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Living on different planets [UPDATED]

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Update: See DPS response at the bottom of this post.

Denver school board member Andrea Merida, in high dudgeon, has leaked on her blog the following letter from the Denver Public Schools administration to board members. It was supposed to be embargoed until next week.

Merida is deeply offended by the contents. I think a lot of it sounds progressive and promising – and not all that new. My concerns about DPS and charters have more to do with whether the district is becoming overly proscriptive vis a vis charters. Read on, and then comment away.

Dear Board Members,

On December 6 and 7, Denver Public Schools will be hosting leadership from the Gates Foundation and almost a dozen school districts throughout the country, including LA, New York, Nashville, and New Orleans, to announce a new initiative created to strengthen district-charter collaborations in the participating districts (please consider all of this information to be embargoed until Tuesday, Dec. 7).

DPS has been a national leader in establishing a core set of equity principles articulated in the Denver Plan that guide all of Denver’s public schools: equity of access, accountability, and opportunity:
·         All students must have access to all schools.
·         All schools must be held accountable to the same standards of performance.
·         All schools must have the same opportunities to utilize district resources and facilities.

The creation of a center-based program at Omar D. Blair charter school and an attendance area for West Denver Prep’s campuses in NW Denver are evidence of this commitment.

In the last few months, DPS, along with 8+ big-city districts, developed a district-charter collaboration compact that embodies these key principles and identifies future areas of partnership to guarantee all schools provide all students with access to a high quality education.  Through this compact, DPS and Denver charter schools committed to the belief that all students can achieve and deserve the highest quality public schools. It is the collective responsibility of all public schools in Denver, district-led and charter schools to ensure all students have access to an excellent education that successfully prepares them for college and career.

Driven by these shared beliefs, this District-Charter Collaboration Compact represents an unprecedented commitment among district and charter leaders to improve the ways they work together for the benefit of all students in the city.   Through its bold agenda to increase the number of high quality school choices, Denver has served as a national leader and model in this work, which is why it is fitting that the Gates Foundation would choose to launch its national initiative in Denver.  Denver Public Schools has worked with the charter community to make real our core principles of equity of opportunity, equity of access and responsibility, and equity of accountability, as illustrated in the following recent measures:
·         Charter schools, in aggregate, serve students populations that nearly mirror district averages in terms of free/reduced lunch status (73%), ethnic minority percentages (75%), English language learner status (30%), and special education status (11%).
·         In 2010 Omar D. Blair became the first charter school in DPS to open a special education center program for students with multi-intensive needs in a charter school, and additional center programs are slated to open in charter schools this fall.
·         Charter schools share equitably on the same pro rata basis as district run schools in funding the cost of center programs for severe needs students throughout the District. To ensure all students in DPS are afforded the highest quality education, Denver has committed to closing or restructuring the lowest performing schools, including the 6 lowest performing charter schools in the last 3 years.
·         The District’s multi-measure School Performance Framework (SPF) treats district-run and charter schools equally; three of the top five performing schools in Denver Public Schools in the fall 2010 SPF are charter schools.  Statewide, four of the top five schools demonstrating the most academic growth in the 2009-10 school years were DPS schools, of which three are charters.
·         District and charter leaders serve on joint teams to ensure equity regarding special education and the enrollment practices and procedures.

Further commitments Denver charter schools have agreed to in the Compact include:
·         Locating new schools in the highest-need areas, aligned to district plans and connected to district feeder patterns. Demonstrate parent support for new school applications and participate in ongoing parent engagement.
·         Providing access and high quality support services or programs for all student populations, including English language learners, high risk students, students with mild-moderate needs, and students transitioning out of alternative schools.  Commit to providing access and high-quality support services for students with severe needs as appropriate, guided by an equitable allocation process of center-based programs and corresponding resources.  Support the comparable representation of all student populations in charter schools
·         Providing access and high-quality support services for mid-year entry students in accordance with the district administrative transfer process and agreed upon district-charter school enrollment policies. Ensure that mid-year entry students are provided equitable access to schools across the district.
·         Partnering with Denver Public Schools to implement a common and coordinated choice enrollment system.
·         Make available to district educators, where feasible and at cost, professional development opportunities.

