Future of Schools

Charter school sponsor group ranks Indiana's charter law No. 1 in the U.S.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
The number of charter schools in Indiana will reach 100 this fall.

Indiana’s tougher new standards for charter schools have helped make the state one of the best in the nation for ensuring quality charter schools, a trade group reports.

The state landed the No. 1 ranking among 43 states — tied with Nevada — on a new analysis by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers that assessed charter school laws across the country.

NACSA, which has called for charter schools to be shut down if they don’t perform, ranked states by how well their laws promote school oversight.

States at the bottom of the ranking, like Kansas and Virginia, have “moribund” charter laws that produce little accountability for charter schools, the group found.

But the group praised new laws that Indiana has enacted over the last three years, saying they’ve made the state one of the nation’s best for charter school oversight.

“Indiana’s charter school work has been smart,” said Karega Rausch, who lives in Indianapolis and works as Chicago-based NACSA’s vice president of research and evaluation. “It has learned from some of the success and challenges of other states. We have taken a smart growth approach in that we are interested in providing quality options for kids but just growth hasn’t been the driving factor.”

NASCA, a trade group for charter school sponsors, is known for being among the biggest advocates for tough accountability for charter schools.

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has at times been critical of school choice programs, was skeptical of the state’s No. 1 ranking but agreed that more accountability for schools is better for kids.

“We want children to be in good schools,” she said. “I’m always for increased accountability. I really don’t care about the category of school.”

Rausch, a former charter school director for the Indianapolis mayor’s office, said the state’s tough new accountability rules have translated into results for kids. He pointed to a Stanford University study that ranked Indiana charter schools above their peers in other states. The study said students who went to charter schools often did better than similar students in the traditional public schools they otherwise would have gone to. Overall, charter school test scores are well below the state average, however.

“I don’t think anybody would say any of our schools in terms of scale are where they need to be yet,” Rausch said. “Our state’s approach toward charter schooling has been wise. We have seen it not as an ‘end all, be all’ to providing quality education but as vitally important.”

Until 2010, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University were the only active charter school sponsors in Indiana. School districts and other state universities had the ability to offer charters but had mostly declined to exercise it. Ball State and the mayor’s office were choosy. For the first decade of Indiana’s charter school experience, the mayor and Ball state turned down more than three-quarters of applicants seeking to open new schools.

But some legislators thought charter schools were growing too slowly. Hoping to see more charter schools in the state, lawmakers changed the law in 2011 to create a state charter school board that could authorize charter schools. It also extended charter sponsoring authority to private, nonprofit colleges as well as public universities. The new law encouraged small, low-profile private colleges to become sponsors including Grace College in Winnona Lake, Trine University in Angola and Calumet College.

But sponsors in Indiana now must monitor their charter schools more closely than in some other states.

Over the last three years, lawmakers have worked to tighten rules for sponsors.

A 2013 law requires sponsors to close F-rated charter schools after three years. The new law also gives the Indiana State Board of Education authority to reduce the fees sponsors can collect from charter schools and sponsors can now be stripped of their oversight authority if children’s needs aren’t being met in a school.

These new laws have limited the “sponsor shopping” some schools had attempted when the state first expanded the number of charter school authorizers.

The practice involved failing schools switching authorizers to avoid consequences for poor performance.

For example, three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close.

Rausch praised Indiana for pushing transparency in charter school as a good “first step” to ending sponsor shopping, but noted that schools could have legitimate reasons for changing sponsors.

“There could be reasons for that and those reasons may need to be explored,” he said. “But [charter schools] should have to come before the state board and their authorizer and justify it.”

Earlier this year, a new law changed the rules so private colleges could not simply begin sponsoring charter schools if they choose. Instead, they must register with the Indiana State Board of Education, which can now evaluate charter school performance every five years.

The 2015 law requires any sponsor receiving an application for a charter school that already operates under a different sponsor to alert the current sponsor in writing. The goal is to assure that the new sponsor understands the school’s history and seeks input from the previous sponsor before taking over a school.

The next step, Rausch said, is for Indiana to better define how it measures the performance of unusual charter schools, such as those that serve exclusively special education students, juvenile criminal offenders or children with drug and alcohol problems.

Earlier this year, the state board decided against sanctions for two such charter schools despite poor test scores. Rausch said the state needs guidelines for judging such schools if they are to receive exemptions from the state’s A to F grading consequences.

“There are certainly special circumstances that make our current accountability system difficult for some schools,” he said. “But simply saying we serve a different population of kids therefore the accountability system doesn’t work is incomplete.”

There are ways to judge all schools, Rausch said.

“A responsible authorizer should not simply say the state system doesn’t work, he said. “They should have their own rigorous system that says ‘these are the indicators we expect them to succeed on.’ There must be rigorous expectations.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.