Wednesday, May 09, 2018

What's Happening with Charter Schools? Let's Review

It's almost hard to know where to start but one thing seems to be happening - charter schools are having a harder time with the passage of time. 

In Arizona where recently there was a massive teacher strike (which saw the teachers prevail), there are cracks in the charter schools.  From The Daily Courier in Prescott, Arizona:
In September, the Grand Canyon Institute released a portion of a detailed analysis related to charter school finances.

Though that report does not cite violations of law in its review, the research suggests a concern for malfeasance because charters are allowed to handle public dollars in ways that are not traceable to the taxpayers. Unlike district schools, the Institute states charter schools are not required to participate in competitive bidding for equipment and services, leaving open room for questionable financial deals and spending of tax dollars.

Another concern is that charter schools can set their own salary schedules for teachers and administrators, with administrators often earning more than district leaders and teachers getting paid less than their district colleagues.
More on money issues, this time from Oakland:
Two Bay Area school districts lost a total of $76.6 million to public charter schools during the 2016-17 school year, a new report concludes.

Two Bay Area school districts lost a total of $76.6 million to public charter schools during the 2016-17 school year, a new report concludes.

University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center professor Gordon Lafer, who led the yearlong study, told this news organization that the purpose of “Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts” was not to advocate for or against charter schools but rather to provide a first-of-its-kind analysis of how they impact school districts’ financial health.

“The point of the study is that we can’t pretend this cost is zero,” Lafer said.
Some of you may not remember but Tacoma's school board had been considering being charter school authorizers and decided against it.  Then, when charter schools began to be authorized, to their surprise, a couple opened in Tacoma and the district started feeling those effects.  I recall being at a Washington State Charter School Commission meeting where a couple of board members asked if there wasn't something in the law to restrict the number in any given district.  There wasn't in that law and there isn't in the current one.

Any district who thinks that charters won't affect them is wrong.  One interesting case study, though, is Spokane which is the only school district authorizer in the state.   More on this in another thread.

Also in Arizona, enrollment issues, this the from AP:
Hundreds of Arizona’s state-funded charter schools use discriminatory enrollment policies to close their doors to certain students, according to a report released Thursday by a civil rights group.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona said an investigation found numerous schools had admission requirements that seemed intent on deterring students with certain vulnerabilities. They include disabilities, English-learning needs and past disciplinary issues, the report said.

“’School choice’ means that families should be choosing schools, not the other way around,” ACLU of Arizona executive director Alessandra Soler said in a statement.
Treatment of students at one chain, Noble Charter Schools in Chicago which are mostly high schools; this via NPR:
But despite its prestigious reputation, Noble has a peculiarly high teacher turnover rate.
And some of those teachers are speaking up about policies they describe as “dehumanizing.”

Noble’s handbook lists more than 20 behaviors that can elicit demerits. The dress code, for example, requires students to wear light khakis, plain black leather belts, black leather dress shoes, and school-branded polo-style shirts that must be tucked in. Hair must be only a “natural” color, and students can't have any designs in their hair.

Five Noble campuses lost at least half of their teachers over the past four years. Part of that is due to burnout: The charter network requires teachers to work longer hours, and often on weekends. 
This kind of strictness speaks to something I have believed about some charters, like Noble and KIPP:
Bell, however, believes the rules are necessary to mold low-income students into college material.
I think many parents choose strict charters because they are trying to give their child a kind of structure that they may not have at home or in their neighborhood.  It's a feeling of safety for the parent and a "molding" of the students by the schools.
Jane Sundius, a social psychologist who focuses on poverty, children and education, says low-income families tend not to question systems like those at Noble. She points to a study by sociologist Melvin Kohn, exploring how parenting styles vary by social class.

“What he found was that working-class parents focus very much on obedience. Off little Johnny went to school and his mom said, ‘Listen to the teacher! Be good! Be quiet!’
And upper-class parents focused on learning and creativity and having fun,” she says.
“The working-class parents trained their children to be workers on an assembly line, not empowered, while the upper-class families taught their children to believe that they had a legitimate right to their opinion and their views.”
But this is discipline at Noble:
One of the policies that made her most uncomfortable was demanding “level zero,” or complete silence, in the hallways during passing period, which she says teachers could activate by yelling “hands up.”

“Teachers were applauded if you had the ability to shut down the hallway,” Baltzer says. “We had no awareness that it would be inappropriate to shout ‘hands up’ at a hallway full of black children. And so we had white teachers shouting ‘Hands up’ and kids putting their hands up and going silent. That is insane.”

