Future of Schools

Tempers flare at Dougco board meeting

Because of readers’ requests, EdNews is posting full videos of public speakers from Tuesday’s board meeting. See them here.

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County’s voucher program may be in legal limbo but the issue continues to inflame passions among supporters and opponents of the district’s conservative school board.

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Dougco school board member Meghann Silverthorn appeals to audience and board members for calm after contentious exchanges.

Cindy Barnard, a Dougco parent who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that has stalled the voucher plan, questioned board members Tuesday about legal expenditures in defending the plan, which she said now total more than $900,000.

District leaders have pledged to use only private donations to defend their voucher pilot as they appeal a Denver judge’s ruling that the plan violates the Colorado Constitution and state law. They’ve raised more than $800,000 for their legal defense fund, according to records provided in response to an open-records request.

But Barnard said that leaves a fund deficit of more than $100,000, a figure the district disputes, and she urged board members to post accurate records of voucher expenses and revenues.

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Her comments angered John Carson, the school board president who has championed the voucher program and who blamed Barnard for the dollars spent.

“I would just like the record to show that you are the cause for those legal expenditures,” he said, and some in the audience began to boo. “You are the cause of those expenditures. You are the cause … period.”

Call for more security at “hostile” board meetings

Barnard said she was happy the private donations were rolling in, noting “I do not want district funds spent on a program that as of today has been found to be illegal and unconstitutional.”

That prompted cheers and applause from an audience weighted, that night anyway, more toward board critics than supporters.

It was one of several exchanges during a relatively brief public comment session that showed the factions formed over vouchers, along with the role of the teachers’ union, appear to be hardening rather than softening as time passes.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot.”
– Katherine Vitale, speaker

One speaker, Katherine Vitale, commended board members for their “tenacity” and said she and other supporters are increasingly concerned about the “hostile” crowds at board meetings. She said a bumper sticker was ripped off her car and other supporters’ cars have been scratched with keys.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot,” she said.

And a visibly upset high school student who declined to give his name accused board members of bullying Barnard and declared, “You disgust me.”

“If you were to do that in the school system, you would be fired, you would be removed from the school as a disruption,” he said. “You are the problem here, not the solution.”

Later, the student said his first name was David and he was reluctant to give his last name because a parent is a Dougco teacher.

“I know that emotions are very high, people are very upset, on both sides,” school board member Meghan Silverthorn said after David sat down. “If we could just take a step back, take a little bit of a deep breath … Let’s engage productively, let’s listen to each other.”

Parents ask for survey responses to be considered

Much of the public comment centered around parent surveys that board members last month declared were invalid because of a low response rate. Of the district’s 76,500 parents, only 4,900 – or 6 percent – filled out the survey forms.

But several parents encouraged board members to consider the responses anyway, reading aloud from positive and negative comments written on the forms.

“I ask that you validate the comments and concerns of parents who took the time to respond to the parent survey last spring,” said Brian White of Castle Rock.

Some critics have charged the district deemed the survey results inconclusive because 55 percent of respondents said they did not support the district’s voucher plan.

Change in plan
  • Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen said the district is changing a July 25 deadline for teachers nearing retirement who are eligible for a severance bonus. Additional details.

Board members did not reply to survey comments. They did, however, answer a teacher concerned about a July 25 deadline for those nearing retirement.

After the recent dissolution of the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, school board members voted to phase out a bonus given to veteran teachers leaving Dougco. Teachers learned earlier this month they had to decide by July 25 whether they wanted to retire and take the bonus.

But Deborah St. Martin, an elementary teacher, said the deadline was impossible to meet because state pension plan officials were unable to process paperwork that quickly.

Superintendent Liz Fagen said that deadline has been changed and teachers will now have until next June to retire and receive the bonus. A letter explaining the change was released Wednesday.

Voucher appeal may drag into next year

Barnard, who is president of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the groups that sued over the voucher pilot, said there’s some discrepancy in district documents over what’s being charged to the legal defense fund.

For example, the cost of filling open-records requests filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, was moved out of the fund.

Rob Ross, Dougco’s in-house legal counsel, said the defense fund is for expenses incurred by outside attorneys. He said the fund currently has an $8,000 deficit but that the Walton Family Foundation has pledged another $100,000, so the fund will soon be replenished.

Board members approved the voucher pilot, which would use public dollars to help send students to private schools, by a 7-0 vote in March 2011. A Denver judge declared the plan unconstitutional last August and the district filed its notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In April, opening briefs were filed by the district and the state, its co-defendent in the suit. Taxpayers for Public Education and other plaintiffs filed their responses last week. District and state officials now have until Aug. 3 to reply to those responses, and oral arguments would then likely be scheduled.

