coexistence conundrum

Proposed ‘charter compact’ revived as Shelby County Schools seeks district-charter collaboration

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Advocates of proposed shared ground rules for Shelby County Schools and the local charter sector aim to turn down tensions that have led to protests over the role of charter schools locally.

Advocates of a proposal to set ground rules between the Shelby County school board and Memphis-area charter schools are hoping the third try’s the charm.

A board committee is scheduled to collect public input about a proposed “charter compact” this week, six months after board members demanded greater community input in the plan and more than a year after the then-recently elected board tabled the proposal for the first time.

Now the group that the district convened to draft the compact has more community members on it, and board members say they have increasingly realized the value of clarifying the board’s role in Memphis’ charter sector.

The compact could resolve some growing points of tension between the district and the local charter sector: where charter schools get to open, how much they pay in rent, which students they serve, and what district services they can tap into, for example.

“When there’s a shared agreement and it’s in writing, then there’s no question around what’s happening,” said Miska Clay Bibbs, the board member who revived the proposal.

Growing recognition that common rules are necessary

Bibbs reintroduced the compact proposal in July, a week after a contentious meeting that brimmed with issues related to charter schools — whether the board should shutter a financially shaky school, allow three operators to open new schools, and block an academically struggling operator from opening its third school.

The board is responsible for authorizing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and exempt from many regulations as long as they perform well. But exactly what kinds of oversight should take place after schools are open is less clear, and board members struggled to understand how the recommendations they faced had been made.

The two-hour discussion showed that district administrators need clearer guidelines for working with charter schools, said board member Mike Kernell.

“We sensed the ambiguity,” Kernell said. “The law may give us latitude [for overseeing charter schools], but I think we need to be stricter in our own procedures.”

A national strategy for easing conflict around charter schools

Clarifying what those procedures should be — and easing simmering tensions between the two sectors — was the goal in March 2014 when Shelby County Schools chief Dorsey Hopson convened a committee to draft a charter-district compact.

Hopson was following in the footsteps of more than 16 other school districts, including Nashville’s, that had signed charter compacts by 2013, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and advocacy group tracking the issue.

Those compacts led to some concrete changes: The Nashville compact, signed in 2010, resulted in the creation of a state report card for parents that grades both charter and traditional schools and also pushed for charter operators to open schools in the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

But even more, the compacts signaled that districts had accepted charter schools as part of their educational landscape, and charter schools had acknowledged that they need to address the criticism that they play on an uneven field.

Many of those cities subsequently received millions of dollars in funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support collaboration between district and charter schools. The foundation invested in districts with charter compacts to reward efforts to increase the number of high-performing schools, no matter who runs them.

That is something that Hopson has said he wants to do, expressing an attitude common among reform-oriented schools chiefs across the country. At the same time, every student who leaves a district school for a charter school depletes Hopson’s student population, workforce and budget. And he has echoed criticism of local charter schools that they do not follow the same rules as district schools, particularly when it comes to enrolling and disciplining high-needs students.

What the compact framework says and how it could change

The committee that Hopson appointed — made up of of five district administrators, a former district principal who has openly advocated for charter schools, three charter school administrators, and two administrators of local philanthropic foundations that fund charter schools — came to a series of agreements.

The district would guarantee “equitable funding” to charter schools and traditional public schools; provide charter schools “equal access” to district resources such as special education and maintenance services; and clarify the way it assesses all schools so that decisions to open or close charter schools can easily be explained.

In exchange, charter schools would adopt a number of district policies, most notably one governing the expulsion of students. They also would have to pay a percentage of their state funds to the district.

Both sectors would formally agree to encourage more academic and professional development collaboration between teachers and administrators.

It’s unlikely that the draft compact would be adopted without revisions. The provision that would allow charter schools to operate in district-owned buildings without paying rent, in particular, could prove difficult to get through the board. Reducing or eliminating rent payments could entice charter operators that are part of the state-run Achievement School District — which does not require its schools to pay rent — to expand under Shelby County Schools’ oversight. But at the same time, the board had to cut more than $125 million from Shelby County Schools’ 2015-16 budget, and the $1.2 million in annual revenue that the district currently collects from charter schools could be hard to give up.

Even Bibbs said she was hesitant to go as far as the March draft seems to allow.

“I don’t think anything should be free,” said Bibbs, who previously has worked for a local charter school. “I’m open to [hearing] how we can come to a middle of the road.”

Another significant issue could be the charter approval process, which isn’t addressed in the March compact draft. Several board members say clear guidelines are needed, especially after a 2014 state law allowed charter operators whose applications are rejected by their local school boards to get approval from the State Board of Education — something that Omni Prep is currently doing after Shelby County’s board denied its bid to open a third school.

In addition to setting up a potential scenario in which charter schools could operate in a district’s backyard without local oversight, the law means that having an inconsistent approval process could make Shelby County Schools vulnerable to lawsuit, Kernell said.

No panacea, but a starting point

The school board’s engagement committee will hear public input on Wednesday, and it has invited charter operators and others to weigh in. Then, the district-organized committee — which now includes community members from Frayser, a neighborhood with a growing number of charter schools — will incorporate the feedback into the draft compact before sending it back to the to the engagement committee, which will send it to the full board for approval. That could happen as early as next month.

If the board ultimately signs off on a compact, it probably will not ensure smooth relations between the district and local charter schools. Even with a compact in place, Nashville school board members regularly debate the costs and benefits of charter schools, and the board frequently is split about whether or how quickly to expand the charter sector. Similarly, a compact signed in 2010 in New York City did not prevent conflict around charter schools from taking center stage when a new mayor who was less favorable to them took over.

But Cardell Orrin, director of Stand For Children, a nonprofit group that has pushed for the compact in Memphis on behalf of the charter sector, said he hoped it would center debates on a shared purpose.

“I hope the compact improves the ability of charter schools to deliver quality education to students [and] holds them accountable for doing it, and the district sees the charters as a part of providing overall quality education,” he said.

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.

Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.