Nope

Tennessee sides with Memphis and Nashville boards in rejecting four new charter schools

Members of Tennessee's State Board of Education listen to recommendations on charter school appeals during their two-day meeting in Cookeville.

Pitches by four charter groups to open new schools in Memphis and Nashville fell short on Friday as Tennessee’s State Board of Education affirmed the decisions of local school boards to reject their applications.

Voting with recommendations from its staff, the State Board unanimously denied the appeals based on shortcomings in the groups’ plans for academics, operations, or finances.

Among those denied were appeals involving two out-of-state networks. California-based Aspire was seeking to open a middle school in Memphis, and ReThink Forward had hoped to launch a K-8 school in Nashville through a partnership between Florida-based Noble Education Initiative and Trevecca Nazarene University, which is in Nashville.

The other appeals were filed by Memphis-based Capstone Education Group, which already runs three local schools under the state-run Achievement School District, and Avodah International, a new Memphis group seeking to open a high school in the city’s south side.

Tennessee has sought to raise the bar for its charter sector under a recently revised state law and a new school improvement plan in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In Memphis next spring, seven charter schools are set to close for landing in the bottom 5 percent on the state’s newest list of priority schools.

“We do care deeply about having the best schools in front of our children. … We believe charter schools can be a great option,” said Chairwoman Lillian Hartgrove after the board’s vote. “But by the same token, we have our process, and it’s a very thorough process to ensure that we’re approving charters that should be approved, and not approving charters that should not.”

The appeals were filed after school boards in Shelby and Davidson counties voted down the groups’ applications in August.

Under Tennessee law, the state board can overrule a local body if it deems the decision contrary to the best interests of students, the school district, or the community — and can even oversee the school itself if the local district still declines to work with the charter operator.

But the state board’s staff found all four appeals lacking based on their reviews and public hearings.

Memphis-based Capstone came closest to meeting all the criteria, but its glaring weakness was not identifying a neighborhood or location for its proposed school, said Tess Stovall, director of charter schools for the state board.

Capstone will heed that advice when it submits another application next year, said Executive Director Drew Sippel, whose organization was trying to place the school where it would be needed most based on the latest school closings within Shelby County Schools.

“I think our servant-hearted approach actually became an impediment to our approval as an operator. The next time, we’ll pick a neighborhood well in advance,” Sippel told Chalkbeat after the vote.

The application by ReThink Forward, a group chaired by Trevecca President Dan Boone, was the only one submitted this year to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. While partnering network NEI already operates seven schools in Indiana, Georgia, and Florida, the state’s staff graded their proposal short in all criteria.

This was the fourth year that the Nashville district has shied away from charters. Since 2015, that school board has approved only one application.

By contrast, the charter sector has grown steadily in Memphis and Shelby County since Tennessee opened the door to nonprofit charter schools beginning in 2003. In August, Shelby County’s school board approved nine more charters for next fall, including the six Compass Community Schools that will replace the soon-to-close Jubilee Catholic Schools Network. Once those open, Shelby County Schools will have 63 charters — by far the most in the state.

Charter unions

Teachers at 4 Chicago International Charter Schools threaten Feb. 5 strike

Charter teachers announce a strike date outside of outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

Unless they reach a compromise with their network bosses, teachers at four Chicago International Charter Schools will strike on Feb. 5. The teachers announced the strike date Thursday morning in response to a months-long stalemate over bargaining.

The union is demanding increased pay and benefits for both teachers and paraprofessionals, smaller class sizes, more resources for classrooms and more counseling and social work staff. Last fall, 96 percent of Chicago International’s 138 unionized educators voted to authorize a strike.

“We need to reduce staff turnover and increase stability of our schools because it creates an environment in which students can thrive and learn,” said Jen Conant, a math teacher at CICS Northtown and a union chair for negotiating members. “Compensation and benefits are key elements to reducing staff turnover.”

Chicago International is the umbrella organization for 14 schools run by a handful of management companies. Educators and some paraprofessionals at four of those schools are unionized — one run by Chicago Quest and another three by Civitas Education Partners. The four schools are ChicagoQuest, Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison and Wrightwood.

In a statement to Chalkbeat, a spokesperson with Chicago International Charter Schools said the organization valued and respected the work of the schools’ teachers and staff but would do their best to prevent a strike.