Deshawn Armstrong, who graduated from Hansberry in 2017, says level zero sometimes extended from passing period to the lunch period.
“I do remember there was a period, my sophomore year, I want to say, when we were on level zero lunch and level zero hallways for approximately a month and a half,” he says. “So in essence, during the school day, there was no conversation taking place between students in the halls or at lunch, which is really the only time that we have the opportunity to speak to one another.”
And this speaks volumes:
Discipline varies widely among Noble’s 17 schools, but data provided by the network shows students at five predominantly black Noble campuses last year got about twice the number of demerits as students at Noble’s 10 predominantly Hispanic schools. Two additional predominantly-Black campuses had lower demerit numbers, but they are different by design. One of them, Gary Comer College Prep, is housed in a newly-constructed building where every classroom has glass walls, to promote “transparency and accountability.” The other, Butler College Prep, is Noble’s “social justice” school, and most teachers and staff members are Black.
Well, there's some irony that Noble seems to miss; when you staff with teachers/staff of color, you have fewer discipline issues with kids of color.  Maybe all their schools need to be "social justice" schools.

NPR followed up with another story because of the volume of comments/feedback and heard from Noble teachers and students, current and former.  The most shocking issue raised:
One described an issue raised by others at some Noble campuses, regarding girls not having time to use the bathroom when they get their menstrual periods.
“We have (bathroom) escorts, and they rarely come so we end up walking out (of class) and that gets us in trouble,” she texted. “But who wants to walk around knowing there’s blood on them? It can still stain the seats. They just need to be more understanding.”
At certain campuses, teachers said administrators offer an accommodation: They allow girls to tie a Noble sweater around their waist, to hide the blood stains. The administrator then sends an email to staff announcing the name of the girl who has permission to wear her sweater tied around her waist, so that she doesn’t receive demerits for violating dress code.
Last year, two teachers at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep helped female students persuade administrators to change the dress code from khaki bottoms to black dress pants. Although their initiative was based in part on a survey showing that 58 percent of Pritzker students lack in-home laundry facilities, it remains a pilot program available only at the Pritzker campus.
If you have ever been a middle school girl with her period, this should make you shudder.  It's beyond humiliating. 

Lastly, I attended the Washington State Charter Schools Convention a couple of weeks back.  Quite interesting and I'll have a thread on that event soon.

At this point, I think people on all sides should be worried.  Charter schools because of their growing (and in public) difficulties and traditional districts that are losing money to charter schools (and not being able to fight back).


Anonymous said...

This is incredibly important analysis, so thank you for including this. Seattle's education news coverage is far richer for your efforts, Melissa, and thank you generally for the attention you bring to issues the Seattle Times and the Stranger et al. overlook.

My reaction to charters is one of dismay. If charters offered unambiguously mostly positive results, that would be one thing, but charters seem to be middling at best and abusive and discriminatory at worst. As a tool for education policy, they are a bad idea. When we look at school funding, they are even worse for education funding policy.

I do think that the district shares some blame for the emergence of charters on our horizon. Seattle parents seem to really value school choice and alternative programs given our large and robust option school system. Yet, the district has been a bit hostile to option schools from the outset, and there are strong voices in the administration that seem to want to undermine them or get rid of them even as other voices support them. When I think of hostility to option schools, I think of programs like Licton Springs, which was promised a building and never got one (and it seems like the district wants to ax that program). Or, I think of questionable principal hires that have undermined other option schools. But then the district just opened Olympic Hills as an Expeditionary Learning option school, so I feel whiplash. This whiplash effect is perhaps all that's needed to make charters so appealing.

Another factor is chronically underperforming schools in some parts of the city that lack option schools, so charters are appealing for those reasons too. (Yet option schools' enrollment in such areas is being kept artificially low by not moving wait lists.)

A good policy way to support proper public schools but check the growth of interest in charters might well be to embrace the option school concept robustly. When you have literally 400 people on the wait list for Hazel Wolf in a lower-income part of North Seattle, it's a strong sign that the educational vision of parents and district do not jibe.

Option schools are public schools and follow all the same financial and hiring rules and are subject to union rules, but they offer the flexibility and academic emphases that are in demand or needed.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Simone, I think Director Harris has spoken to the notion of the embrace of parents for Option Schools and why can't there be more replication?

I totally agree that SPS was way ahead of the curve of charter schools - having option schools for at least a decade before charters even exists - but they fail to realize what a lure they are for parents.

Anonymous said...

20 years ago, the option of a public Montessori preschool–5th Grade program at the elementary school two blocks from home definitely kept us in the public school system. I had researched the Montessori method and knew it would be a good fit for my very kinetic, high-energy child. And it absolutely was.

