State Board of Education Approves 7 Charter Schools For Renewal, Newark Charter School Gets 10 Year Renewal

Tonight, in a half hour part of their monthly meeting, the Delaware State Board of Education approved seven Delaware charter schools to be renewed. Continue reading

Don’t let your special needs child fall victim to “new”​ Federal and State voucher/choice policies

This article originally appeared on long-time Delaware special education advocate Steve Newton’s LinkedIn account yesterday.  I read it today and Steve not only hit a grand-slam with this article, but he hit it out of the park!  This is the must-read of the month and the timeliness of this could not be more important!  Normally, I would italicize this but for reasons which will soon become clear, I did not.  Great job Steve!

The road is about to get a lot rougher for special needs kids in America’s schools

It’s never been easy.

IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act] was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 to stiffen the supports for disability-challenged American students that already existed in Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. IDEA established the rules for determining the need for special services, how supports within the education system would be determined, and provided for their monitoring via IEPs [Individualized Education Plans]. The trifold intent of IDEA was to (a) guarantee parents and students a role, a voice, and an appeals option in the process; (b) fund services that would allow special needs students to receive FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education]; and create mechanisms for monitoring/enforcing the entire process.

Despite the fact that none of those goals has ever really been attained (Congress has never fully funded IDEA in any budget in the past 27 years), IDEA represented a massive improvement for special needs students across America. Millions of kids with specific Learning Disabilities (as in Math or English), with Emotional Disabilities, with ADHD, with Autism, and with other, lesser-known disabilities managed to finish school and go on to college, or employment, and independent, productive lives. Flawed as it is in the execution, IDEA has been a hugely successful law.

But the last decade has seen major problems setting in Continue reading

Does The New Charter School Moratorium In Wilmington Still Exist?

inequity

Last year, the Delaware General Assembly passed House Bill 56 which created a moratorium on new charter school applications in the City of Wilmington until June 30th, 2018 or until the State Board of Education came up with a strategic plan to deal with charter schools in the city.  This was signed by Governor Markell on May 5th, 2015.  As of today, no strategic plan has come forth.

This bill provides a moratorium on all new charter schools in Delaware until June 30, 2018 or until the State Board of Education develops a strategic plan for the number of charter, district, and vocational-technical schools in the State. Also, the bill requires review and comment from Wilmington’s Mayor and City Council before either a local school district or the Department of Education approves a charter in the City of Wilmington. Lastly, the bill requires the local school board’s approval for a charter school in the City of Wilmington before the Department of Education can approve the charter school.

An amendment was placed on the bill:

The amendment clarifies that the Mayor and the City Council of Wilmington may review and provide comment on applications by charter schools seeking to locate in the City of Wilmington before the school is authorized by the relevant approving authority. It also clarifies that no new charter schools will be authorized to open in the City of Wilmington prior to June 30, 2018 or the development of a statewide strategic plan for specialized public educational opportunities; those charter schools already authorized will be able to open as planned.

While this bill was desperately needed at the time, one of the major failings of the bill was not addressing enrollment issues at already existing Wilmington charter schools.  Several new charter schools opened in Wilmington over a two year time span in years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016.  Other charters closed down.  Meanwhile, other charters submitted modifications to increase or decrease their enrollment.  This causes havoc with education funding which is already a beast.

Yesterday, I broke the news that Prestige Academy is slated to become a part of the EastSide empire.  But given that the board of Prestige already wrote a letter indicating they would not seek charter renewal for next year and no part of the renewal process has gone forth since that letter, wouldn’t the school becoming a part of EastSide technically be a new charter school?  Whatever the intention with Prestige Academy might be, it needs to be publicly addressed now.  When Family Foundations Academy became a part of EastSide, it was done with no public ability to comment on the move and was announced at a State Board of Education meeting.  Negotiations took place behind the scenes with no transparency whatsoever.  By adding a sole-standing charter school into a conglomerate of other charter schools, it essentially changes the entire corporate make-up of a charter school.  And for those who aren’t aware, charter schools are considered to be corporations in Delaware.

Charter school modifications have a ripple effect not only on traditional school districts in the area, but also other charter schools.  We saw this play into the fates of the Delaware Met, Delaware STEM Academy, Prestige Academy, Delaware Design-Lab High School, and Freire Charter School of Wilmington.  All faced enrollment issues which resulted in either closure or a formal review for those enrollment issues with the exception of Delaware Met.  For Delaware Met, they were woefully unprepared to open the school and students suffered as a result.  There is certainly a correlation between the charters that received approval for larger enrollments and other charters who had less students this year.

