Robert Cotto Jr. is the Director of Urban Educational Initiatives and Lecturer in the Educational Studies Program at Trinity College. He is also an elected member of the Hartford Board of Education and he writes for the blog; The Cities, Suburbs & Schools Project.
For the original of this post go to http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/2015/02/21/charter-school-renewal-in-ct-the-accountability-is-flexible/
Charter School Renewal in CT: The Accountability Is Flexible (By Robert Cotto Jr.)
Over the next few months, the public and Legislature will debate whether charter schools in Connecticut are sufficiently regulated or not. The State Department of Education and Board of Education will also decide whether or not to renew six (6) existing charter schools in Connecticut.
Already this legislative session, there is a bill for a moratorium on new charter schools and a review of existing ones. There are also proposals for more charter schools in CT. A missing aspect of this debate has been the existing charter school renewal process. This process merits more scrutiny because the firm “accountability” it promises is actually more flexible than advertised and it stands in contrast with how other public schools are treated by the State.
When Connecticut lawmakers initially allowed charter schools to operate in 1997, a major guiding principle was an exchange of “flexibility” for “accountability”. In other words, private non-profit “entities” receive public funds to operate public charter schools with permission to operate outside of various state and local laws, such as limited or no requirements for teacher certification and collective bargaining; but only if they met State educational goals. Charter school laws and guiding principles are similar around the country.
In 2014, the State’s charter school report claimed that, “Connecticut’s charter school law and accountability plan administered by CSDE require charter schools to demonstrate their success and compliance with the law in exchange for their charters.” In 2010, the report put it more directly as success and compliance, “in exchange for autonomy from local boards of education.”
This concept suggests that if charter schools don’t meet defined goals or state educational interests, they will face concrete, firm, and predictable consequences. The case of charter schools renewals, past and present, shows that the concept of “accountability” for “flexibility” is more theory than practice. Instead, when it comes to charter schools, the “accountability” is “flexible” and consequences do not come their way in a regular or predictable fashion.
For other public schools, the concrete goals usually mean some test-score target defined each year; and the firm, predictable consequences for not meeting those targets can mean mandatory state or local intervention in managing the school, firing most of the staff, or converting the school to a private management company, or a charter school. Examples of this “test and punish” approach throughout Connecticut include, but aren’t limited to:
- Lewis Fox Middle School in Hartford was closed and later replaced with an Achievement First Charter School
- Milner Elementary School in Hartford and Paul L. Dunbar School in Bridgeport were reconstituted and then operated by Jumoke/FUSE charter management corporation through the controversial “commissioner’s network”. This experiment ended with the demise of FUSE/Jumoke.
- Last year the State of CT and Hartford Public Schools attempted to close Clark Elementary and replace it with an Achievement First-managed charter school, but that effort failed.
There is a different approach for charter school renewal and evaluation. Depending on the particular charter, the non-profit, private organizations that operate a public charter school must go through a process to determine whether they can keep their charter or lose permission from the state to operate the school. This process happens every three to five years for each charter school. The process is a way to regulate all charter schools and make sure they are serving the goals of public education.
The process to renew a charter has multiple parts and extends over several months. The charter operator must first submit an application to the State Department of Education explaining their work, including areas such as students’ academic progress (interpreted by the state as standardized test results), curriculum, staff development, finances, and governance (management & administration) of the school.
Six schools will go through the charter renewal process this school year (2014/2015). Those schools include: (click on the school name link for the 2014/15 renewal applications.)
- Explorations in Winsted
- Odyssey in Manchester
- New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport
- Stamford Academy in Stamford
- Interdistrict School for Communication and the Arts (ISAAC) in New London
- Common Ground High School in New Haven
These aren’t new charter schools, but have enrolled children for ten to twenty years at this point. Having opened in 1997, Odyssey, Common Ground, and ISAAC were among the first state charter schools created in Connecticut.
The next step is that the State Department of Education reviews the application and conducts a site visit to observe how a school operates compared to the description in their renewal application. A look into this process can be seen in this letter from CT SDE’s charter school program manager to administrators at the Common Ground High School in 2009, when the school was last up for a review. The letter shows some of the criteria for the charter renewal, which includes categories listed above, such as finance, test results, etc. If the school is meeting its goals and the educational interests of the state, then the State Board of Education can renew the school’s charter.
The state’s charter school law, specifically Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-66bb(g), outlines basic criteria that should guide the State Board of Education in deciding whether or not to renew a school’s charter. The criteria include, but are not limited to:
- “student progress”,
- administrative irresponsibility or misuse of public funds,
- non-compliance with applicable state laws,
- and failure to attract, enroll, and retain certain demographic groups such as students with disabilities and emerging bilingual children, identified as “English Language Learners.
