Future of Schools

Bill to limit 'charter shopping' passes Indiana House

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in in Indianapolis will close at the end of this year.

Concerns about low-scoring charter schools that avoid sanctions by switching to new sponsors are behind a bill that passed the Indiana House today, but it would not block those moves entirely.

House Bill 1636 is aimed at stopping “charter shopping,” a practice by which some charter schools with failing grades have found new sponsors just before their sponsors — called “authorizers” in state law — moved to close them.

“We need more accountability for charter authorizers,” said Brandon Brown, who oversees charter schools for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, one of the state’s biggest sponsors. “We need more transparency and we need a clear vision for authorizing.”

The bill, which passed the House 82 to 12, 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 bill was co-authored by Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis and Rep. Justin Moed, D-Indianapolis.

Their goal is to ensure that sponsors know when schools they oversee seek either to change to a new sponsor or start another charter school with a different sponsor. The two sponsors should exchange information so both know if the school is switching oversight or opening a new school, Moed said.

That way the new sponsor will know if there are problems or concerns, he said.

“This is making sure that, when an authorizer approves a charter school, they are held accountable for the progress of those students,” Moed said.

Until 2010, the mayor of Indianapolis and Ball State University had been Indiana’s only active sponsors for the decade since charter schools debuted in Indiana.

But a 2011 law added a third major charter sponsor — a state charter school board that can sponsor new schools — and also expanded sponsoring authority to private, non-profit colleges along with public universities. Ballard, Ball State and the state charter board all back House Bill 1636.

While debating the 2011 bill that expanded sponsorship, supporters often suggested well known private universities like Notre Dame, Rose-Hulman and Valparaiso would be interested in sponsoring charter schools. Instead, it was much smaller and lower-profile private colleges that became sponsors: Grace College in Winnona Lake, Trine University in Angola and Calumet College.

The expectation in 2011 also was that new sponsors primarily would start new schools. In fact, legislators at the time explicitly said the goal was not to allow low-scoring charters to escape sanctions by “shopping around” for a new sponsor when accountability — such as being closed down for failing to meet their goals — loomed.

But in some cases, that’s what has happened.

Three former Ball State charter schools that were facing possible shutdown for failing grades — Timothy L. Johnson Academy in Fort Wayne, Imagine Life Sciences Academy West in Indianapolis and Charter School of the Dunes in Gary — managed to find new sponsors just before Ball State delivered the news that they would have to close. Timothy L. Johnson Academy and Imagine Life Science Academy West are now sponsored by Trine University and Charter School of the Dunes by Calumet College.

In some cases, it surprised Ball State to learn a school it was moving to close found new life with another sponsor.

“I don’t want to say its bad to shop around, but I would like to see more sharing of information and communication,” said Bob Marra, who oversees the charter schools Ball State sponsors.

Under the bill, private colleges also could not simply begin sponsoring a charter school, as they can now. They would have to register with the Indiana State Board of Education first.

The bill requires the state board to evaluate charter school performance every five years.

One other provision would allow charter schools, which generally select students by a lottery if there is more demand than seats, to give preference to the school’s founders, employees and board members as long as those children don’t exceed 10 percent of the school.

Some charter school proponents argue stronger rules around sponsors would make charter schools stronger.

“For the health of the broader school movement it’s important only quality charter schools are able to operate,” said Janet McNeal, principal of Indianapolis’ Herron High School, a charter school, testifying last week in the House Education Committee. “Without high-quality authorizing, too many children will continue to be in low-performing schools.”

civil rights commission

Detroit education leaders open to collaboration on accountability, student records

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dan Quisenberry, second from left, testifies before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday as Wayne State University finance professor Michael Addonizio and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti look on.

When students change schools — as they do all too often in Detroit  — their data should travel with them.

That idea has found support from more than one education leader in recent days, raising the prospect of additional cooperation between Detroit’s charter schools and its main district.

Speaking in Detroit before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday, Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said information sharing could help alleviate the effects of the large number of students who switch schools in Detroit.

“It would be important to look at citywide records and data systems so that a child has information about themselves when they show up at a school, what they’ve experienced,” he said.

His remarks followed on the heels of similar recommendations made last week by a different charter school official at a forum about school switching in Detroit.

And they came as district leaders have shown an increased willingness to collaborate with charter schools. Earlier this year, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti joined the Community Education Commission, a mayor-led group that has begun operating a bus line in northwest Detroit that carries students to charter and traditional schools.