I would like to see our 149th General Assembly continue this moratorium on new charter schools in Wilmington but add a few more items to it.  Any charter school modification needs to be given the same weight in terms of approval by Wilmington City Council and the local school district.  On November 1st, the Delaware Department of Education will begin accepting applications for new charter schools to open in the 2018-2019 school year.  These issues need to be addressed by our legislators before the State Board of Education may begin approving more charter schools next April, not only in Wilmington, but the entire state.

I also urge the 149th General Assembly to firmly address the issues of inequity at Newark Charter School, Charter School of Wilmington, Delaware Military Academy, Odyssey Charter School, and Sussex Academy.  As well as some of the magnet schools and vo-tech schools in the state.  We can no longer move forward in the 21st Century with the severe inequities across our schools that represent a face of discrimination and de-facto segregation.  Delaware needs to be better than that.  We are still waiting on the Office of Civil Rights to address these issues based on the complaint from the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union and Delaware Community Legal Aid.  The OCR has been sitting on this since it went to them in December of 2014, almost two years ago.  The reliance of standardized test scores on all Delaware schools has been extremely punitive to schools that have much larger populations of high-needs students, especially in the City of Wilmington and the greater Newark area.

State Board & WEIC Transcription: FOIA Violation, Priority Schools, And Funding

The State Board of Education audio recordings from their very long meeting yesterday are now up on the State Board website.  The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission portions of the meeting take up a collective two hours and twenty minutes of the meeting.  Not included are the breaks, legal or illegal, during the meeting with respect to the WEIC discussion.

As I insanely do once in a while, during contentious board meetings, I transcribed part of the WEIC conversations.  The three areas I focused on were the FOIA violation I believe the State Board committed by pausing the meeting to convene with legal counsel without calling for an executive session, the Christina priority school plans, and the funding/pause conversation surrounding the words “shall” and “may”.  The key players in most of this are State Board President Dr. Teri Quinn Gray and WEIC Chair Tony Allen.  Others are State Board members Pat Heffernan, Barbara Rutt, and Executive Director of the State Board of Education Donna Johnson.  While I would have loved to get the whole thing transcribed, there isn’t enough time in the day.  And as I’ve said before, you can only replay some of these voices so many times without wanting to jump off a bridge.  Key parts or words are bolded for emphasis.

 

The FOIA Violation

There has been well over an hour of conversation at this point about the plan and a lot of back and forth between the State Board and Tony Allen.  This occurs at the end of Part 5 in the audio recordings from the meeting yesterday.

Dr. Teri Quinn Gray: So, I just gotta check out the procedural piece of that with the attorney…do you mind? Cause I’m not sure about, uhm, the timing…

Tony Allen: Could I add, offer something, Could you make a motion to approve it with the new caveats, approval contingent upon…

Gray: Yeah, that’s why I need to make sure we get all the right pieces around that. I think I heard a little bit of that. So, let me ask for, uhm, a 15 minute break to consult with counsel and get the options around that.  Do you mind?

Allen: No

Gray: Miss Rutt, can she come with me, with you, the attorney? It’s 3:46.  We’ll be back at 4.

31 minutes later, beginning of Part 6 of the audio recording…

Gray: It’s 4:17 and we’re back in session. So why we left and the whole purpose of stepping away is we had , uhm,  a proposal to table the current motion to approve the plan as presented.  But, ugh, we brought forth an amendment motion that actually puts forth a conditional approval based on the conditions of changing the “shall” to “may” in the proposed resolution.  And also having a wait for the Christina School District to act on the action item on February 23rd which involves submission of grant applications to the Department of Education for priority schools.  And also contingent upon approval of the Department of Education of that plan, of that grant application.  Right, so that’s the discussion that has been happening for the past thirty minutes or so and the expectation around that, uhm, if the board accepts that amended motion and vote accordingly, or affirmative in that, that we would ask that we take those two conditions and act accordingly however we see fit, we would be able to close that item before us.  There is no need to bring this back to the table or as an agenda item for the board.  We would be able to settle that based on those conditions being met.

Pat Heffernan: And if they’re not met?

Gray: And if they’re not met then the approval is, there is no conditional approval and we do not approve it.

