘poster child’ for your school choice agenda

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat
Betsy DeVos, center, at Denver's Firefly Autism House.

Jennifer and Joe, a Douglas County couple whose teenage son attends a private school for students with autism, don’t want to be portrayed as a school choice success story.

But that’s exactly how they feel they were represented during a high-profile visit to the Denver school this fall by the nation’s top education official, Betsy DeVos.

The U.S. secretary of education, known for her support of charter schools and private school vouchers, didn’t name the Douglas County couple during her September speech to reporters, parents and school staff. But she talked about the landmark special education case they’d brought against their suburban Denver school district — the same district embroiled in a separate court battle over its plan to offer private school vouchers.

She described how the couple had pulled their son Endrew out of public school and placed him at Firefly Autism House, where he’d thrived.

“The district essentially dared them to sue, so they did and they won,” DeVos told the audience. “Endrew’s parents showed courage in rejecting the low bar set for their son.”

DeVos never mentioned vouchers directly, but her plug for school choice — with Joe, Jennifer and their son Endrew as protagonists — was clear.

“Every family should have that ability to choose the learning environment that’s right for their child,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”

Jennifer and Joe, who asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy, said in an interview with Chalkbeat that DeVos used their case to further her school choice agenda.

“To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe said.

“It was a little disappointing,” Jennifer said. “She picked the parts that she liked and used them for what she wanted.”

Liz Hill, U.S. Department of Education press secretary, responded via email to a request for DeVos’s response to Jennifer and Joe’s concerns.

She wrote, “Secretary DeVos appreciates and admires the courageous commitment Endrew F’s parents demonstrated to ensure their son received an education that met his individual and unique needs. They are but one of thousands of families across the nation who are fighting to get a better education for their children. The secretary stands with all parents who want the best for their children.”

With the recent election of four Douglas County school board candidates who oppose vouchers, it’s likely the district’s voucher program will never launch. Still, DeVos has voiced support for expanding voucher programs and putting federal funds toward them.

DeVos’s public words were particularly hard to take, Jennifer and Joe said, because they had met with the education secretary privately at her request. They were flattered by her interest, but felt she didn’t understand why private school vouchers would never work for them — or many other families who have children with disabilities.

First, the dollar amount of most voucher programs is paltry compared to what it costs to pay for specialized private schools like Firefly. Tuition there is more than $70,000 a year.

“Say, there was a voucher system in place and let’s pick $5,000.” Jennifer said. “That’s not enough for placement at Firefly. It doesn’t do anything.”

Jennifer and Joe, who own a company that sells industrial equipment, pay around half of Firefly’s tuition and their health insurance pays the rest, they said.

A 2016 report from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national membership organization, highlighted the potential for such inequities.

“Voucher funding is rarely sufficient and generally does not cover the full cost of the child’s education, meaning that only parents with adequate finances truly have a choice,” the report states.

Selene Almazan, legal director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and co-author of the report, said her organization has not taken a position on vouchers — some of its parent members are very happy using them — but has researched members’ concerns about them.

The report found the median amount of vouchers is $5,000 to $7,000, with a low of $2,000 in Mississippi and a high of $27,000 in Ohio for a student with autism.

Douglas County’s voucher program, which was put on hold because of the legal challenges, would have allowed vouchers worth 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding, or about $5,000.

There’s another key issue at stake in the conversation about vouchers for students with disabilities — one Jennifer and Joe asked DeVos about during their private conversation.

Do students with disabilities lose their rights to a fair and appropriate education — a guarantee under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — if they use vouchers to attend private schools?

Yes, DeVos said.

“She answered point blank,” Joe said.

While Joe and Jennifer say they were talking about the issue in the context of Florida’s voucher program, experts say the loss of rights occurs in a number of states and oftentimes parents are in the dark.

Such rules mean that families “don’t have a right to challenge the services they’re going to be receiving in private school,” said Almazan.

In other words, the legal battle Jennifer and Joe successfully fought after Endrew’s progress stalled in public school would be impossible under the rules of many private school voucher programs.

DeVos’s public responses to questions about the issue have focused on the implications under a federal voucher program, if one were launched. During Senate subcommittee testimony about a proposed federal voucher program last summer, DeVos said schools receiving federal funds must follow federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. But she has also praised existing state programs that do require students to give up most IDEA rights.

Almazan said the loss of rights stems from a provision that was included in the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA that says students who are “parentally placed” in private schools aren’t entitled to a free and appropriate education as promised by the 1975 education law. Nationwide, a number of voucher programs, including the one crafted by Douglas County School District, classify voucher-using students as parentally placed and thus their rights under the federal law are revoked.

In response to questions from Chalkbeat, U.S. Department of Education officials agreed that protections under IDEA do change for students using state vouchers, but that they are still eligible for certain services, including a consultation between the public school district and the private school about special education services.

Jennifer and Joe said DeVos told them families get their rights back if they return to public school after using a voucher. Still, given that families often leave public school because they are dissatisfied with the program, returning in order to reclaim their rights doesn’t make sense, they say.

“It seems like a lose-lose to me,” Jennifer said.

“I’m not theoretically opposed to vouchers, but … I don’t think it has any place in special needs education,” Joe said.

Jennifer and Joe had only a brief period to meet with DeVos so there’s at least one thing they didn’t get a chance to explain.

That is, why private school — even one as good as Firefly — was never their first choice for Endrew. Unlike the local public schools, which are close enough to see from their Highlands Ranch home, the private school is a 25 minute drive away.

Firefly, “has been immeasurably helpful and good for him and for our family,” Jennifer said. “But he’s missed out on all of those years of friendship and growth with all of his peers in his neighborhood.”

upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”