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.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.