Allen: Can I add two things?

Gray: Sure

Allen: I’ve consulted with many of the commissioners here on both the conditions. On condition one, back to Christina and the priority school plans, I think that, I appreciate, making sure that the condition is with respect to the Department of Education approving the plan as opposed to the Christina School Board being made, maybe that’s how I was interpreting it, made to approve their priority schools plan is a better way to get that.  I think the Christina School District has every intention to approve the plan but I don’t think they take kindly to the State Board as making them so that’s…

Barbara Rutt: Sure

Allen: The second issue, with respect to “shall” and “may” is, I just want to reiterate, and you will act I know, I want to reiterate that on the board level, the commission level, the word “shall” was about making sure this wasn’t becoming an unfunded mandate. We talked about that at length during our discussion.  I think that would be a significant hurdle for us.  The district leaders have continued to express that if the resources aren’t provided they could not go forward.  And it’s my suspicion is that they will see that change from “shall” to “may” as a potential for an unfunded mandate with a cause of concern for their districts.  I will take that back to the commission, but I wanted you to know that as you make your decision, that could be a deal-breaker.  While I would not speak for the commission at this moment, I can guarantee you that if it does not happen, you will not see the commission resubmit a plan. 

 

Christina Priority Schools

Heffernan: I just want to add that, you know, the approval of the priority schools plan by Christina is, is it months or years late? So I have very little patience for Christina for semantics on that.  They literally refused to approve plans to help the kids and honestly, I think got us to this table where we are today.

Secretary of Education Dr. Steve Godowsky: I just want to make this clear. On January 22nd of 2016, I sent Christina’s Acting Superintendent a letter indicating that either the board or the Acting Superintendent can submit and activate the, uhm, the original application for the priority, or the MOU that they submitted a year ago.  Uhm, so that is what you are suggesting.  It may not require a vote from the Board but we wanted to make sure which plan they want to move forward and if it was the MOU plan, and I have talked to the Board President.   Then that will be acceptable to us going forward.

Heffernan: One thing that really troubles me about this is if the Christina Board doesn’t fully support these plans then, you know, we’re back to where we always were. And this is, so I, I, we can’t make, we have no authority to make any local boards approve anything, I totally get that, but I’m just very disappointed that this continues to be hard to get them to agree to help the priority schools.  That’s all I’m saying.

Godowsky: And the Christina Board did sign off on their plan about a year ago with one day difference so I think they did support that plan. And now that we know that’s the plan on the table then we can move forward, I believe we can do our due diligence and be in a position to review that plan and make modifications.

Heffernan: So they approved this a year ago?

Godowsky: As part of, uhm, the Memorandum of Understanding, between the district and others that negotiated that alternative to the original plan, as I understand it. I was…

Allen: As I understand that, the impasse was between Christina and their approved plans and the former Secretary (Mark Murphy), not that they didn’t approve the priority school plans. That is my understanding.

Heffernan: But the Department didn’t approve the plans?

Allen: Correct

Heffernan: So we’re going to take the same plans that the Department didn’t approve…

Godowsky: No, no. I don’t know the history of why it wasn’t signed off.  There were a number of contingencies on that which required the principal, replacing the principal, interviewing, or reapplying teachers for their positions, and management company that, ugh, that, those requirements have changed and we’re not in a position to impose those regulations.  So I think that was the stumbling block.  I don’t want to speak for Christina, and I don’t have all the history that they were the stumbling block, but later on there was an MOU submitted that never got signed off on at the Department level.  I don’t know the reasons in detail.  But I just know what I’ve looked at, in terms of the MOU, it’s consistent with much of what we want to do with those three schools, instructionally, which we’ve talked about since October, that I’ve been here.  And, given some modifications, I’m ready to move forward.

Gray reiterates much of the conversation of what just went on…

Godowsky: I’m in receipt of those plans. I just needed, in a sense I have those plans.

 

“Shall” and “May”

Heffernan: I guess I’m trying to understand where the unfunded mandate is coming from. The redistricting portion of the plan is going to be unfunded or…

Allen: Remember, we arranged this for resources for English Language Learners, special education, and high concentrations of poverty. Every outline of current funding, none of that has been allocated yet, say, for the Governor’s commitment for the four to six million, right, so what we’re suggesting is each year, going through these two budget cycles, everything has to show up and if it that money doesn’t show up all the districts have particular issues with having Red Clay taking on these kids, and by the way this is not just a Red Clay issue, all the districts talk about this, taking on these kids with no changes in the funding formula for how they are going to help those kids.