Vitti has been vocal in his approval for the group’s latest project, a citywide, A-F school grading system that emphasizes student growth over academic proficiency, a system he dubbed “fair and consistent.”

“It’s hard to think about collaboration when you’re in a competitive environment, but we have collaborated on an accountability system,” Vitti said on Monday.

When he took control of Michigan’s largest district last year, Vitti promised to go toe-to-toe with charter schools to recruit students and teachers.

It remains to be seen whether either side would agree to a proposal that, at its most ambitious, could be the most significant district-charter collaboration since an effort to create a common enrollment system succumbed last year to practical hurdles and poisonous politics.

After a failed effort to put the common enrollment system under mayoral control, Quisenberry said there was a “question of trust” between the district and charter schools on the issue.

But he said on Monday that there’s no reason the two can’t work together.

“Everybody thinks, many times falsely, because we were against… putting the mayor in charge, that we’re not interested in cooperating,” he said. “We just don’t think that was necessary.”

After the common enrollment initiative collapsed, some of its supporters regrouped and published a report arguing that a joint data system could help improve teacher hiring and reduce absenteeism.

Now that idea appears to be picking up steam.

Last week, during the forum on students frequently changing schools, education leaders pointed out that when students move — as roughly one in three Detroit elementary schoolers do every year — academic data helps teachers orient them to a new classroom, while enrollment information helps their former school know where they’ve gone and that they’re safe.

Maria Montoya, who is with the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, advocated for a common data system, saying “a child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Charter Churn

New York City charters burn through principals faster than district schools, report finds

PHOTO: Getty Images / Spencer Platt
A charter school rally in New York City

As the principal at Renaissance Charter School, Stacey Gauthier’s job extends well beyond supervising teachers. She manages fundraising, lobbies elected officials to support charter schools, and even responds to issues raised by the teachers union.

“We are basically our own district,” she said, noting that the work of running an independent charter school can be a challenge without the infrastructure that comes with a school system or even a large charter network.

Despite that heavy workload, Gauthier has stayed in her role for 11 years, making her an outlier among charter principals. According to a first-of-its-kind report released earlier this month by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, the city’s charter schools generally churn through principals at a much higher rate than traditional district schools.

Last school year, 25 percent of the city’s charter school principals were new, more than double the turnover rate at district schools. That level of turnover represents something of a paradox: Studies show principal turnover can hurt student achievement, but research has also shown the city’s charter schools generally have higher state test scores than district schools do.

“If the research is right” about the consequences of principal turnover, said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and the report’s author, “by addressing it, [charter schools] could improve even more.”

But it’s not clear why turnover is so much higher at charter schools, which also often churn through teachers at a higher rate.

One reason could be differences in student demographics. Since charter schools enroll a greater share of low-income students and students of color than district schools on average, that could make for a more challenging environment that contributes to churn. But controlling for differences in student demographics — including proportions of English learners, students with disabilities, those coming from poor families, and race — the report found no meaningful effect on turnover.

Another possible reason: Charter principals are easier to fire than district principals who typically have more union protections. A charter principal who runs a school that is seen as low performing is easier to replace, the theory goes, explaining higher levels of turnover. But the data don’t back up that theory. Even after taking into account differences in school performance as measured by school quality reports, higher turnover “was not driven by overall school performance,” Winters found.

It’s also possible charter schools are just more difficult work environments in ways that are difficult to measure, including some schools’ adoption of a “no excuses” ethos that tells educators that a student’s life circumstances should never excuse performance issues at school. (The report does not include breakdowns of individual charter schools or networks.)

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there could be some truth to the idea that charter schools are tougher work environments, but added that some of the turnover could be related to fierce competition for leadership talent.

“There’s such a huge supply-demand imbalance for high-quality principals,” he said.

The report includes another puzzling trend — turnover in district and charter schools fluctuates significantly over time. Over the past 10 years, turnover at district schools ranged from 8.7 to 14 percent each year. At charters, turnover ranged from 7 to nearly 34 percent. Those swings meant that in two of the last 10 years, district turnover was slightly higher than it was at charters.

Winters, the report’s author, didn’t come to a firm conclusion about why the turnover rates seemed to shift significantly from year to year.

“I left this paper with more questions than answers,” he said.