Education

Charter school application process mystifies many

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Ed Sieber wants to open a charter school that would serve grades K-8 in Matthews, a suburb of Charlotte. The school would be called Matthews-Mint Hill Charter Academy.

In creating the plan for his charter, Sieber decided he wanted to replicate the success of another nearby charter school, Queen’s Grant Community School. That school has a long waiting list of 1,250 students and, says Sieber, parents in the Matthews area have been actively seeking a program similar to Queen’s Grant to serve their children for years.

Sieber dutifully assembled an independent board of trustees and put together a charter school application that received high marks in the initial evaluation round by the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), which is tasked with reviewing applications and approving charter schools to open in the state.

But when Sieber and some of his fellow board members arrived for an in-person interview with CSAB members in Raleigh this week, things didn’t go so well.

When asked by a fellow CSAB member what her concerns were about the application, Chairwoman Helen Nance, who served on the subcommittee that reviewed Sieber’s application, said, “I do not think we had a ton of concerns…did we? I can’t remember.”

Nance fumbled around looking for Sieber’s application, which at this stage includes a rubric summarizing what each reviewer’s assessments were, but no real comparable metric for rating a school.

“Well,” concluded Nance, “I was disheartened that five of your board members didn’t come today.”

Subjective review

Nance’s concern that the bulk of the proposed charter school’s board members didn’t show up for an interview began to form the basis for why Matthews-Mint Hill Charter School should not make it any further in the application process.

But CSAB members had other concerns about Matthews-Mint Hill, too.

Sieber proposed that the charter school contract with National Heritage Academies (NHA), an Education Management Organization (EMO) that manages 75 charter schools across the country. The EMO would provide financial backing and academic guidance for the school.

CSAB members were concerned with the NHA relationship. Questions surrounding the school’s board ability to be truly independent of NHA, the overreliance on NHA’s financial provisions, and concerns with large class sizes were all raised in the assessment document, known as a “Rubric,” that the CSAB review subcommittee provided in advance of the interview.

In spite of these concerns, however, subcommittee reviewers unanimously agreed to move the application forward to the interview stage. Every section of the application, from the mission to the educational plan to the governance structure, was rated adequate, at a minimum.

What drove the decision to halt the progress of Matthews-Mint Hill’s application, however, was the overall disappointment that board members didn’t show up on interview day (although the interview was rescheduled by the CSAB at a late date, creating scheduling conflicts) combined with something else that took place earlier in the week and had nothing to do with Matthews-Mint Hill’s application.

“What is the difference between this application and the Gateway application,” asked CSAB member Joe Maimone, referring to the interview for Gateway Charter Academy, another proposed charter school in Guilford County whose representatives sat for an interview the prior day. Gateway Charter Academy would have also contracted with National Heritage Academies and its application shared much of the same language that was contained in Matthews-Mint Hill.

“Why should we approve this application and turn down Gateway,” questioned Maimone, when Chairwoman Nance initially indicated a desire to green light Matthews-Mint Hill application.

Maimone then floated the idea of approving Matthews-Mint Hill and retroactively approving Gateway, even though that application had been rejected.

But in the name of consistency, CSAB board members decided to deny both applications.

Clarifying the process

“The goal of the charter school application process should be that every school in North Carolina is an excellent school,” said Matt Ellinwood, an education policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center. (N.C. Policy Watch is part of the N.C. Justice Center.)

“This is all a consequence of lifting the cap on charter schools and not developing rules that set up a clear minimum standard for what a charter school should have to do to open and operate in North Carolina,” said Ellinwood.

In 2011, North Carolina lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools, opening it up to a flood of applicants seeking to set up shop in the state. North Carolina now has 127 charter schools in operation, and received 71 applications for the 2015-16 school year.

Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that directed the Charter School Advisory Board to engage in a rules making process that would set forth criteria for acceptance and approval of applications.

But that still hasn’t happened yet, and in the meantime, some regard the process by which charter school applications are reviewed and accepted or denied as subjective.

“The fundamental problem is that some of the processes in place for reviewing applications are actually left over from the past,” explained Eddie Goodall, Executive Director of the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association.

Previously, a Charter Schools Advisory Council reviewed charter school applications. Last year, lawmakers dismantled that board and put the Charter School Advisory Board in its place, which comprises gubernatorial and legislative appointees as well as one State Board of Education member.

“The most egregious process includes not allowing any conversation with the application during the subcommittee review, which has resulted in so many incorrect assumptions by subcommittee members who could get those answers from the school representatives, who are often sitting four feet away,” said Goodall.

There’s also no clear appeals process between the time that subcommittee members submit their feedback on the applications and the time of the interview.

“The interviewees can’t address concerns that were previously raised in the subcommittee meeting. They can only introduce themselves and then answer questions. So there’s no way to provide clarity or corrections to questions that the subcommittee had,” said Goodall.

But the even bigger problem, says Ellinwood, is that there’s no systematic way to rate the applications to begin with.

“It’s very subjective,” said Ellinwood. “There’s no minimum standard for what should be rated adequate vs. inadequate in an application, so it’s left up to the interpretation of the committee member, who may not have a clear understanding of how an educational plan should be serving special education students, for example.”

Chairwoman of the CSAB, Helen Nance, told NC Policy Watch she’d like to see the review process improved.

“We’ll be taking that up at our June board meeting,” said Nance.

Until then, the lack of a clear way to rate and judge applications could have dire consequences.

StudentFirst Academy, which was approved to open last fall in Charlotte, was rated inadequate in terms of its proposed governance structure, according to its evaluation rubric. But the school was awarded a charter anyway.

The school didn’t even make it an entire year. StudentFirst just closed its doors, only two months shy of the end of the school year, leaving 270 kids to scramble to find new schools. The school failed due to gross financial and governance problems. Stories of students napping during the school day, going without textbooks and teachers fleeing plagued the school.

Headed to the courts?

 “I just didn’t fully understand the whole process as far as how they came to their conclusions,” said Sieber in a phone call with NC Policy Watch.

A decision to deny the Matthews-Mint Hill Charter Academy application on the basis that several board members were not able to be at the interview (even though it was rescheduled at a late date) and because it shared the same EMO as another application that was previously denied seems at odds with the evaluation rubric.

The subcommittee must review the application on the basis of its mission, governance structure, educational plan and financial viability, all of which Matthews-Mint Hill passed.

Representatives of the Gateway Charter Academy were equally puzzled by the denial of their application as well.

“At the interview, much of the concern with our application had nothing to do with our school itself–it had a lot to do with our EMO and the fact that another charter school in Raleigh, Preeminent Charter, is also managed by NHA,” said Robert Parrish, the lead applicant for Gateway Charter.

“The issue the board members had is that while Preeminent has shown great progress, it hasn’t closed the achievement gap yet for its minority students. So CSAB members judged our school on the basis of the performance of another school managed by NHA, a school to which we would have no ties,” argued Parrish.

Like Matthews-Mint Hill, Gateway Charter Academy also had good marks on its application rubric from subcommittee members.

“We are very disappointed,” said Parrish, who is also a law professor at Elon College.

“Some folks on the Charter School Advisory Board, I don’t want to say who, advised us to take legal action, and we are considering that possibility.”

The last of the interviews for charter schools that wish to open in the fall of 2015 will take place next month.

Education Reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com