Future of Schools

Koch panel advocates for vouchers, elimination of Common Core

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute and principal Steve Perry were two panelists on a forum on school choice.

A group of conservative scholars and a charter school principal pushed for vouchers and urged Tennesseans to be wary of the Common Core standards during a forum Tuesday.  The program, whose attendees included legislators, representatives from conservative think tanks, and parents opposed to the rapid expansion of charters in the city, was held by a non-profit funded by Charles Koch, the controversial and influential conservative billionaire. It gave insight into the type of initiatives in Tennessee and across the country he might back this upcoming legislative session.

“Nashville is an ideal place to have this important conversation,” said Brennan Brown, a representative from the Koch Foundation who moderated the discussion. “Tennesseans realize the important link between education and opportunity.”

Panelists included representatives from right-leaning think tanks like the Friedman Foundation and the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and the principal of a charter school in Connecticut.

Charles Koch and his brother David Koch are co-owners and founders of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States, and are known to be among the most influential Americans. The billionaire brothers spend millions each year on statewide and national political campaigns that often directly promote libertarian principles, and are credited with bringing their libertarian values into the mainstream. Recently, the brothers have gained notoriety for their venture into education philanthropy. Koch-funded organizations bankroll civics courses that “reinvigorate the teaching of America’s founding principles and history” at universities ranging from Harvard University to the College of Charleston, and economics courses in public high schools.

Panelist Steve Perry, the principal of  Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Connecticut, said that reformers in Tennessee not willing to support vouchers were merely offering “reform-lite.”

“What they want to do, is they want to say what’s most politically palatable,” he said. Earlier in the discussion, Perry said he was astounded Tennesseans had not managed to pass a voucher program, since the state has a Republican governor and a super-majority of Republicans in the legislature. Although most aspects of the expansion of school choice in Tennessee are bipartisan, vouchers’ most visible proponents in the state and nationwide have been Republican. Perry said people in the room should be doing more to make vouchers a reality.

“You say you’re for it, you say you want choice, yet you don’t pull the lever to make the choice happen,” he said.

He and other panelists thought vouchers were among the best tactics to provide low-income students with the same high-quality options as children from wealthier families.

Throughout the panel Stephanie Linn, the lobbyist for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, repeated that no research has shown vouchers negatively impact student achievement. “There is no study that’s ever shown kids were harmed [by school vouchers],” she said. In fact, research on vouchers has offered conflicting verdicts about their efficacy. Regardless, as Chalkbeat reported earlier this month, many predict school vouchers will pass in 2015.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown who sponsored the most expansive version of a voucher bill in 2013, attended the forum, as well as Rep. Steve McDaniels, a Republican from Parkers Crossroads.

Another topic panelists addressed that is expected to be revisited next legislative session is the removal of Common Core State Standards. Some Republican representatives have led a push in the Tennessee legislature to eliminate Common Core, a series of standards that determine what students learn in each grade. They feel the standards represent an overreach of the federal government, although the federal government did not create or enforce the standards.

Panelist Jonathan Butcher, the education director of the Goldwater Institute, said the standards represent a larger threat to the federal government’s interference in parental choice.  “We have to be realistic about what is being forced from inside the beltway,” he said. Right now, the Common Core State Standards are in effect statewide for math and reading, but opponents delayed their expansion to social studies and science, as well as the use of a statewide test to measure how well students learn those standards. The standards will most likely be a hot topic again during the next legislative session in the spring.

The panel was originally supposed to be moderated by Shaka Mitchell, who works for Rocketship Schools, a California-based charter management operator that is slated to open schools in Nashville, but according to a July 15 Tweet from the organization, he was unable to attend.

Clarification: Jonathan Butcher opposes the Common Core State Standards. An earlier version said he did not oppose them per se.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”