A Call for Accountability

Tonight’s MNPS Board meeting will include a call for accountability and transparency in the operation and oversight of the district’s charter schools. The call comes just over a week after the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) released poll results they said indicate voters in Tennessee want charter reforms, especially around the issues of financial accountability and operational transparency.

 

In fact, MNEA Vice President Erick Huth is among those slated to speak. Huth’s remarks are expected to be on the Annenberg Institute’s recommendations for effective oversight of charter schools. Some may recall that prior to his selection as Director of Schools for MNPS, Dr. Jesse Register worked at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which is located at Brown University.

 

The Annenberg standards include:

  • Traditional school districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure a coordinated approach that serves all children
  • School governance should be representative and transparent
  • Charter schools should ensure equal access to interested students and prohibit practices that discourage enrollment or disproportionately push-out enrolled students
  • Charter school discipline policy should be fair and transparent
  • All students deserve equitable and adequate school facilities.  Districts and charter schools should collaborate to ensure facility arrangements do not disadvantage students in either sector
  • Online charter schools should be better regulated for quality, transparency and the protection of student data
  • Monitoring and oversight of charter schools are critical to protect the public interest; they should be strong and fully state funded

Also speaking on the issue of accountability and transparency is MNEA President Stephen Henry.

In addition to the poll results, two different recent reports indicate that unabated growth of charter schools could carry significant costs to MNPS.

First, a report by MGT of America noted:

“… it is clear that charter schools impose a cost on MNPS – both directly and indirectly.  It is also clear … that the loss of operating funds caused by the transfer of revenue cannot likely be made up through a reduction in capital or facility costs.  Therefore, approving future charter schools does potentially meet the “bar” described in  Tennessee Code Annotated 49-13-108(b) which encourages local boards of education to consider fiscal impact in determining whether new charter schools may be “contrary to the best interest of the pupils, school district or community.”

More recently, the Operational and Performance Audit of MNPS found:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

Additionally, the Center for Popular Democracy issued a report noting that due to their susceptibility to fraud, charter schools warrant specific oversight.

It’s not clear whether the MNPS Board will move to adopt the Annenberg standards. At this point, it appears to be a discussion item among concerned citizens and community groups who are bringing their request to the Board.

Tonight’s meeting is at 5:00 PM at the Central Office on Bransford Avenue.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Voters Want Charter Reforms

 

That’s the message the Metro Nashville Education Association wants to get out as Nashville’s Mayoral candidates head to a forum focused on education this evening.

MNEA pointed to results from a poll of Tennessee voters conducted for the Center for Popular Democracy as evidence that charter reforms are a key education issue warranting attention.

The poll found that charter reforms focused on transparency and accountability received overwhelmingly favorable responses from Tennessee voters.

Additionally, the poll, conducted by GBA Strategies, found that voters ranked lack of school choice dead last among issues of concern on education. That’s particularly relevant given the advancing voucher legislation at the General Assembly.

Here’s the release from MNEA:

Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA) Leaders say a recent survey of local voters shows that Tennesseans overwhelmingly favor reforms for local charter schools to protect students and taxpayers.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected charter expansion as a priority, the survey found. Instead, voters favored charter reforms to strengthen:
• Transparency and accountability

• Teacher training and qualifications

• Anti-fraud measures

• Equity policies for high-need students
“It’s clear our communities support quality public schools, not an expansion of charter schools,” said MNEA President Stephen Henry. “We need to make sure ALL Nashville schools are held to the same accountability and transparency standards that taxpayers expect.”
The survey also found voters rated the need for more parental involvement and the reduction of excessive student testing as bigger priorities than expanding charters.

Specifically, voters favored by greater than 80% approval reforms that would:

  • provide rigorous, independent audits of charter school finances
  • require charter schools to publish how they spend taxpayer dollars, including all budgets and contracts
  • ensure that teachers in any publicly-funded school meet the same training and qualification requirements

“We need community leaders who will stand up for the strong public schools our kids deserve,” said MNEA Vice President Erick Huth. “This includes our new director of schools and our next mayor.”
The poll was conducted in January among 500 registered voters by GBA Strategies, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. It was funded, in part, by the Center for Popular Democracy, a national organization dedicated to social justice issues.