In recognition of Denver’s leadership, the Gates Foundation is hosting a breakfast especially for the Denver Public Schools Board of Education and DCTA representatives.  This will provide you an opportunity to dialogue with Gates Foundation leaders, Vickie Phillips and Don Shalvey, about Gates’ on-going investment in Denver, including this district-charter initiative and Denver’s educator effectiveness grant.  Breakfast will take place from 7 – 8 am on Tuesday, December 7th at the Westin Tabor Center. Please rsvp to (redacted by me).

Finally, the two-day Gates Foundation event will culminate on December 7th with a national press call and local press conference to launch its national district-charter initiative.  Until then, all information regarding the District-Charter Compact and initiative is embargoed.  Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact (redacted by Merida)  and please do keep all information regarding this subject confidential until the official press release on Tuesday, December 7th.

We are encouraged by the district-charter commitments and confident future collaboration proposed will address students’ and parents’ demand for increased quality, access, and resources.

What are Merida’s objections? Here is a bit of what she wrote:

Since when does the Superintendent have the authority to enter into far-reaching agreements with any entity, in a move that could drastically change the makeup of our “portfolio of schools”?  This potential sweeping change is a policy decision that only the Board of Education can authorize.

And then:

We have just received a very stern warning from the Colorado Department of Education about our ratings.  According to the newly released data, the Denver Public Schools is categorized as “accredited with priority improvement.”  This is the second-to-last rating from CDE, and we are the only large school district to get this rating.  This means that we are to supply an improvement plan to the CDE by January 15, 2011.  Why are we making backroom deals when we should be giving serious thought to improving these ratings instead?

Finally:

This development is flat-out deplorable, and it’s a further indication of how much we’re failing our students.  Instead of making these deals, we should be thinking very hard about how much we’ve veered away from the promise of the Denver Plan.

So, whaddaya think?

UPDATE: Here is a response sent by DPS chief of staff Amy Friedman to the school board Wednesday night:

Dear Board Members:
Several questions have been raised about if and when the Board will discuss and vote on the district-charter compact. We have this topic scheduled for the December meeting and look forward to the Board discussing whether or not they want the district-charter compact or any portion thereof to be codified in policy. As indicated in the previous email, the Denver Plan,  which was unanimously approved by the Board in the Spring of 2010, clearly articulates the equity principles included in Denver’s district-charter compact:

We will ensure that all of our schools—whether district-run, charter, contract, or innovation—have a level playing field of opportunity, of access and responsibility, and of accountability.

  • Opportunity: All our schools should have access to district facilities (including co-locations in our larger buildings) and equitable per-student funding.
  • Access and Responsibility: All our schools must offer equitable access for all our students, regardless of socio-economic, disability, or language status; all our schools must contribute financially on the same basis to use district facilities and for district obligations, such as pension obligations and district-wide special education fudning needs.
  • Accountability: All new schools are subject to the same accountability framework (the School Performance Framework), including the potential for school closurei nthe event of a failure to demonstrate student achievement growth.

(Denver Plan 2010, p. 29)

Furthermore, your actions over the past 12-18 months have been consistent with the vision articulated in the Denver Plan whether it was the recently approved enrollment zone in FNE that includes consistent enrollment practives for district-led and charter schools, the condition in Odyssey’s renewal to ensure equitable services for English langauge learners, WDP taking an enrollment boundary in NW, or placing a special education center program at Omar D. Blair.

Finally, in addition to the breakfast with Gates the morning of December 7th, we’d like to also invite you to a cocktail hour on December 6th from 5:30-6:30 at the Westin Tabor Center (1672 Lawrence Street). In addition to mingling with the leadership team from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, you will have the opportunity to meet district and charter leaders from the other cities participating in this work.

If you have any questions, please let me know.
Thanks,
Amy

Popularity: 4% [?]

Andrea Merida on last week’s DPS vote

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

In a post on her blog titled “Compromise vs. Intransigence,” Denver school board member Andrea Merida gives her take on last week’s vote to overhaul schools in Far Northeast Denver. She asked me not to reproduce the full post here, but said I could excerpt from it liberally. So you can read the full post here.

Merida, who voted against the changes the board adopted, mostly on 4-3 votes (with one 5-2 thrown in for good measure), felt all hope for compromise was dashed early in that marathon evening:

Both (fellow dissident board member) Jeanne Kaplan and I spoke with (board President) Nate Easley at different times in the two weeks preceding the vote with a simple question, “on which points of the overall plan could there be a compromise?” What he said, in no uncertain terms, was that if we could support at least a part of the plan, he would be willing to break out the schools into separate votes, instead of voting for the whole plan in one single vote. We requested that break-out because we believe that each school community is different and needs separate consideration.