It’s worth reading the CT charter school renewal law here.
The law leaves the door open for flexibility in this process. The text states that the State Board of Education “shall” (must) take into account the findings of a holistic, independent appraisal, but “may” (can) deny the application based on criteria in four categories, but not necessarily others. In short, the law does not require the State Board of Education to deny a charter renewal application for any particular reason, although it may do so.
In this way, lawmakers created loose rules in the charter renewal process. Like a judge may have discretion on a legal matter, or a psychologist uses clinical judgement, the CT State Department of Education reviews charter schools on a case by case basis and has a wide range of options in responding to their strengths and weaknesses. This provides administrative leeway or flexibility for state charter schools in Connecticut in the charter renewal process, but is contrary to this apparently strict mantra of “more accountability for more flexibility.”
Not included in the above section of charter school renewal law or the checklist are requirements to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation or other state laws. To that point, the very next section of the charter school law states:
(h) The Commissioner of Education may at any time place a charter school on probation if (1) the school has failed to
(A) adequately demonstrate student progress, as determined by the commissioner,
(B) comply with the terms of its charter or with applicable laws and regulations,
(C) achieve measurable progress in reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation, (continued…)
Finally, the state can revoke a charter at any time in cases of an emergency, or with written notice for failure in any of the areas listed above. The commissioner has to provide notice in writing about why she/he moved to revoke the charter. The law states:
(i) The State Board of Education may revoke a charter if a charter school has failed to:
(1) Comply with the terms of probation, including the failure to file or implement a corrective action plan;
(2) demonstrate satisfactory student progress, as determined by the commissioner;
(3) comply with the terms of its charter or applicable laws and regulations; or
(4) manage its public funds in a prudent or legal manner.
Even if the State Board of Education moves to revoke a charter, the “governing council”, or a charter school’s managing board, can provide an oral or written presentation to contest the State’s decision to revoke the charter and demonstrate compliance in areas deemed deficient.
Perhaps because of the flexibility in the charter renewal law, there have been times when charter schools have been renewed despite apparent examples of not meeting specified goals, the listed criteria in statute, or educational interests of the State. Another possibility is that the implementation of the policy has not been sufficiently discerning to identify major problems such as financial malfeasance or the mistreatment of children.
As a result of this flexibility, the state Board nearly always renews charters. Between 2010-2013, all 17 charter schools in the state obtained a renewed charter from the State Board of Education, according to this list from the CT Mirror. (excluding one that became an interdistrict magnet school) Non-charter public schools have not been so fortunate as they have had to follow strict federal and state rules and consequences, primarily on the basis of standardized test results. Since 2007, at least ten non-charter schools in Hartford, CT alone were closed or the staff fired on the basis of rigid test-based targets and subsequent punishments as outlined in state, federal, and local policy.
(Note: To my knowledge, there isn’t a list of all CT schools that have been closed, reconstituted, converted to charters, turn(ed) around, or restarted as a result of NCLB/RttT test-based accountability. If you know of a list, please share!)
Take the charter schools requirements to enroll representative populations of emerging bilingual students and students with disabilities and the reduction of racial and ethnic isolation. In my report with Kenny Feder, “Choice Watch,” over at CT Voices for Children, we reported that charter schools in CT tend to have smaller proportions of emerging bilingual children and children with disabilities when compared to local school districts, and are often more racially segregated than local school districts. Yet, no charter school was revoked because it didn’t include emerging bilingual students, children with disabilities, or because it was racially segregated, as state law would suggest.
When problems are found, the State Board of Education has often allowed schools to keep their charters rather than closing the school through a non-renewal. In some cases, the State board required more frequent review of charter schools, such as a renewal process after three years rather than five, for example. This scenario happened in 2007 with Common Ground and Odyssey Community School (due to poor test data) and Achievement First-Hartford in 2013 (due to excessive suspensions/special education/civil rights complaints). In other cases, schools received “probation” by the State Board of Education before a charter was revoked or non-renewed. Examples of this action included Highville/Mustard Seed (due to financial malfeasance) and Jumoke (due to financial malfeasance).
According to past and recent State Department of Education reports on the operation of charter schools, only five charter schools closed their doors since 1999. Three closed because of insufficient funds, despite the fact that the State Dept. of Education was required to review their financial plans before a charter was granted. Additionally, the CT State Board of Education shut down one charter school for health/safety violations and closed one charter school because of lack of academic progress.