Ross said a ruling is not likely until late this year or early next year.

In other action Tuesday, school board members approved the termination of employment for Dougco teachers union president Brenda Smith and four other full-time union staff members. In several large Colorado districts, teachers elected as union presidents leave the classroom but continue to receive full or partial compensation from the district.

Dougco school board members made it clear last fall that they no longer wanted to count full-time union representatives as district employees. Smith said the union had offered to reimburse the district for the teachers’ full salaries, benefits and any other costs – in part to allow union staff to continue in the state pension plan – but the district declined. The union has filed a grievance over the issue.

District officials said they treated union staff like any other downsized employees and gave them the opportunity to apply for classroom positions or enter the substitute teaching pool. One of the six full-time union staff members will be teaching this fall while the others did not seek positions, Smith said. She said they plan to continue representing teachers.

Video highlights from Tuesday’s board meeting

Full video from Tuesday’s board meeting

Part 1 – Speakers Brian White, Trisha McCombs, Lillian Armijo and Beth Kerr
Duration: 8:13

Part 2 – Speakers Laura Mutton, Deborah St. Martin and Katherine Vitale
Duration: 9:19

Part 3 – Speakers Cindy Barnard and Gary Colley
Duration: 8:44

Part 4 – Speakers Pam Mazanec, student named David
Duration: 4:51

recipe for success

Eva Moskowitz looks back at her turn away from district schools, as she plans for 100 schools of her own

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

Eva Moskowitz didn’t always aspire to be a champion of alternatives to the city’s public schools.

During an interview at a Chalkbeat breakfast event on Thursday, the high-profile — and often controversial — CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools explained her evolution from what she described as an “FDR Democrat” who believed the traditional school system was flawed but could be improved to an outspoken critic trying to lead an educational revolution from the outside.

Her transformation didn’t come from “reading Milton Friedman,” the free-market economist, she said. Instead, she described a gradual disillusionment with the traditional school system that began when she was a student at a Harlem elementary school, which she said was effectively “warehousing children,” and continued when she was a city councilwoman scrutinizing the city’s contract with the teachers union. (She claimed the union’s pushback against her contract probe made her feel like she was in one of the “Godfather” films.)

Success Academy is New York City’s largest charter school network, with 46 schools and 15,500 students. The network which mostly serves black and Hispanic children  has extremely high test scores, which critics argue are largely the result of intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that push out the hardest-to-serve students.

Moskowitz and her schools have been the target of criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made challenges to charter schools a tenet of his first campaign, and Moskowitz a particular target (he said she should not be “tolerated, enabled, supported”). She has fought back fiercely, staging rallies and protests and demanding that de Blasio provide the charter sector with space for its classrooms.

Her clash with City Hall is in marked contrast with that of Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, who two years ago explained to the audience at a similar Chalkbeat breakfast what it is like to work with an ally in City Hall.

Moskowitz laid out for her breakfast audience her aggressive expansion plans  which she said she intends to pursue despite de Blasio’s resistance. She estimates the charter sector will serve about 200,000 students in four years (out of the total 1.1 million public school students in New York City) and wants to expand Success Academy to reach 100 schools.

Moskowitz recently released a memoir, which is full of personal details about her history and explains the backstory of Success Academy. She remains a pugnacious advocate for her cause, continuing to take on the unions and the mayor, while arguing that parent choice is central to making schools more equitable.

Here are some takeaways from the event, which was held at the Roosevelt House in Manhattan.  

She decided early on that many district schools are failures.

Moskowitz attended a public elementary school in Harlem, where she said she and her brother were the only white students in the school. She described what she calls the “warehousing of children” and dubbed it “expensive babysitting.” When she attended Stuyvesant High School, she said, she had a French teacher who didn’t speak French and a physics teacher who was sometimes intoxicated.

As a teenager, she started helping Cambodian refugees find schools. In the neighborhoods they could afford, the schools were “God awful,” she said, while nicer schools were in neighborhoods out of their price range.

“It did stick with me that you were totally screwed if you didn’t live on the right side of the street,” Moskowitz said.  

She believes unions and their contracts are a big part of the problem.

Ninety percent of schools “are not working at the most basic level,” Moskowitz said, a dysfunction that she argued is partly due to the rules in teacher and principal contracts.

After becoming chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee in 2002, Moskowitz held hearings on every aspect of the school system including toilet paper. But her biggest showdown came when she decided to tackle the teachers union contract, she said.

“It is not a genteel sport when you take on the teachers union,” she said. “I had never felt like I was living a ‘Godfather’ movie before I took on the unions. It was a very scary undertaking.”