But that’s not what happened at all. In fact, what Easley told us at the board meeting was that he’d gotten some information that we were just asking for that to slow the whole process down. The other three members that comprise the rest of the board majority agreed with him. He never said how he’d gotten such information. He certainly never posed that question directly to us. If he had, we would have answered to the negative.

Merida says she wanted the board to vote on each transformation proposal separately, but was voted down by the board majority.

This type of intransigence is par for the course for the corporate-driven education reform movement, and it’s completely counter-intuitive to the principles of good representative government. When people elect us, they expect us to respond to constituent requests, to vote according to the will of one’s constituency, to gather information from all perspectives of an issue, and to communicate openly on how one arrived at a certain decision. What I have seen in some of my colleagues is a dogged refusal to take in all the facts or to consider what stakeholders (or even fellow board members) have to say.

Merida also accuses her board adversaries of engaging in “astonishing rhetoric” for suggesting she and her allies are satisfied with the status quo:

My colleagues say, “you just care about adults, not kids,” as if anyone could ignore the fact that we’re in the kid business in the first place. Easley’s accusation that we “just want to slow the process down” is rooted in the false assumption that Kaplan, Arturo Jimenez and I don’t want to see any change at all. His position seems to come from an idea that we are retrograde and obstructionist and irrationally consumed with pro-union sentiment (although he himself was supported by the teacher’s union).

Finally, Merida concludes:

I just want to ask out loud, “do you really think we’re all here because we don’t care about kids?”  Why isn’t it possible for all parties to sit down, examine a plan and find where there’s agreement and just work from there?  Are school board members somehow magically transported away from the concept of representative government at the oath of office?

I think not, and the only option I have at this moment is to keep pushing.  To do otherwise would be to ignore the promises I made to you, the voters of Southwest Denver.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Bullseye, overlooked

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Overlooked in the controversies of the board meeting on Thursday night was an important vote that signifies a considerable change in policy.  The board was contemplating a course of action for Manny Martinez, a charter school who, in its first year, received the lowest score on DPS’s School Performance Framework, including perhaps the first (and hopefully the last) single-digit score for academic growth.

In the silence of the consent agenda, and thus passed on a unanimous 7-0 vote, the Board agreed to neither shut Manny Martinez entirely, nor to leave it intact. Instead, the Board voted to essentially freeze the student population by not allowing a new class of 6th graders to enter the school.  No current students were displaced, but the district was understandably unwilling to allow more students entry into an academic sinkhole.

This is an important shift, as previously the board only pursued a choice between two options – leave the school essentially intact with minimal consequences for poor performance, or shut it entirely thus displacing students.  Too often an unwillingness to do the latter left the BOE with a default to the former.  That binary world now has changed.

This is hardly a new idea. Cutting enrollment should allow a school to refocus its efforts and resources on a smaller base of kids (hopefully increasing their academic performance). Presumably the school will retain its best teachers, increase attention on academic improvement, and have a legitimate chance to get better. It serves as a clear signal of the board’s intention to move toward the harsher penalty of termination unless there is ample improvement, but the penalty falls most fully on the school’s adults, not the kids.

The controversial decisions last Thursday will no doubt be continually criticized, and in their wake there will be invective enough to cover the entire building. But in the hullabaloo over both sides’ impassioned accusations of having made the wrong decision, recognize that in this case — and in an unanimous act — the board got one absolutely dead-on right.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Charter animosities

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

“Regular Public Schools Start to Mimic Charters,” reads the article headline in the current edition of Education Week.  You’d think Education Week would be more aware of the impact that the headline would have with regular public school teachers.  The article describes limited attempts at collaboration between charters and their district non-charter schools.

This collaboration would complete the initial intention of charter schools: To be, as the article states, “research-and-development hot houses for public education.”  So far the collaboration has been limited in its scope.  To me, this is no surprise when you look at how far we have strayed from charters’ initial purpose.

Competition is fierce between these two factions as they fight for student enrollment.  This limits the incentive to collaborate.  I could go on, but I have pontificated on this before.

I want to go back to the headline and the interesting responses to the online version of the story.  Here you will see snipping about whether or not the innovative idea that the charter uses originated with the charter or in the non-charter public school.  You’ll also read complaints that charters are once again presented as the “second coming” for public education.