Even relatively low test scores haven’t been a sufficient reason to deny a charter renewal. When its charter was renewed in 2012, Trailblazers Academy charter school had among the lowest aggregate test results in CT. By the rules of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Trailblazers had not met “Annual Yearly Progress” for six years.
Stamford Academy, which had among the lowest aggregate test results in 2013 is now in a similar situation this year as it faces a charter renewal process. (They are up for a renewal after only three years.) By 2010-11, Stamford Academy hadn’t made “Annual Yearly Progress” for five years.
(Note: Annual Yearly Progress was such a problematic measure that it was abandoned by the CT State and U.S. Federal Departments of Education in Connecticut’s 2012 waiver to parts of the NCLB Act.)
According to the logic of more “accountability” for more “flexibility”, shouldn’t these schools have lost their charters?
Despite not making AYP (the goal back then) and the State reporting this negative status, it is still unclear why these charter schools never faced the same sorts of clear, strict punishments as other public schools under NCLB. While the CT State Department of Education and State Board of Education delegated the responsibility of implementing NCLB sanctions to local districts for schools under local control, they apparently haven’t assumed that responsibility for schools under their own supervision in recent years.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, if these schools had been non-charter public schools, they would have been targeted for punishments such as firing the entire staff, notifying parents that they could choose to go to another school, closing the school, state takeover, conversion to charter schools, or taking away public governance in favor of private management. Ironically, Stamford Academy and Trailblazers were the end goal of No Child Left Behind – privately managed, publicly-financed state charter schools that parents chose to enroll their children, ostensibly to produce higher test scores. Yet, they were still amongst the most struggling academically and the state renewed their charters in 2012.
In defense of these schools, (Trailblazers, Stamford Academy, and others) perhaps they are offering educational benefits not captured by overall low test results. Stamford Academy and Trailblazers Academy enrolled high proportions of children that struggled in school. These schools also served a much more historically under-served group of children, mostly Black, Latino, low-income, and many more students with disabilities when compared to the more affluent Stamford Public Schools, which also have higher proportions of white students.
I am not advocating that Trailblazers and Stamford Academy should close because I don’t have enough information on either one to make a judgement, nor would closing the schools improve them. But I am pointing out that there have been two sets of rules when it comes to state “accountability”. Several years ago, Wendy Lecker also pointed to what appeared to be “double standards” in evaluating charter and other public schools in her column at The Stamford Advocate.
Let’s also consider what the renewal process has looked like for some of Connecticut’s charter schools that look better as measured by test score data. When its charter was renewed in 2012, the State touted Amistad Academy’s high test results compared to New Haven schools in 5th grade, and particularly for 8th grade students.
The state’s resolution on Amistad Academy noted that the school didn’t meet “Annual Yearly Progress” in the elementary grades, but did in the high school grades in 2010-11. But there didn’t appear to be any firm academic goals apart from the AYP metric, just general description of its test results and how they were better than the New Haven Public Schools overall. There was a presentation of test results with some narrative, particularly of the vertical scale scores offered as evidence in the final resolution to approve the charter renewal.
Undiscussed however, was the fact that the test participation data showed massive student attrition at Amistad Academy. In 2008, there were 76 students in grade 5, but there were only 53 students that matched that group in grade 8 in 2011. This was a loss of 30% of the student population from the original 76 students that started 5th grade in 2008.
So the high overall test results in 8th grade only accounted for 70% of the kids that stayed at the school-those students that took the standard CMT in math in both grade 5 and grade 8 at Amistad Academy. This attrition happened in CT and New Haven overall, but not to the same degree. Such attrition impacted the way the test results were interpreted (we are only looking at 70% of an already selected cohort) and the manner in which the test results were obtained (removing low-scoring or undesirable students can inflate results at this school and impact other local schools that later enroll these students). This attrition went unmentioned in the State Board’s renewal resolution despite one of the questions in the State checklist being, “Is there a high turnover of students?”
The State’s resolution, referencing the audit and site visit, also explained that the school lacked curricula in grades 3-8 science, K-12 health, physical education, and the arts. There were also problems with financial controls and safeguards between Achievement First, Inc, the private charter management corporation, and Amistad Academy, the public charter school; and many of the school’s teachers lacked proper state certification. The school was allowed to remedy, or begin fixing these deficiencies before their hearing at the State Board of Education, thus securing a renewed charter.