Here are some of the poll results:

  Total Support %
Transparency & Accountability  
Require state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances to detect fraud, waste or abuse of public funds 86
Require companies and organizations that manage charter schools to release to parents and the public how they spend taxpayer money, including their annual budgets and contracts 85
Preventing Harm to Neighborhood Schools  
Before any new charter school is approved, conduct an analysis of the impact the school will have on neighborhood public schools 78
Ensure that neighborhood public schools do not lose funding when new charter schools open in their area 78
Protect Taxpayer funds  
Require charter schools to return taxpayer money to the school district for any student that leaves the charter school to return to a neighborhood public school during the school year 78
Stop the creation of new charter schools if state officials have not shown the ability to prevent fraud and mismanagement 69
Prohibit charter school board members and their immediate families from financially benefiting from their schools 65
Prohibit charter schools from spending taxpayer dollars on advertising or marketing 54
Serving High Need Students  
Require all teachers who work in taxpayer funded schools, including neighborhood public schools and charter schools, to meet the same training and qualification requirements 89
Require charter schools to serve high-need students such as special education students, at the same level as neighborhood public schools 79

For more on education policy and politics in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Charter Schools Drive Up MNPS Costs

MNPS Board Member Will Pinkston highlights some key takeaways from a recent audit of Metro Schools. Among them, the concern that charter schools are a key driver of increased costs in the district.

In an email, Pinkston notes a key finding:

Briefly: The new audit acknowledges that unabated growth of charter schools does, in fact, have a fiscal impact on existing MNPS schools. The operative language in the audit relative to charter fiscal impact can be found on Page 3-16, which states: “The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

In other words, in order to support the continued unabated growth of charter schools, MNPS will need to systematically close zoned schools. Conversations about closing zoned schools may need to occur, but cannot happen in a fiscally responsible manner as long as MNPS continues recommending unabated approval of charter schools with no offsetting reductions in the budget. All of this is further evidence that the Nashville School Board needs to consider a moratorium on new schools until all of this can be resolved.

The full report – The Operational and Performance Audit of MNPS can be found here. 

An earlier report by an outside group found a similar conclusion.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

 

Lily Brings the Fight

National Education Association President Lily Garcia was in Nashville yesterday and visited Ingelwood Elementary School. Earlier this month, she visited Shwab Elementary. Inglewood has been caught up in a controversy over whether or not it will be handed over to KIPP for a charter school conversion.

Upon entering the school, Garcia stopped and greeted teachers and guests who had gathered to meet her. MNPS School Board member Jill Speering was among those in attendance, as was Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray.

Garcia said she had a simple message for the teachers and parents at the school:

“We’re here today because we are on your side.”

Two students took Garcia on a tour of the school, including the library and a number of classrooms.

In one class, Garcia asked the students what was special about Inglewood. The students told her they were very excited because the school has a debate team.

Teacher after teacher greeted Garcia and thanked her for her visit. Some were crying, citing the criticism the school has received and the potential that it will be handed over to KIPP.

Some teachers cried as they talked about their love for students and the needs the families at the school face. At an earlier forum at Litton, one Inglewood teacher expressed a desire to provide more support for both the children she teaches and their parents. She told the group that Inglewood is heading in the right direction, but needs the ability to provide additional meals and other services for families.

One teacher nearly broke down when he told Garcia and those accompanying her that he “loved these kids” and that they need teachers who not only teach them, but love and support them every single day.

An active group of parents at the school has been resisting a charter conversion, writing letters to Dr. Register and conducting surveys demonstrating support for options that do not include handing the school over to KIPP. A survey of parents recently published by the group shows that nearly 80% of Pre-K families oppose a conversion of the school to KIPP and that none of the Kindergarten families surveyed want KIPP.

A decision is expected this week on whether or not Inglewood will be converted.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

In Response to the Response: An East Nashville Story

Yesterday, I reported on a clash between East Nashville United and MNPS over emails purportedly revealing a plan to turn Inglewood Elementary School over to KIPP, a local charter operator.

Essentially, MNPS says that the emails and other communications are about an ongoing dialogue. In a statement, MNPS said it appreciates the passion around the issue of East Nashville schools and that no final decisions have been made about charter conversions or other options.

For their part, East Nashville United remains skeptical.

In a response posted today on the group’s blog, East Nashville United says that MNPS is playing word games. The group calls into question the credibility of MNPS Innovation Zone Director Alan Coverstone and MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register.

The post includes a timeline of events and lays out the case that members of the East Nashville community may not be getting the full story from MNPS.

Read the full story from East Nashville United’s perspective.