Oh, come on!  Can we embrace the greater issue here and ensure that whatever is working makes its way into educational practice?

Popularity: 2% [?]

From the publisher: Feed the rich!

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Establishing a school voucher program in Douglas County would be akin to sending famine-relief supplies to the Upper East Side of Manhattan while people starve in Darfur. Whether you’re a supporter or foe of vouchers, this should strike you as a strange idea.

It’s not entirely clear that what’s floating around in early draft form in Dougco is a full-blown voucher proposal. In some ways it may not be that much different than contract arrangements Denver Public Schools has with three schools. But it’s close enough for the sake of argument. More on that later.

I’m a voucher skeptic at best, though I have been swayed in recent years by arguments for means-tested vouchers, with ample conditions attached. I’ve quoted Howard Fuller on this before: The Harriet Tubman school of education reform believes in helping as many  kids as possible escape bad schools, by whatever means necessary, rather than waiting for that far-off day when all schools are good.

But I’m not there yet; not quite. I see too many booby traps along the way, and the stench of ideology hangs over the whole debate.

So I strongly disagree with those who would provide tax credits or vouchers for everyone, or at least anyone who chooses to opt out of the public system but wants to take their tax dollars with them to whatever private or religious school suits their fancy.

For some other viewpoints, see a couple of blog posts below, and the comments they prompted.

It seems to me that forward thinking voucher proponents would oppose Douglas County’s nascent proposal as well, but obviously I’m naïve to think so (See Vince Carroll’s recent column in the Denver Post, for example). If you want to win support for a controversial concept like vouchers, start with the low-hanging fruit. There are plenty of moderates out there who would support some kind of means-tested program.

Such was the case with the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which sent 2,000 low-income school kids to private (including) religious schools with $7,500 vouchers. It was snuffed out last year by the Obama administration and Congress. One would hope a centrist coalition might resurrect it.

But you will find precious few allies from the moderate camp if you start asking permission to let wealthy people take their tax dollars out of the public education system to support, say, a fundamentalist Christian school that belittles the theory of evolution and teaches that anyone not born again in Christ will end up in hell. I’m not saying any Douglas County private schools espouse those beliefs, but the potential for such schools to receive public money is there, under the current draft proposal.

Where I part company with voucher advocates, and even some charter advocates, is that I see choice as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is a quality education for every child. For the foreseeable future, the traditional public system alone cannot make that happen. Some charter schools are blazing new trails that district schools would be wise to follow.

I believe there is inherent value in public education, in the concept of the common school. It is not just another marketplace in which individuals can take their sliver of tax revenue and go wherever they please.

I willingly pay property taxes to fund public education even though my daughter is several years past high school. I want schools to be places where people of varying backgrounds come together to learn. I’m not interested in having my tax dollars, or anyone else’s, support schools that promote religious ideas I consider extreme.

People who so choose of course have the right to educate their children privately, in whatever kind of school they choose. And this, perhaps, is where voucher proponents have their strongest argument when it comes to low-income communities.

Why shouldn’t families in poverty have the same range of educational choices as more affluent families? Even under most voucher plans, of course, the range of choices is narrower for the poor. The reality is that the highest-end private schools – the Kent Denvers, Gralands and Colorado Academies of the world – charge tuitions that are far beyond the reach of most voucher programs, and in any case usually to decline to participate.

But Douglas County? Seriously? We’re talking about one of the most affluent, highest performing districts in Colorado. Just 8 percent of it students qualify for subsidized lunches – second lowest in the state behind Aspen.

And if you look at state data, Dougco schools (with the exception of Hope Online charters, which serve many low-income kids from across the state) are clustered in the high-performance, high-growth quadrant of the state’s SchoolView data system.

So where is the need for vouchers? Yes, need should be a primary criterion.

Some argue, with justification, that districts with high numbers of low-income students also tend to be politically liberal urban corridors, where vouchers are anathema. This makes a conservative area like Douglas a good place to test how a voucher program can exist within the strictures of local control.

But why? Really, now, how many Douglas County children are being badly served by public schools? How many of those families cannot afford a private option? How many low-income Douglas County families are trapped in failing schools? Bring me that number and then we can talk.