Gray: And we’re committed to that same delivery around, particularly to support low-income and English Language Learners so we are… (note: Gray did not say special education)

Allen: And I agree. The question is about you all interpreting, and again, this might be an (inaudible) on our part, you all interpreting “shall” as required without deliberation.

Gray: That’s right.

Allen: We don’t interpret it that way. It was meant to be deliberation in consultation with the effected districts…

Gray: Right, so let’s just make it the “may”, and if we need to, we’ll do it, right? Because without this level of conversation and intimacy that we have now, whenever this may come forward a few years from now that “shall” is a… (very, very hard to understand what she said here but I did hear the word legal.  Whether that was “legal” or “illegal” I was unable to tell)

Allen: I agree, and I do not give this short shrift, if you in fact approve it this way, it will require, I believe, a full-throated (inaudible) analysis that you will give in writing and in person to the commission, so…

Gray: Absolutely. We’re committed to that.  The Board is committed to that for sure.

At this point, Dan Rich (another WEIC commissioner) says something to Tony Allen. Tony asks for five minutes, and then Kenny Rivera (President of the Red Clay Consolidated Board of Education and a commissioner on WEIC) says something.  I think I heard the word “non-negotiable” but it is very hard to hear.  The State Board grants the WEIC folks a five minute break.  This is the end of Part 6 of the audio recordings.

The break ends, and the State Board is back in session in Part 7 of the audio recordings.

Gray: So Dr. Allen, did you want to add something before we go forward?

Allen: I consulted with many of the Commissioners here and I think there is general agreement that we could, and we would like you to consider, taking out all the provisions outlined in the resolution that we take back to the commission so that it does not come back to the State Board. But in general, but moving forward, it will be contingent upon sufficient funding.  Effectively, that takes you out of the process at the final implementation stage.

Gray: So you’re saying?

Allen: What we’re saying disregard all the remaining “shalls”, make it all contingent upon the necessary and sufficient funding and resources and take it off of the State Board with respect to their responsibility for this board and to future State Boards.

Gray: So is that effectively removing the resolution?

Allen: It’s more changing the resolution but excluding State Board having ongoing responsibility for suspension of the timetable.

Gray: Could I ask the process specialist?

Donna Johnson: With process of approval of the redistricting process in and of itself, and there is the caveat there that the plan would become essentially non-void if necessary and sufficient funding were not available, what safeguards would be in place if those necessary sufficient funding and supports were not at each of the milestones? Where would there be a pause that takes place at that point?

Allen: Do you mean who would authorize that pause?

Johnson: Yes.

Allen: The authorization would come from the commission and the effected districts. So we’d take it out of the State Board’s hands.  There is nothing in Senate Bill 122 that prohibits this.

After much back and forth, the State Board voted on the redistricting plan and the addendums as of 2/11/16 with no amendments which failed 3-4.  The State Board then voted on the plan with the amendments about the Christina priority schools plan approval and the changing of “shall” to “may” on page 10 of the official plan.  The motion passed with a 4-3 vote.

 

15 Who Made An Impact In 2015: Jennifer Nagourney

Jennifer Nagourney serves as the Executive Director of the Charter School Office at the Delaware Department of Education.  To say she had a hell of a year would be an understatement!  Nagourney’s role is to oversee the charter schools in Delaware and to make sure they are in compliance on academic, financial, and organizational performance frameworks.  When a charter school has issues, she is one of the main DOE people who determines what type of action to take.  Her office works with all of the other offices in the DOE.

2015 started off with a bang in the form of Family Foundations Academy.  After former Heads of School Sean Moore and Dr. Tennell Brewington got caught with their hands in the school finances cookie jar, the Charter School Office put the school under formal review a year ago.  After a whirlwind amount of speculation, the school’s board and leaders was essentially taken over by East Side Charter School.  A few months later, no less than four Delaware charters went on formal review: Academy of Dover, Prestige Academy, Delaware Design-Lab High School, and Freire Charter School.  All came off formal review status but they are all on probation.  Two were new charters scheduled to open in August who received the designation due to low enrollment which affected their financial viability.  Two were for academic reasons, and of those two one was for their former school leader embezzling from the school (Academy of Dover’s Noel Rodriguez).

