charters on the hill

Virtual schools, open records, and claims about research — highlights from Congress’s look at charter schools

Witnesses at the U.S. House hearing on charter schools are sworn in near. From nearest on: Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers; Jonathon Clark, of 482Forward; and Marty West of Harvard University.

Charter schools got some extra attention in Washington, D.C. today in the form of a U.S. House hearing.

The title of the hearing (“The Power of Charter Schools”) and the selection of witnesses (three of the four spoke highly of charters) made clear that the intent was to frame the discussion positively.

“For many, charter schools are the best option for their student to hone his or her individual abilities and build a successful life,” chairwoman Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, said in her opening comments.

But lawmakers also raised pointed questions about the schools’ transparency and effectiveness, as well as the role of virtual schools.

Here are four key questions raised at the hearing.

What should be done about struggling virtual charter schools?

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, highlighted recent problems with virtual charter schools, pointing to Indiana Virtual School, which she noted “graduated a lower percentage of students than almost any other school in the state,” and the abrupt closure of a large virtual school in Ohio. She also pointed to Chalkbeat’s reporting on debates about oversight of virtual charters in Indiana.

Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, acknowledged what a report by her organization called “the chronic underachievement of online charter schools.”

But, she said, “You don’t want to completely get rid of them because for some students these are the only choices available to them.”

Should charter schools be subject to open records laws?

In some states, charter schools don’t have to turn over documents or records the way government entities do.

In New York, for instance, charter schools themselves must follow state records laws, but the network organizations that charters often work closely with, like Success Academy, are not compelled by those laws. In DC, the charter authorizing board is subject to public records, but individual schools aren’t.

“Should any public charter school be subject to the same open records law as a non-charter school?” Rep. Bobby Scott, the committee’s ranking Democrat, asked the witnesses.

Jonathon Clark, a Detroit parent who is largely skeptical of charters, said yes. Rees was less definitive.

“We need to take a close look at the consequence of these additional rules and regulations on charter schools, but by and large my reaction is yes, they should be able to make this information available,” she said.

Which city’s charter model is better — Detroit’s or Denver’s?

Both cities were repeatedly highlighted, but for different reasons.

“Michigan’s lax charter authorization system has allowed schools to promise things and not deliver them, and to continue to take taxpayer money without providing Michigan’s — and, in particular, Detroit’s — students a quality education,” said Clark, who is on the board of the a city community group, 482Forward.

Rep. Scott also pointed to Detroit as an example of charter schools gone wrong, while highlighting Denver as a positive example.

In some ways, the cities are perfect foils. Denver has embraced what is called the “portfolio model,” where charters are tightly overseen based on academic results; the city school board authorizes charters; and some charter advocates say the board hasn’t allowed charters to grow quickly enough. Detroit has a more free-market approach with a number of authorizers, including universities, able to grant a charter; and an effort to create a portfolio style model was beat back by Republican lawmakers, with the backing of Betsy DeVos before she was secretary of education.

According to CREDO, in both cities charters modestly outperform comparable district schools — and in both cities the growth of charters remains politically contentious.

What does the CREDO research on charters really say?

During the hearing, people on both sides of the issue cited research out of CREDO, a Stanford-based research group that has conducted the most comprehensive research on charter schools.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Scott highlighted a 2009 CREDO report showing that just 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional public schools, but 37 percent did worse. “I used to say that on average, charter schools are average; this recent research is showing that on average charter schools are below average,” he said.

This study is not in fact recent, and a 2013 national CREDO study showed charter schools performed about the same as district schools.

Harvard professor Marty West acknowledged that in his testimony. But “dismissing the charter sector’s track record as mixed ignores clear evidence of benefits for students from low-income families, students of color, and students living in urban areas,” he said, pointing to a 2015 CREDO report on charters in cities and 2017 one on networks of charter schools, among other studies.

Later in the hearing, yet another CREDO analysis was highlighted by Rep. Bonamici, this time on virtual charter schools. This study showed substantial drops in test scores when students attended one of these schools.

Keep in mind there is a lot of other research on charters beyond CREDO, which has come in for some criticism for its methodology. Much of that other research has reached similar conclusions, with charters posting average test score performance overall, large gains in some cities, and negative results for fully virtual schools.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.