Finally, is the draft proposal for Dougco even a voucher program? Superintendent Liz Fagen sent a letter home to parents last Thursday in advance of a Denver Post story, saying that what was being proposed was creating a series of private contract schools. Denver has had contract schools since the days of Jerry Wartgow (Escuela Tlatelolco, Florence Crittendon  and the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning). Would Dougco’s be so different?

Read the draft proposal and decide for yourself. Religious schools would be one major difference, and there appears to be only one private non-religious school in Dougco. Saying, as Fagen did in her letter to parents, that the proposal would create contact schools and not a voucher system may be more politically palatable within the school district. But I’m not convinced it’s an accurate description.

So let the debate proceed. Douglas County seems a silly place to be having it. But when politics and ideology mix, common sense is often the first victim.

Popularity: 2% [?]

Charter schools: Potentially dangerous technology?

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Charter schools are a type of technology – a potentially dangerous type.  My reason for presenting this metaphor is to shift the conversation around charter schools, and maybe even around education reform, to one that is more productive and ultimately useful.

A lot of my time is spent thinking about charter schools. I have opened one, I ran one for several years, I am in the planning year to open another one, my wife runs one, and my old job in a district bureaucracy was to manage the department that oversees them. So it makes sense I would spend time on the subject.

But, lately I have been thinking about them even more than usual and in different ways.  Between the documentary “Waiting For Superman,” Race to the Top, and the pretty consistent media attention, I feel almost bombarded.

What’s interesting about so much of what you hear, read and see about charters is the schism between those in favor and those opposed.  There is very little discussion about any middle ground.  In fact, there is very little intellectual, deep discussion.

Creating an opportunity for richer, more meaningful discussion is where the metaphor of charter schools as technology could be useful, but first, you need to see charter schools as a form of technology.

Charter schools represent a “package” of processes, ideas and techniques used to perform a task, in theory, better than the current “package” of processes, ideas and techniques being utilized.  To me, that’s a decent definition of technology.

In college I majored in biology and this strange interdisciplinary major called Science in Society Program.  Turns out that in my career as a teacher and school leader I draw very little on all that science I learned, but a couple big ideas made a significant impact on me then and continue to be useful mental models.

One idea was developed in a class called Innovation and Social Change – technology isn’t always good.  Maybe you realized this early in life, and maybe you think it’s obvious.  But, I’d challenge the notion that most people approach technology with healthy skepticism. How often do we individually or collectively challenge the notion that an increase in technology is anything but good?  We are socialized to believe that technological progress is always good – we can do something now that we couldn’t before.  Go us. We rarely question whether we should do something new just because we can.

Think of things such as nuclear energy or genetic engineering.  The science and the practical applications of these and other technologies almost always outpace legislation, controls, or ethical considerations.  Maybe it’s human nature to do this, or maybe it’s the American way.  It doesn’t really matter.  Bottom line – it’s a deeply embedded element of our society.

Of course, technology can be hugely beneficial, but even in the most beneficial instances there are always unintended consequences (another big idea I learned in college – and again, maybe one of those things that most people just know).  When you take these two ideas together, the fact that technologies can outpace ethical, moral, and regulatory considerations and that every application of a technology has unintended consequences, you realize that technology can be a power for good, but can also be very dangerous.

Charter schools fit right in with this challenge of technology. As someone that has worked in the charter school world for about a decade and on both sides (the operator side and the authorizer side), I can tell you four things clearly.

1. We haven’t spent enough time thinking through how to regulate or manage charter schools.

2. There are unintended consequences in the implementation of charter schools (both positive and negative).  They are cutting edge tools with the power for good, and as with most new technologies, their adoption is outpacing our best thinking about regulation and ethical considerations.

3. There are charter schools that are abusing the system and destructive in many ways.

But, and this is a very important “but”…

4. There are charter schools that are addressing issues and serving children and their families in a way that is necessary and urgent.

Sounds like a technology to me.

This metaphor can help us have a new dialogue about charter schools.  It gives us a frame from which to carefully examine the possibilities of charter schools, both negative and positive, not from an ideological position, but from a rational, scientific vantage. (Please note that I am the first one that will debunk the myth of science as purely objective and reasonable, but I also believe it is an intellectual approach I haven’t seen in the charter school conversation, and it seems worth a try).   I ask you to try this for a minute, especially if you are already in an ideological camp.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Are vouchers really back?

Monday, November 8th, 2010

I was surprised to see the Douglas County proposal to use public money for private school vouchers, which has already received some commentary.  Douglas County supporters seem to be selling the idea more on the possible financial savings than other possible benefits of expanded choice.

