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.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.