She envisions continued growth for the charter sector, but would not be pinned down on how large it would grow.

Though she has aggressive goals to expand Success, Moskowitz wouldn’t say what percentage of the city’s public schools should be charter schools. She called it a “hypothetical debate” and wouldn’t make a prediction for the future, saying she doesn’t have a “crystal ball.”

Parent choice is at the heart of her philosophy.

Moskowitz said parent choice is “fundamental” and the best bet for ensuring school qualify. Parents also are a bulwark, Moskowitz argued, to ensure  that charter schools — which are run by private boards — will be responsive to the public will.  

She also thinks charter schools should be held accountable for results.

Although charter schools are freed from some bureaucracy, they are highly regulated and do not operate in “some libertarian universe,” she said. She said she holds her own schools to account, believing that she should not increase the number of Success Academy schools unless all are high-quality.

She “urged caution” about trying to engineer diversity at charter schools.

Moskowitz thinks districts can “get the social engineering wrong” when they try to integrate schools by methods such as forced admission or busing. Instead, she argued, parents should be the engine that drives integration in charter schools through their ability to choose which schools their children attend.

The city should concentrate on integrating district schools, where admission to most elementary schools is based on the zones families live in, she said.

“I’m not sure we should put our energy into fixing charters on this front when they are already a much more open, accessible system than the zoned system,” Moskowitz said.

WRONG SCORES

Scoring glitch means thousands of Tennessee students got wrong TNReady score

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

Just when it seemed that this year’s state testing had gone off with minimal hitches, news has emerged that thousands of exams were incorrectly scored.

About 9,400 students in 33 districts across Tennessee received incorrect scores after the testing vendor, Questar, used a scanning program that included an error. That includes Shelby County Schools in Memphis, where the problem affected just over a thousand students at 11 high schools, school board members confirmed on Friday.

An official with the state’s Achievement School District said he wasn’t aware of the issue, but the ASD is one of 33 districts affected, according to the state.

The errors were isolated to English I and II and Integrated Math II tests for high school students, according to an email to school board members.

Shante Avant, chairwoman for Shelby County’s board, said the errors are concerning, especially after the tumultuous rollout of TNReady in 2016.

“Our kids do have to be assessed so we know how best to support them. And there’s a heightened scrutiny with test scores. But when we’re not able to provide accurate information, it breeds mistrust,” she said.

Here are the Shelby County Schools affected:

The state said tests for students in grades three through eight were re-checked and no errors were detected. “All student score results for grade 3-8 are correct and final,” according to a state email to superintendents.

It’s unclear how much the scoring errors might have distorted district averages, which the state reported in late August. About 1,700 of the changed scores statewide affected whether or not a student passed the test. 

“I don’t know if 1,000 out of 10,000 students is going to significantly impact the district,” said Shelby County board member Chris Caldwell. “But we certainly want to make sure they come out as accurate. It’s especially important for the students.”

Several districts, including Shelby County Schools, chose not to include raw TN Ready scores in student report cards, meaning student grades wouldn’t have been affected by incorrect scores. But confusion remains for board members on how exactly this will impact students as well as teachers, who are evaluated based on their students’ exam scores, Caldwell said.

What is clear is that the scores could have implications for historically low-performing schools. This year’s scores were the second year of the state’s new test for high school students — and the state will use them to decide what happens to struggling schools under its new accountability plan to comply with federal law.  

While TNReady results for individual schools haven’t been released yet, district-level scores for high schoolers showed that few were on grade-level in Memphis school districts.

Questar was new to Tennessee test-making this year and was responsible for distributing and scoring the exams. Questar took over following a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

 “Questar takes responsibility for and apologizes for this scoring error,” Chieff Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said in an email to the state. “We are putting in additional steps in our processes to prevent any future occurrence. We are in the process of producing revised reports and committed to doing so as quickly as possible.”

Here is the full list of district’s affected:

  • Achievement School District
  • Anderson County
  • Benton County
  • Bradley County
  • Bristol City
  • Carter County
  • Cocke County
  • Collierville City
  • Crockett County
  • Davidson County
  • Elizabethton City
  • Giles County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hardin County
  • Henry County
  • Huntingdon Special School District
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Knox County
  • Lewis County
  • Lincoln County
  • Marshall County
  • Maryville City
  • Monroe County
  • Montgomery County
  • Obion County
  • Putnam County
  • Roane County
  • Rutherford County
  • Shelby County
  • Smith County
  • Sumner County
  • Union City
  • Weakley County

This story has been updated with comments from Shelby County Schools board chair Shante Avant and Questar. We have updated the story with a full list of districts affected.