In Colorado, since the 2004 court ruling, vouchers have largely been dead, and they haven’t made much headway elsewhere, when put up for votes.  At the same time, advocates have made more progress in this domain by promoting state-level tax credits for private schooling – not the same as vouchers, but with some similarities, as in Arizona, where is a case is currently up for legal review.

Interestingly, if you had to draw a line in the sand between Democrats for Education Reform’s education reform agenda and that of the Republican party, the biggest differences would be vouchers, which are not supported across-the-board by DFER types.  Charters are the preferred form of choice for DFER, since they keep public monies in public schools.

I suppose that the Tea Party and the recent Republican electoral gains have and will embolden advocates to renew their push for vouchers.

As they do that, they might want to think about the distinctions between where vouchers are applied.  Terry Moe, in his excellent 2001 book “Schools, Vouchers and the American Public,” which examines public opinion on school choice, found a lot of public support for using vouchers to help low-income families in urban areas with mostly terrible school options.  He did not find nearly the same political support for more widespread use of vouchers.

Indeed, wider public opinion about vouchers in a place like Douglas County has tended to view the idea as meant to promote segregation by class and public subsidization of religious schooling, which are not widely popular ideas.

Personally, I support greater experimentation with vouchers for low-income students in urban areas – the DC program showed some promise.  The broader research on these vouchers is actually pretty good, mainly from Paul Peterson’s Center at Harvard, and by his former graduate students – Patrick Wolf and Jay Greene.

While the findings are mixed and certainly don’t show panacea-like results from vouchers, there do seem to be some modest student achievement gains from using the vouchers (and the best studies have utilized lotteries to reduce the likely self-selection effects, though the methodology doesn’t allow us to completely rule that problem out).

But, the idea of Douglas County saving money via vouchers may be problematic.  I haven’t seen any details, but the idea seems to be a voucher at 75 percent of per pupil operating revenue (a number that I assume includes some state money, a point to consider again in a minute for legal purposes).  While, in a static sense, the district would obviously save 25 percent of the amount when families exercise the voucher, it is hard to see what kind of policy will prohibit current Douglas County parents who already send their child to private school from utilizing the voucher, and thus costing the district more (if memory serves, the state voucher plan from 2003 would have required families to be in public schools for one year, before exercising the voucher – something like this is possible, but only a short run solution to the “switching” problem).

If this idea does move forward, it would also re-raise some interesting legal questions.  While I don‘t play a lawyer on TV, I do recall that the state decision was made on local control grounds. Not tested thoroughly was the “no public money for private religious schools” element of the state Constitution (the “Blaine amendment”), which would seem to rule vouchers out, on their face, if any state money is involved (as opposed to just local funds).

Popularity: 3% [?]

Vouchers and lines in the sand

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Looks like the Douglas County School Board members are following in the footsteps of those corporate executives who reaped financial rewards for driving their companies into the ground.

While not reaping financial rewards, the board members would achieve ideological nirvana by eliminating government (read: the people’s) control of education.  This is a classic example of what Buie Sewall described in his post to Ed News a few weeks back.  He wrote of the hypocrisy of candidates running against the public sector by running for office to serve in the public sector.

The all-Republican Douglas County school board has hired an attorney to draft a plan to implement a voucher system.  The Colorado Springs attorney has been paid thousands of dollars (so much for the harmful effects of budget cuts) to find a way to comply with the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision on vouchers.

Of note is the fact that all six of the private post-kindergarten schools that would benefit from vouchers are Christian-based. The Denver Post, which broke this story, said that there was considerable doubt as to whether the board would follow through with the plan.  I am not so sure.

Douglas County board members could have a state legislator sympathetic to its voucher proposal.  Someone who has paid homage to vouchers is newly elected state representative Don Beezley who narrowly defeated Donna Primavera in House District 33.

Beezley wrote the following in the Denver Business Journal in 2005:

In addition, every alternative to traditional public schools — charter schools (which are still public), home school and private schools — all generate superior results, and charter and home schools are always cheaper per student than regular public schools. If we would take a rational approach through vouchers, private school costs would also fall as they reach a broader market, as would the cost of public education as it has to respond, at long last, to its customers — parents — in an open market.