In Connecticut, there are laws against both excessive suspensions of students and racial/ethnic segregation of students, particularly for charter schools. [see above CGS Sec. 10-66bb(h)] But the renewal process for Amistad Academy ignored its exclusionary disciplinary policies, racial and ethnic segregation, and provided no analysis of representative populations of bilingual children and students with disabilities, among others. To be sure, these issues aren’t specified in the renewal checklist, but the school is required to follow applicable laws and regulations, including laws about students suspensions, special education rights, and racial and ethnic segregation, among others. A year after the Amistad renewal, The CT Mirror and The Hartford Courant reported that Amistad Academy and its Achievement First affiliates had the highest numbers and rates of suspensions of children in CT. As Choice Watch reported, the school was (and still is) racially segregated, as well as most charter schools in CT.
Amistad Academy may be a school that people want their children to attend amidst the relative disinvestment, neglect, and mis-education of children of color in other schools. However, parent and families’ decisions about schools happen in the context of State over-investment and policy in favor of public school choice programs and under-investment in other public schools with high proportions of low income and Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino children. This arrangement is a key feature of Connecticut educational policy, like other states. (See M. Apple, P. Lipman, & K. Buras writing on this issue.)
Regardless of Admistad Academy’s status, the State’s own charter renewal report documented educational concerns and overlooked substantial problems. It was not until then-State Child Advocate Jamey Bell intervened that the suspension information and the depth of the problem became known to the public, particularly throughout the Achievement First charter school chain. As a result of State and public pressure, Achievement First/Amistad has reportedly made improvements to its disciplinary policies; and lately the company has explored the idea of alternative methods in addition to its current “no excuses” schooling.
Like all schools, Amistad Academy has both its strengths and weaknesses. Recognizing this point, the State’s charter renewal process has been flexible in its approach towards renewal and remediation of charter schools, instead of responding with rigid “accountability.” In addition to flexible, the state’s approach has also been selective in valuing particular types of “achievement” data first, and everything else after.
Accountability at Traditional Public Schools
In Connecticut, however, plenty of other non-charter public schools have similar groups of children as Stamford Academy and Trailblazers Academy charter schools, may need more support, and struggled on overall test results. Unlike these two charter schools, other public schools faced crude forms of high-stakes test accountability under federal, state, and local rules.
This flexible “accountability” stands in stark contrast to the regimented consequences that other public schools face under the No Child Left Behind Act, NCLB Waiver, and other high-stakes test accountability systems such as in Hartford, Connecticut. These systems outline firm, test-based numerical targets and emphasize clear punishments when the goals aren’t met, such as school closings, conversion to charter schools or private management. Unlike the charter renewal process, there are rarely second or third chances for other non-charter public schools, and excuses aren’t acceptable when it comes their “accountability” process.
So here’s a dilemma: Carefully implemented, the ability of authorities to have administrative discretion (reviewing each school on a case by case basis) and assess schools holistically may be pragmatic and humane policy in some cases. In other cases, this flexibility can result in vague, selective accountability. It’s worth considering this local administrative judgement and holistic assessment in the context of all public schools. So I will explore this idea in a future post.
In the meantime, let’s watch this charter renewal process. The charter renewal process offers the possibility for people and groups to weigh in through letters to the State Department of Education, a public hearing for people to testify about the school’s work, and, ultimately, people can testify at the CT State Board of Education before a school’s charter is renewed.
The dates, times, and locations for the local public hearings on these charter school renewals are here and the chart is below. So take a look at the charter school applications and the process documents. In the meantime, here are a few questions to consider:
- Is the State of Connecticut exercising sufficient oversight of charter schools through the renewal process? Is the law sufficient?
- Are these charter schools meeting their goals and the educational interests of the State?
- What evidence should be weighed in this process of charter renewal?
- Can the holistic process of reviewing charter schools be applied to other public schools?
(Note: Comments are activated and you can now share this link with a “share it” button.)
Public Hearings 2014-15
|School Name||Dates||Time||Hearing Location|
New Beginnings Family Academy
February 24, 2015
|6:00 -8:00 pm||Bridgeport City Hall
Common Council Chambers
45 Lyon Terrace
Bridgeport, CT 06604
February 25, 2015
|6:00 -8:00 pm||Howell Cheney Technical High Multi-Purpose Room
791 W. Middle Turnpike
Manchester, CT 06040
February 26, 2015
|6:00 -8:00 pm||J. M. Wright Technical
120 Bridge St.
Stamford, CT 06905
March 3, 2015
|6:00 -8:00 pm||Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern CT
490 Jefferson Avenue
New London, CT 06320
March 5, 2015
|6:00 -8:00 pm||Winsted Town Hall
P. Francis Hicks Room
338 Main Street
Winsted, CT 06098
March 10, 2015
|6:00 -8:00 pm||Wilbur Cross High School
181 Mitchell Drive
New Haven, CT 06511