20 years later, that once-incredible program has been diluted. The preschool component is gone and the rest of the program either stagnates or worse depending on the principal at the time despite the popularity of the program.

I have watched SPS sabotage so many popular programs within schools—often because they don't mesh with an incoming principal's POV. It's very sad.


Matt said...

If charters are such a lure for parents, why are we so quick to condemn the choice they're making? Are we so sure those parents don't know what's best for them and their kids? Doesn't the fact that charters are at the moment attracting students and parents say something important about our traditional public schools that you're failing to address?

NNE Mom said...

I think what the social psychologist says about class is really important. I don't know if it's true that low-income and working class families tend to focus on obedience whereas upper-class parents focus on learning and creativity and having fun. But certainly there are families that focus more on the one and families that focus more on the other.

And if you have brought your child up in the one system, it can be a huge culture clash to send them off to a school which is run from the other outlook. This is playing out in every neighborhood school in the city. Where you have children who have been raised with a paternalistic, father knows best, obedience at all costs approach who are suddenly encountering a school that uses positive reinforcement and is more lenient. Or you have children who have been raised with a focus on learning, creativity and fun and you send them off to a school where they need to comply with strict drill sergeant obedience rules (strict bathroom rules, missing recess as punishment, no recess when it rains, etc.).

Children can be raised either way. But the public schools need to educate children who have been raised both ways. If you ask me this is one of the main factors that drives families to seek out option schools. If your assigned school feels like it's training children to be workers on an assembly line, not empowered, families who families have taught their children to believe that they have a legitimate right to their opinion and their views will look elsewhere.

If we want robust neighborhood schools that people want their children to attend, it would make great sense to bring them out of the father knows best 1950s paternalistic obedience at all costs mentality. Because the jobs of the future are not assembly line jobs. Our public schools should be empowering all students. Positive reinforcement works, but if you weren't raised that way you have to learn how to do it.

Anonymous said...

Simone, just a quick point - Olympic Hills is an attendance area school not an option school.

The district is not supportive of option schools in low income areas because they typically enroll less diverse and lower poverty populations than the overall service area. In these areas, increasing option school enrollment leaves students with higher needs and higher poverty levels in schools with fewer teachers and less resources just like charter schools do.

Is Graham Hill’s Montessori program going the way of Leschi’s? When an option program is co-located with an attendance area school, the effect of choice enrollment opportunities is more noticeable.

If the disparity in enrollment is based on varying abilities to jump through district enrollment hoops, giving an enrollment preference for option schools to students who qualify for free meals, have IEPs or are ELL would make the system more fair. Any disparity remaining would be based on differences in parental preferences and I think the district should be unconcerned about that.

Fairmount Parent

Melissa Westbrook said...

Matt, that's an interesting choice of words.

"If charters are such a lure for parents, why are we so quick to condemn the choice they're making? Are we so sure those parents don't know what's best for them and their kids? Doesn't the fact that charters are at the moment attracting students and parents say something important about our traditional public schools that you're failing to address?"

I don't "condemn"parents for their choices. They are free to make whatever choice is available.

But it is important to understand - for the overwhelming majority of parents who are in traditional schools - to understand the impacts to any given district.

I don't say that parents don't know what is best for their child - in fact, I have told people go private if you feel that will be the best fit for your kid. I'm a huge public school supporter but everyone has to make the best choice for their child while being aware of how those choices affect the system.

It would be an interesting study to find out why parents do choose charters. One small study found that parents who had their children in a traditional school and then moved to charter schools were presented with the fact that their charter school didn't have better academic outcomes than their old school. The answer was "but I chose this school." There is something deeply empowering about being able to make choices for your child but the system's job is academic outcomes, not parental choice.

I'll have more to say on this when I write about charters and resegregation.

NNE Mom, interesting take on that section.

Fairmount Parent, also an interesting idea. You should ask the Board about this because I think who gets into Option Schools is just as big an issue as who is in HCC.

Stuartj said...

Why do kids choose charters? Here are some possible reasons that apply to both charters and to any other school: 1. location is more convenient for parents or closer for child 2. child just needs a change maybe socially, maybe academically, maybe extracurriculars 3. school size is smaller 4. charter has special programs 5. marketing: charter sounds cool 6. counseling / non academic support 7. perception of school culture or behavior of students . I have no doubt there are parents at some charters and private schools for that matter who would really like their kid to be at a public school that's outside their service area, but for whatever reason it simply isn't an option.

LC Girl said...

I think Simone probably meant Cedar Park. They are an expeditionary learning option school right near Olympic Hills.