The bottom line: This story is just getting started.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

East Nashville United Applauds Action by Register

From a press release by the group in the orange shirts:

 

East Nashville United—the parent-led coalition formed in September after the abrupt announcement of sweeping changes to East Nashville schools—celebrates the director’s recent actions to provide long-awaited support to East Nashville’s priority schools. For example, the district has recently provided more reading instructors and reading-related resources for several priority schools including Kirkpatrick and Inglewood Elementary and Jere Baxter Middle School. The district also hired an assistant principal for Inglewood Elementary.

 

Jai Sanders, a parent at Inglewood and one of the founding members of ENU, commends the move, even as he questions why it took so long for the district to address his school’s needs.

 

“Our school should have had an assistant principal well before we landed on the priority list. That was inexcusable.” Sanders says. “But we are grateful for the district for filling the position and providing more reading-related resources for our children. This will help children and help them right away.”

 

The support for Inglewood is particularly noteworthy considering that just a few weeks ago education insiders speculated that IES was ripe for a closure or charter conversion to KIPP. But Register quickly discredited those rumors and provided much needed resources to the priority school.

“For my family, ‘choice’ means being able to choose my zoned school,” says Sanders. “We hope that any East Nashville proposal continues the district’s recent focus on our priority schools.”

 

Is East Nashville Orange or Blue?

According to East Nashville United, it doesn’t matter.

The color question refers to a recent MNPS School Board meeting to discuss Dr. Register’s proposed plan to create an “all choice” zone in East Nashville. At that meeting, supporters of the group East Nashville Believes joined East Nashville United members — those who “believe” wore blue shirts while those who were “united” wore orange.

Of course, East Nashville United has been attending meetings and talking about this issue for some time now. They’ve asked the Board to slow down and receive more community input.

In the face of what appears to be a competing group, East Nashville United has attempted to reach out, asking for a comprehensive dialogue about the future of schools in East Nashville.

Here’s the latest from East Nashville United:

We want a discussion about all of our East Nashville schools and how we can make sure that they are serving the needs of our children. We aren’t going to accept a top-down plan that throws our schools—all our schools—into a state of panic and chaos. We want a plan that reflects the diverse needs of our East Nashville communities.

How then do we get there? From the very beginning, East Nashville United (and only East Nashville United) has pushed for a community-driven task force to make recommendations to MNPS. We advocated for a position from East Nashville Charter Schools on the task force. We repeat: East Nashville United pushed for a community-driven task force and for a East Nashville Charter School representative on the task force. This is a fact, and cannot be disputed.

On Tuesday, Dr. Register announced that he would be forming such a task force. This was a first step in ensuring that MNPS devises an effective, thoughtful plan for our schools—and not a collection of slogans disguised as policy. We have more work to do in ensuring that our task force has the time and resources necessary to do its job, but we’re making progress. Over the next few weeks, you can expect to see us at neighborhood meetings, football games, and walking your streets talking about schools.

We renew again our invitation to the charter school community to join us—and build on what we have already accomplished.

We have done this privately with very little success. We will continue to do so in spite of the roadblocks.  We want a genuine conversation about education policy for all schools in East Nashville, and hope that the charter school folks on this side of the river will participate. We know they love their schools; we hope they’ll spread the love for the rest of the schools in East Nashville as well.

Read the full statement from East Nashville United.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennesse, follow @TNEdReport

 

Hopson: Turning iZone over to Charters “Absurd”

Amid reports that the Shelby County Schools iZone may turn over some of its schools to charter operators due to financial concerns, Director of Schools Dorsey Hopson told the Memphis Daily News, “That’s absurd. I just want to be clear on that.”

Instead, Hopson indicated he plans to seek additional grants and/or private funding to continue the successful iZone efforts.

A recent analysis indicates that iZone schools are outperforming their Achievement School District counterparts. In short, the iZone is working. And Hopson’s comments acknowledge that while also making clear his commitment to find a way to stick with what’s working to help improve outcomes for students.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Charter Zone Not Planned Years Ago

Andy Spears posted an article titled, East Nashville Charter Planned Years Ago? The blog post was based on and cited an op-ed by Dr. Kristen Buras, a Georgia State professor.

I am here to tell you that is not true, in my opinion.