“We know that we all come to work for the same reason – our students – and no matter the position, we are driven by the same goal of helping our students to succeed,” the statement said. But, “CICS is disappointed that the CTU has chosen to announce this strike and we will do everything we can to minimize the harm to our students and their families.”  

Chicago International also announced contingency plans at their four buildings in case of a strike: all campuses would be staffed by principals and non-union staff and remain open during usual school hours. Breakfast and lunch, along with online learning and recreational activities, would be available to students who came to school.

The announcement follows other high-profile teacher union actions. The nation’s first charter school teacher strike took place in Chicago in December, when some 500 union members at Acero charter schools walked off for a week. And Los Angeles teachers who are out on their first strike in 30 years this week were joined on the picket lines by charter educators on Tuesday.

The vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union connected the demands of teachers from Chicago International Charter Schools to the wave of teachers strikes that took place across the country in 2018.  

“Oklahoma. North Carolina. Arizona. West Virginia. Kentucky. Chicago. Los Angeles. It is very clear that in 2019 teachers are going to have to stay on the picket line to ensure smaller class sizes, to ensure that resources are really coming into our classrooms,” Stacy Davis Gates said at a press conference outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

The Charter union Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), which originally represented charter teachers, joined the Chicago Teachers Union last summer.

This week, the Chicago Teachers Union also delivered a 75-point set of contract demands to the city addressing a wide range of issues, including a push for a 5 percent pay raise, as well as a request for district action on overcrowded classrooms and the loss of veteran black female teachers.  

ONLINE SCHOOLS

A new proposal aims to ratchet up oversight of Indiana’s most troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

Indiana lawmakers quietly took an initial step Wednesday that could eventually lead to the closures of the state’s most troubled virtual charter schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

A provision to stop school districts from overseeing statewide virtual charter schools was tucked into a widely supported proposal to require students and their families to take an annual orientation before they can enroll in an online school. The bill passed the House Education Committee by an 8-0 vote and will be sent to the full House for consideration.

The move would prevent Daleville Community Schools, the oversight agency for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, from renewing those charters. Indiana Virtual School’s charter agreement runs through the 2020 school year. Daleville has not publicly posted the charter for Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which opened in 2017, so it is unclear when it expires.

If the two virtual charter schools were to remain open after their charters expire, the bill would require them to seek what education leaders hope would be a stronger oversight agency — a statewide charter authority such as the Indiana Charter School Board or Ball State University.

Bill author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he was “trying to do more than engagement, and improve the performance of our virtual charter schools.” He has previously told Chalkbeat that he does not think school districts should oversee large, statewide virtual charter schools.

Read more: Why Indiana education officials want to stop this school district from overseeing online schools

Daleville schools superintendent Paul Garrison attended the committee hearing and testified in favor of the orientation requirement — his suggestion to make the onboarding process an annual requirement was added to the proposal — but he did not address the authorizing provision. Chalkbeat was unable to reach Garrison or Indiana Virtual School Superintendent Percy Clark for further comment.

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy have in recent years had some of the lowest graduation rates in the state. In 2018, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy graduated just 2 percent of its 1,009 seniors, and it also failed to test enough of its students to receive an A-F letter grade from the state, Chalkbeat found.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation showed that as Indiana Virtual School ballooned in size and posted dismal academic results, it had business ties that stood to financially benefit its founder.

Despite receiving $1 million in fees last year to oversee Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, education officials have raised concerns that Daleville is not holding the schools accountable.

“They’ve done a terrible job, and it would be my strong preference that they not be protected any further for their atrocious performance,” Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry has said.

Chalkbeat’s investigations and the continual low performance of virtual charter schools prompted the state board to recommend stricter regulations, including strengthening the oversight of online schools and improving engagement efforts with students.

Read more: Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

The authorizing provision also seeks to stop other school districts from following in Daleville’s footsteps, closing what some see as a loophole in Indiana law. School districts are only allowed to authorize charter schools within their boundaries, but they are not expressly prohibited from overseeing virtual charter schools.

Last summer, a Chalkbeat investigation examined an agricultural school that sought to open as a full-time virtual charter school overseen by the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district. But state officials warned the district that they believed it did not have the authority to oversee a statewide virtual charter school, and Indiana Agriculture and Technology School backed off its plans, opening instead as a blended school offering half of its instruction online and half in-person.