Beezley, who has also compared this country’s education system to communism, is certainly ideologically driven.  He is also misinformed.  Get ready for a return to the simplistic “God, guns, and gays!” days of the legislature of years gone by.  I hope Hickenlooper is finally ready to draw some ideological lines in the sand.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Elections resound from D.C. to…Kit Carson?

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

The recent election results and their likely effects on education reform, both at the state and national level, deserve a closer look. In Colorado it seems clear enough that marginal gains were made in favor of school choice and tenure/evaluation reform. Four of the five Democrat incumbents defeated by Republicans en route to their new majority — Dennis Apuan, Debbie Benefield, Sara Gagliardi and Dianne Primavera — were SB 191 opponents and significantly supported by teachers unions.

The state senate picture looks like more of a wash, even as races in two districts appear unresolved with ballots still being counted. Senate Majority Leader John Morse voted against the initial version of SB 191 but was one of a number of Democrats to come on board to accept the final House version. His challenger, Republican Owen Hill, likely would push education reform to the Right. Filling the shoes of pro-SB 191 Democrat Dan Gibbs offers a big divide on that vote for education reform. Conservative Republican Tim Leonard would be a staunch supporter of school choice and other reforms, while liberal Democrat Jeanne Nicholson seems to be more aligned with the unions than the retiring officeholder was. Meanwhile, SB 191 opponent Bruce Whitehead was defeated by supporter Ellen Roberts.

At the national level, with a Tea Party surge bringing a new majority and a new dynamic to the U.S. House, a big issue will be the ESEA reauthorization. I tend to agree with Fordham’s Mike Petrilli that the shift entails “less money, less reform” from D.C., as there will be a strong, new focus on trying to devolve federal power — perhaps halting some of the Obama-Duncan initiatives.

That brings me to an overlooked election result from Colorado’s Eastern Plains, that just may have national significance. On Tuesday, voters in the 100-student Kit Carson School District passed a $45,000 mill levy by a roughly 3-to-2 margin. In conservative Cheyenne County. During the big Tea Party wave. What gives? The money will be used to offset the small district’s position (rogue or avant garde, perhaps, depending on your point of view) to refuse federal Title One dollars.

Superintendent Gerald Keefe said receiving the roughly 2 percent of the general fund budget prevents the district from either having to dip into reserves or consolidate elementary classrooms. Still, it’s no small feat in a fiscally frugal rural area not known for backing many tax increases. Opting out of the federal strings was key. “This one is more on principle than anything,” Keefe said.

A few years ago, Keefe received confirmation that his was the only district nationwide that had taken the bold step of bucking federal dollars. To the best of his knowledge and mine, that still remains the case. Though I did find a northern Wisconsin school district that less boldly refused $45 (not $45,000) in allotted Education Jobs funding.

Next up for Kit Carson? A plan to opt out of Title Two dollars (currently used for professional development through BOCES), which would effectively liberate the district from No Child Left Behind’s “highly qualified” teacher requirements. Through either this approach or its Innovation proposal pending before the State Board of Education, Kit Carson is looking for greater flexibility to suit its local personnel needs.

It will be interesting to see how much of a trend Keefe’s school district propels, given the national mood and the latest election results. And it will be interesting to see how the newly configured Congress and Colorado legislature assume their roles in driving (or in standing back from) the next steps in education reform.

Popularity: 8% [?]

Ed reform: Who’s on whose side?

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

There’s a strange flip happening between some school reformers and people who would appear to be defenders of a failed system in DPS for low-income kids.

Manny Martinez, a disastrous new charter middle school managed by Edison Learning, is being protected by DeFENSE and others that have traditionally sided with DCTA while the reformers like myself say the school should be closed or phased out.  How strange would it be if DCTA decided to defend this charter school?

Manny Martinez, which has been a disaster from before it even opened, is now the worst performing middle school in DPS.  Only 25 percent of the Martinez kids are proficient in reading while 65 percent of the students were losing ground relative to all the other kids in Colorado.

Kudos to DPS and A Plus for getting this critically important school performance data out while The Edison Learning folks interestingly say nothing about performance of the school on their website. Edison used to claim that it would live and die by school performance.  Edison now says that parents should enroll their kids in the school because their teachers are passionate and it’s a charter.  Neither are good enough reasons to trust a school with your child’s education.

The education reform battles get stranger every day.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Colorado Health Foundation Walton Family Foundation Daniels fund Pitton Foundations Donnell-Kay Foundation