charter funding

Comptroller report underscores ‘insufficient clarity, transparency’ in Tennessee funding for charter schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Delores Gresham (at right) presents a bill this year on the floor of the Tennessee Senate. Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, requested this week's report from the state comptroller's office.

Tennessee guidelines are so muddled on how funding should be allocated to charter schools that it’s unclear whether those schools are receiving the correct amount of money from their local districts, says a report released Tuesday by the state comptroller.

After analyzing five years of enrollment and funding data, the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability concluded that “there is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee.”

The report, requested last winter from Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, comes as debate intensifies in Tennessee about the cost and impact of charter school growth on traditional schools, as well as the adequacy of state funding for public education.

The State Department of Education already is preparing legislation to bring before the General Assembly next year to address some of the concerns about charter school funding.

The findings have special significance to Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, home to the vast majority of the state’s charter schools, which are independent but publicly funded schools operated under a charter contract between the school and its authorizing agency.

In Tennessee, local districts allocate funding to charter schools based on the district’s total funding from state and local governments, along with district and charter school enrollment. The report keys in on questions about which local district enrollment numbers to use when calculating money owed to charters. Districts generally use their previous-year enrollment.

Charter school funding = (state and local money / district enrollment) X charter school enrollment

But the report highlights one case in which the state instructed Shelby County Schools, seemingly against protocol, to use the district’s current-year enrollment instead of previous-year enrollment. That resulted in Shelby County Schools shelling out $517,000 more to charter schools at a time when Tennessee’s largest district was reeling from decreased funding due to an exodus of students entering six suburban municipal school districts created in 2014.

“State law, State Board of Education rules, and Tennessee Department of Education policies do not currently provide clear and complete definitions of formula components districts use to calculate charter school funding,” the report said. “The situation has resulted in a lack of uniformity in calculating funding for charter schools across the state.”

In growing districts, such as Metro Nashville, state guidelines are also unclear about allocation of additional state funds meant to offset cost of an increased student population. That ambiguity could cause charter operators to lose out on state money or give them an unfair increase if they aren’t growing at the same rate as the local district — all dependent on how administrators interpret the guidelines.

District leaders in both Memphis and Nashville have bemoaned the amount of education funding being siphoned off to charter schools. Nashville commissioned two independent studies in 2014 and 2015 on charter fiscal impact, both of which showed managing charter schools comes at considerable cost to the local district, largely because of the administrative tasks involved with approving and regulating them, as well as the fixed costs of school buildings and loss of student revenue.

"... There is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee."Office of Research and Education Accountability

To Shelby County Schools board member Chris Caldwell, the report raises more questions about the state’s funding formulas than about districts’ handling of charter school funds.

“The real hypocrisy is the state talking about the lack of transparency and having a funding formula like (Basic Education Plan),” said Caldwell of the BEP, over which the district is suing the state. “The state has never done anything with the funding of education to be transparent about what they’re doing.”

Will Pinkston, a Nashville school board member and frequent charter school critic, was skeptical of report’s timing and of legislation being prepared by the state Education Department.

“This is a well-orchestrated prelude to a legislative agenda,” he said. “…This is about helping the charter movement.”

Leaders of the Tennessee Charter School Center commended efforts surrounding the report.

“Transparency and collaboration remain critical throughout this process and we look forward to working with the local districts and state officials to help establish increasingly more effective systems and procedures for accounting and distributing funds,” said a statement from the center.

Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, a black advocacy organization that promotes school choice, said the report rightly points out areas to improve with charter school funding, but misses the ongoing struggle for equitable funding for traditional schools.

“Are we also funding our traditional schools to what they’re needing? And the answer to that is no,” Grinter said. “We’re not doing enough at the state level, but the constant question is still going to be what we’re doing as a whole to make sure schools are getting the right amount of funding.”

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”

moving on

Teacher pay raises on schedule in Memphis despite possible changes to evaluation scores

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Memphis teachers will start receiving their performance-based salary increases in November, even though evaluation scores could change for hundreds of educators in Shelby County Schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson emailed teachers on Tuesday to update them about the status of their paychecks after news emerged last week about scoring errors on state tests for some Tennessee high school students, as well as a data entry error that impacted teacher growth scores known as TVAAS. (Student growth scores figure into evaluations that affect teachers’ employment and salaries.)

Hopson said the district will use current evaluation scores when issuing pay increases in November, which will be retroactive to the first day of school in August. He assured teachers that their salaries will not decrease if their TVAAS ratings go down in the wake of errors by the state’s testing vendor, Questar.

“We stand with our teachers in ensuring that no more state-level scoring irregularities exist,” Hopson wrote. “If further issues are identified regarding your specific TEM score, we will only honor salary adjustments that POSITIVELY affect your pay.”

For the first time, the district is launching a merit pay plan this school year based on teacher evaluation scores. But the news of errors this year at the state level left some teachers wondering how and when possible revisions to their TVAAS score would hit them in the pocketbook.

Hopson said the state and the district have contacted educators who are impacted by the errors. Tuesday is the deadline for finalizing TVAAS scores in order to receive salary increases by November.

“We realize this issue has again shaken your trust in the measurements of our collective success, and for that, we’re deeply saddened. While we are frustrated by the (Tennessee Department of Education’s) error, we respect the state for acknowledging and working to repair the mistake,” Hopson wrote.

Up to 900 teachers statewide may see their growth scores change as a result of data entry errors. That’s about 9 percent of teachers who receive a score under the state’s model to identify a teacher’s impact on student growth. Hopson said 587 of those teachers are in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.