District schools become faux charters

Money is motivating some charter conversions in California, reports Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Report. Until this year, all California charters received the state’s average per-pupil funding. Schools in districts with below-average funding could convert to charters and move up to the average. They also could apply for federal startup grants.

That’s lead to a wave of “chinos” — charters in name only — that haven’t changed curriculum, teaching, schedules or anything else.

Several California school districts with only one school have become “charter districts.” And in at least five California districts with multiple campuses, charters now comprise nearly all of the schools. Many of these “dependent” charters retain close ties to their districts.

In San Carlos, five out of six schools are charters. Most parents don’t realize their neighborhood school is a charter. There are no lotteries, writes Butrymowicz. “The schools still have a traditional central office and school board overseeing them.”

Starting this year, district schools in California can’t boost state funding by converting to charters. Conversation applications are way down.

Nationally, conversion charters make up nearly 10 percent of all charter schools. 

Oakland loses students, schools to charters

Twenty-one percent of students in Oakland, California, a mostly low-income, minority district, now attend charter schools and now two successful schools are converting to charter status, writes Lisa Snell on Reason.

Last week the Oakland Unified school district voted to close five elementary schools as part of a restructuring plan as the district grapples with a huge budget deficit caused in part by too many schools and not enough students. In the past six years student achievement in Oakland Unified has improved faster than any urban district in California. The district has operated through a charter-like school-choice process called “Options” where a student can enroll in any school in the district and the “money follows the child” to that school. 

 Despite the flexibility, teachers and principals at two elementaries, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits, have voted for charter status, saying charters “have far more control over who they hire, what they teach and how, and how they spend their money,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Those interviewed from the two schools, including Mari Rose Taruc, a parent-leader from ASCEND, say families overwhelmingly support the charter proposal.

The two schools hired teachers dedicated to the mission when they opened in 2001 (ASCEND) and 2007 (Learning Without Limits). But, this March, the district issued seniority-based layoff notices to 60 percent of the older school’s teachers and nearly all of the newer school’s teachers. While most of the layoff notices were rescinded, the two schools decided that charter conversion was the best way to protect the schools’ character.


Detroit: We’ll convert 41 schools to charters

Faced with closing 41 schools, the bankrupt Detroit school district wants charter operators and Education Management Organizations to take over its failing schools by the start of the school year, reports the Detroit Free Press. That’s six months away. It may be impossible.

However, charter school operators and advocates across the nation said they believe the time line for chartering 30% of the district is too ambitious, given the amount of work that goes into hiring and training staff and developing a school design.

Converting low-performing California schools to charters didn’t raise reading and math scores, concludes a 2010 Brookings Institution report, which found converted schools “look more like traditional public schools than start-up charters.”

“The challenge of coming into an existing school is it frequently has a strong culture which might be dysfunctional, particularly if it’s been low-performing,” said Doug Ross, CEO of New Urban Learning, a nonprofit that operates charter schools in seven locations in Detroit.

KIPP, which prefers to start schools from scratch, already has said it won’t bid on Detroit’s surplus schools. Neither will Green Dot.

New Orleans, with 61 percent of students in charter schools, has seen significant progress since Hurricane Katrina “swept away much of the school system in 2005,” notes the free Press. “Prior to Hurricane Katrina, about 62% of New Orleans students attended failing schools. Today, that number has dropped to 17%.”

New Orleans schools that don’t improve are placed under the management of a high-performing school, said Paul Vallas, Recovery School District superintendent.

DPS should close its 41 schools, let those students be absorbed elsewhere and then convert some surviving schools to charters with rigorous standards, Vallas said.

“That would not only solve financial problems, it would solve your problem of school quality,” he said.

In addition to New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Denver have given up control of the most troubled schools to outside operators, notes Ed Week.

However, only 5 percent of turnaround schools have been turned over to outside management, notes Title 1-Derland.

‘Trigger’ parents charge intimidation

Using California’s new “parent trigger” law, 63 percent of Compton parents signed a  petition to turn their chronically low-performing elementary school over to a successful charter network.  Now parents and activists are charging school officials with intimidation and harassment.

Parents said they were informed that every person who signed must come to the school on Wednesday and Thursday for a five-minute meeting with district employees, and must present photo identification and sign a new petition. If people do not show up for any reason, their signature will be eliminated, parents said.

Some parents can’t make the meetings because of work commitments. Others in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood don’t have photo ID because they’re illegal immigrants.

“It’s not about verification! It is purely about disenfranchisement,” said state Sen. Gloria Romero, who sponsored the parent trigger law.

“This is clearly not about ‘verifying’ anything — it is about the district making up new rules to try to throw away the petitions that we have already submitted,” said Ismenia Guzman, a leader of McKinley Parents for Change.

Parents who signed the petition have complained they’ve been threatened with deportation and told the charter school will not take special education students.  Two parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department saying their children were harassed by teachers because their parents had signed the petition.

District staffers complain the petition drive was conducted in secret and that nobody at the school knew about the petition till it was presented. They claim parents didn’t understand what they were signing.

Parent Revolution didn’t inform the school district about the petition drive, but organizers must have contacted a very high percentage of parents to get so many to sign. They must have asked parents to help spread the word. Parents had to be talking about it for weeks. And yet, apparently, not a single parent told a teacher or another school staffer about the petition.  Imagine an elementary school in which parents don’t talk to teachers or ask questions.  That’s a very strange environment.

Parent Revolution, founded by a former member of the state board of education,  has a law firm working pro bono.  I don’t think the district will get away with throwing out the signatures.

One year of independence

After a bitter battle to convert a Los Angeles high school to a charter, Birmingham Community Charter High has graduated its first class, reports the LA Times. The consensus: It was worth it.

“It was challenging,” history teacher Maria Agazaryan admitted, “but I’ll take it over LAUSD any day of the week.”

While district-run schools reduced the number of school days and hiked class sizes, Birmingham was able to cut spending by using outside contractors to provide food service, buses for special education students, and gardeners and janitors. The school also saved money on supplies.

Faculty said that the new way of doing things has been more efficient and that the contract employees often do better work.

“Things are cleaner, things get fixed faster,” said Robin Share, one of the school’s three instructional coordinators. “If we have a need for an extra set of books, all that happens much faster.”

Teachers who hated the charter idea left for other schools and were replaced by new teachers who wanted to be at Birmingham.

Teacher Ed Jacobson said things are looking up — which is a good thing, because Birmingham’s staff now has no one else to blame if the school doesn’t succeed.

“Something about having the whole thing in your hands is cool,” he said. “It takes a while for it to dawn on people — it had better be good.”

Test scores for the first year aren’t in yet, but more students earned a diploma this year.