As the 2014-2015 school year ended, two charters officially closed due to charter revocation decisions by the Delaware State Board of Education.  Moyer and Reach Academy for Girls closed their doors forever, but five more were opening up in August: Delaware Design-Lab High School, Delaware Met, First State Military Academy, Freire Charter School, and Great Oaks Charter School.

Towards the end of September, issues started to rise with one of the new charters, Delaware Met.  After the school was placed on formal review by the State Board in October, the Charter School Accountability Committee voted yesterday for a recommendation of charter revocation at the end of this marking period, in January 2016.

Earlier in the year, with all of the charter movement, as well as the designation of the sixPriority Schools in Christina and Red Clay, the Wilmington Education Advisory Commission recommended a charter moratorium in Wilmington until the state could come up with an action plan for charters in Delaware.  This became legislation in the Spring, and this all morphed into the current Wilmington Education Improvement Commission which is leading a redistricting effort in Wilmington.  While charters don’t make the news a lot coming out of this, they are certainly a part of any plans that come out of the commission.  The State Board of Education will vote on this in January 2016.  Meanwhile, the DOE and the State Board are working on the Statewide Resources for Educational Opportunities in Delaware to determine how all schools in Delaware can best serve their students.

Due to the events at Family Foundations Academy and Academy of Dover, House Bill 186 caused controversy in the Spring.  Introduced by State Rep. Kim Williams , Hosue Bill 186 dealt with how charter schools are audited.  The bill morphed a couple of times into the final bill which passed the House in June and will land in the Senate Education Committee come January.  As well, State Rep. John Kowalko openly and publicly opposed the Charter School Transportation Fund and the Charter School Performance Fund.  Rep. Williams also introduced a bill to make sure if a charter school student transfers mid-year to a traditional public school district, the money would follow the student.  That bill has not even been heard by the House Education Committee, over ten months after its introduction.  I’ve heard rumblings of legislation which would make sure traditional districts send timely information on students that transfer to charters, especially in regards to IEPs and discipline.  Which is fine in theory, but there is a caveat in the potential legislation about the districts paying for the funding if the charters don’t receive that information in a timely fashion.  That will be a bill to watch in 2016 if it garners enough support to become potential legislation.  It will be a lightning rod of controversy between the pro and con charter crowd in Delaware.

All of this charter school activity has certainly kept Nagourney and her staff on their toes at the DOE in Dover.  With a staff of four, this is a great deal of work for this office.  Add in modifications, performance reviews, special education compliance, standardized testing, and leadership changes among the charters in 2015, Nagourney definitely had her busiest year ever at the DOE.  It is no secret I have issues with many concepts behind charter schools as well as the DOE, but I believe the Delaware DOE has come a long way in terms of monitoring the charters and taking action when needed.  This can all be attributed to the leadership of Jennifer Nagourney.  While her name doesn’t get thrown around in the media the way Secretary Godowsky or even Penny Schwinn does, make no mistake that Nagourney is one of the busiest leaders at the DOE.  I am hoping, for her sake, that 2016 does not throw as many challenges her way.  In fact, the Charter School Office is taking another look at how the Organizational part of their charter performance framework is made up and a working group will be starting to make recommendations on this.

Nagourney, in my opinion, is one of the strongest leaders at the Delaware DOE.  This is not an honor I usually give to anyone down there!  At least there is only one charter opening up next year in the form of Delaware STEM Academy.  I am pretty sure the DOE will be watching very carefully at how any new charters use their planning period between approval and opening to make sure a Delaware Met never happens again!  My biggest wish for this office to carefully monitor special education at Delaware charters.  I’m sure that falls under the watch of the Exceptional Children Resources Group at the DOE, but I can say with certainty they are missing a lot.  It is not every charter, but it is far too many.  I have tons of issues with special education as a whole in Delaware, but some charters do not even know the most basic fundamental aspects of special education laws.

Underneath all of this is a potential ticking time-bomb in the form of the ACLU and Delaware Community Legal Aid complaint to the Office of Civil Rights a year ago.  This complaint alleged certain charter schools discriminated against minorities and students with disabilities in their application process.  If it becomes a law suit, it would be against the State of Delaware and the Red Clay Consolidated School District who is the only district charter school authorizer in the state.  Information was sent to that office in February this year, but no ruling has come down since.  This could happen at any time.