For starters, I don’t know how much someone outside of Tennessee (Buras) can tell about what’s happening in our school system. People in Nashville are still trying to find out about this plan because it’s came about so quickly. For someone outside Nashville to know this has been planned for years, but not anyone in Nashville, is something else altogether. What really happened is that very soon after the priority list was released, Dr. Register held a meeting with a variety of high level staffers. This happened relatively shortly before a school board meeting. Dr. Register decided to tell the public as much as he knew about the plan. One thing was clear: It was not a clear plan.

Dr. Buras’ article made it seem like you can only have community meetings before you have a plan. To have a community meeting, one must have a plan in the first place. What will you present to the community if not a loose idea of a plan? After a fluid plan was announced, Dr. Register announced meeting with all the priority list schools, which he is currently in the midst of doing.

Another way you can tell this hasn’t been planned? Dr. Register stumbled out of the starting blocks. The announcement was messy, it wasn’t clear, and there were a lot of misconceptions. But that means this was a plan that was formed at a fast pace so that it could be quickly disseminated to the public.

Additionally, we are Nashville. We are not Chicago. We are not New Orleans. We are not New York. Comparing what is happening in other cities is like comparing apples to oranges. We are a very specific district with very specific needs. We have a school board that does not approve all charter schools, closes down charter schools, and has a good discussion while doing that.

Of course we should take what happened in other cities and make sure it doesn’t happened here, but that’s totally different argument. I may not agree with what all charter schools are doing in Nashville, but I am totally confident in our elected officials and our central office staff to make sure that we don’t get run over with charters.

Finally, this is what we should actually be discussing: We are failing students. You may not agree with that statement, but I wholeheartedly agree. I see it everyday when I teach in North Nashville. I think we are failing students at the elementary level. If we cannot teach kids how to read in elementary school, they will be behind for the rest of their life. I understand all the dynamics that a child comes with when they reach elementary school. Parents don’t care, no books in the household, SES, etc. But that shouldn’t stop a child from learning to read. There are research proven ways to teach kids to the read, and we are not doing that.

Something needs to change.

What change should that be?

I don’t know, but it looks like MNPS is trying to find out.

For more on education policy and politics in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

East Nashville “Charter Zone” Planned Years Ago?

Amid pleas from some East Nashville parents to start over or at least slow down, Dr. Jesse Register appears poised to move forward with a plan to turn the Maplewood and Stratford clusters in East Nashville into a “Charter Zone,” with information unveiled regarding what happens to which schools in those zones by January 1, 2015.

This in spite of a recent report presented to MNPS that details the increased cost to the district if the growth of charter schools is not carefully managed. That report came to light following another report noting that the Achievement School District model has so far produced unimpressive returns.

In an OpEd released today by Kristen Buras of Georgia State University, questions are raised about how long the East Nashville plan has been developing and if there is really any choice being afforded local parents seeking more answers.

Buras draws parallels between the New Orleans Recovery School District and what’s now happening in Nashville. She notes:

In 2010, New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), the city’s leading charter school incubator, received a $28 million federal grant to expand charters in New Orleans as well as Nashville and Memphis. NSNO worked with Louisiana’s RSD and Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), designed after the RSD, to “scale” the model in urban areas beyond New Orleans.

Around this same time, Mayor Karl Dean and Director of Schools Jesse Register welcomed the newly formed Tennessee Charter School Incubator (TCSI). TCSI was led initially by Matt Candler, NSNO’s former CEO, and planned to launch 20 new charter schools in Nashville and Memphis within five years.

And:

Register’s open letter says education officials are “coming up with new ideas” to solve Nashville’s problems. The ideas are not new; they were incubated in New Orleans. The plan is not in “early stages of development”; charter school entrepreneurs have been laying groundwork for years. The task force formed and “big news” dropped before community input was invited. In New Orleans, schools were seized and chartered before communities returned to the city.

Buras also points out that the New Orleans RSD faces several problems, including:

Neighborhood schools were closed without genuine community input. Meanwhile, charter school operators have paid themselves six-figure salaries, used public money without transparency and appointed unelected boards to govern the schools.

Community members have filed civil rights lawsuits, including one by Southern Poverty Law Center alleging thousands of disabled children were denied access to schools and federally mandated services in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Moreover, there are charter schools in New Orleans with out-of-school suspension rates approximating 70 percent.

She suggests parents in East Nashville should be concerned about a district following the same model as New Orleans. Perhaps public meetings on the topic and continued engagement by groups like East Nashville United will lead to questions being answered or more time being given to consider all options.

 

For more on education policy and politics in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport