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.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”

Future of Schools

Indiana is struggling to give kids speech therapy. Here’s why it’s getting harder.

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Indiana let emergency permits that make it easier for schools to hire high-demand speech-language pathologists lapse — and there won’t be time to address the oversight before the first day of classes.

“This is going to take legislative action to resolve,” said Risa Regnier, director of licensing for the Indiana Department of Education. “So there’s really no way to fix this for the beginning of school this year.”

The communication disorders emergency permits, which expired at the end of June, were created by a 2007 law to offer relief to schools struggling to find enough speech-language pathologists, educators say. While the number of students who will be affected wasn’t immediately available, nearly one-fifth of all special education students across the state need speech and language services.

The permits allowed schools to hire graduates of four-year speech-language programs who have been accepted to master’s programs, which are typically required for a full license as a speech-language pathologist.

But the employees who use these permits are no longer able to continue in their jobs, and the state cannot issue new permits unless lawmakers step in.

“You have to understand that we have a huge shortage of (speech-language pathologists),” said Ann Higgins, director of a special education cooperative that serves four districts in north central Indiana. “This is the beginning of my sixth year being director, and we have yet to be fully staffed … as a result, we’re constantly piecing together a puzzle, if you will, to provide speech services.”

These professionals can work in educational or medical settings, and their roles can vary widely depending on the students they serve. They might work on letter sounds with some students with milder needs, but they could also help students with more severe disabilities improve swallowing.

According to state data, 84 educators who currently have full communications disorders licenses once held emergency permits, and 190 have received them since 2007.

The emergency permits are a “last resort,” said Tammy Hurm, who handles legislative affairs for the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. But they have made it possible for speech-language program graduates to work as pathologists while completing their licenses. With the permits, schools have had more flexibility around supervision, but permit-holders still couldn’t practice outside of what they’ve been educated to do.

Although the number of people affected might seem small, many districts are seeing a shortage, Hurm said, especially rural districts like Higgins’ that already have a hard time attracting people to jobs in their communities.

Because schools can rarely pay as much as a hospital or nursing home, schools are not as attractive for the already-small number of fully qualified speech-language pathology graduates. Part of that also stems from the fact that the needed master’s programs have caps on enrollment.

“A lot of the kids that graduate go directly into medical (jobs) because they pay more, they can work more days,” Higgins said. “Unless they have school experience or know that school is what they love … a lot go medical.”

This problem is not unique to Indiana. Across the country, demand for speech-language pathologists is projected to grow 18 percent by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s partially because of growth in other groups of people that need them, such as senior citizens, and because of growing school enrollment and earlier, more frequent identification of speech and language issues.

Without these permits, four-year graduates in speech and language can generally only be speech-language pathology assistants, which means they can offer certain services with supervision, Hurm said. Salaries can be hourly or close to what a starting teacher might make.

To get over the pay hurdle, Higgins has been creative. Her co-op runs entirely on federal funds, a strategy that began three years ago so she could pay speech-language pathologists higher salaries than what collective bargaining rules dictated. More than one-third of her budget is just spent on speech services.

But critics of the emergency permits say they’re a short-term solution and place under-qualified people in roles they aren’t prepared to handle.

Undergraduate students who study speech, language, and hearing sciences typically have only a theoretical knowledge of what communications disorders are like, not the clinical, hands-on experience they’d get at the graduate level to diagnose and treat children.

When the students get an emergency permit that grants them some responsibilities that usually only come with full licensure, it can be a disincentive to finish the program, critics point out.

“The problem with that is that those folks then are not put in a position where they have to continue their education,” said Janet Deppe, director of state advocacy for the The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. “We don’t necessarily believe that just putting a body in a place is going to make a difference in that child’s educational success and success beyond education.”

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said education officials are discussing what to do about the permits now so that they can find a way forward and propose a solution during next year’s legislative session.

Higgins didn’t find out the permits were expiring until the spring — after the previous legislative session had already ended. With the emergency permits off the table for this year, Higgins has lost one employee. That leaves her with three full-time speech-language pathologists for the coming year in a co-op that serves about 1,170 students — 455 of which need speech services. To be fully staffed, she needs seven pathologists.

Each speech-language pathologist is responsible for about 60 students at a time, though it can grow to be closer to 70, she said.

To get by, Higgins is having retirees come in to supervise assistants, evaluate students, work on education plans, and write reports. She’s also using teletherapy — providing speech-language services over the internet — for high-schoolers, who generally need less intensive therapies.

The permit expiration is frustrating, she said, because it’s one more factor working against schools that have been trying to fully staff speech and language programs for years — and especially because for the majority of students, speech therapy can fix their issues. It’s not always the case, Higgins said, but many times, students’ speech or language problems are correctable with therapy, meaning they won’t need services in the future.

It puts the shortage, and the effects of losing the emergency permits, into perspective, she said.

“While there may not be many people impacted by this particular change … it just magnifies this whole shortage issue that we have with speech-language pathologists,” Higgins said. “We just lost a person that serves 60 kids.”