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.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”