Category Archives: Gimme Some Truth

Special Education Budget Amendment: Helping Hands

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Owen Gray — Give a Helping Hand (click to listen/watch).

On Monday, October 30, 2017 (6:00 PM, Doyle Bldg. Auditorium), the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will finalize our 2017-18 budget.  Late information received from the state shows that based on the expenditures from the Preliminary budget passed in June, our district will have about $3.7 Million in unused revenue authority, and significantly lower property tax increases than anticipated (2.96% vs 3.97%).  At the October 23, 2017 Operations Work Group meeting, this information was discussed, and there is interest among some of the Board in using some of this authority to increase Special Education expenditures, specifically to add Special Education Assistants, or SEAs  (video here).  I intend to support (or propose) a budget amendment to do this.

It is probably worth noting that prior to passing the June budget, the Board passed an amendment devoting up to an extra $1 million to class size reduction, but because the terms of that amendment, the delay in passing a state budget meant that this money was not spent.

At the October 23 meeting I said I was comfortable using about half of the authority, or about $1.8 Million total (there was also some support for collecting and “banking” some of the revenue for future use, and for applying to physical plant maintenance).  We are still waiting for some more information on current special education staffing and recent trends; based on the information I have now, I am thinking in the $750,000 to $1,000,000 range for special education staffing, which would mean about 15 to 20 FTE SEAs.

In posting a news story related to this on Facebook, I wrote that I “have been hearing from both staff and families that the unmet needs are greater than they have been in the past.,” since that posting I have heard much more.

I am not under the illusion that this increase will allow all needs to be met (we are far from that), but I do think it will help in multiple ways.

I also fully understand that these kind of last minute budget fixes are not a good practice, and that real help (and good budgeting) involves deliberate analysis, redesign, and implementation.  This is in the works, with a Special Education Delivery redesign process (including money for those — often correctly — dreaded consultants) in the budget.  I hope that process brings improvement, but right now we know there are needs, and have the means to address some of those needs.  I think we would be remiss if we did not do this.  What follows is some background and more detail on why I believe this, why I support using some of this revenue authority for special education staffing.

Staffing Trends

Fiscal Year Special Education Assistants (SEA) Special Education Teachers (District and School) Special Education Teachers (School Based) Special Education Students
2014 318.06 337.66 3,936 (January)
2015 333.05 331.76 3,965 (January)
2016 341.65 326.04 281.3 3,891 (January)
2017 292.53 351.50 287.4 3,935 (January)
2018 (proposed) 289.24 356.46 293.6 (?) 3,973 (September)

Data taken from October Budget UpdateApril Budget Book, and MMSD (internal) DataDashboard.  The school based teacher staffing is an estimate, no data is readily available for 2014, and 2015.

The most obvious trend is a shift from SEAs to teachers, resulting in fewer total school based staff, despite generally increasing numbers of special education students (FY 2017 to 2018 doesn’t fully fit this trend, if my estimate is correct, with a total staffing increase of 1.37, for an increase of students of 38).  This appears to be deliberate, and also appears to be based on (among other things) a misapplication of the work of Special Education Scholar Michael Ginagreco (more on that below).

The April Budget included an increase of 7.7 EAs, the June budget had a net cut of 13 EAs (this includes all categories of EAs, not just SEAs), this is a reduction of 57 from 2015-16.  As of the 2017-18 third Friday count there were 82 more special education students than there had been in January of 2016,  and 38 more than in January of 2017. 

This, from a 2011 Wisconsin State Journal article (discussed in this AMPS post) provides some longer term context:

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Graph from the Wisconsin State Journal, click image for accompanying story.

Why SEAs Matter and Why this Can Help

Probably best to start here with a disclosure: my spouse is a SEA in MMSD.  Chris Rickert and others of his ilk may think that because of this I should not involve myself in this area as a Board Member.  I disagree.  If this amendment passes, the odds are it will have little or no direct impact on my spouse’s working conditions (the program she works with is extremely unlikely to see any staffing changes), and even if it does have a small direct or indirect impact, it would not be anything that could be considered special treatment based on our relationship.  There would be no monetary impact for our family.

The staff in our schools and the families of students in special education can do a much better job explaining why this matters than I can (please do let the Board hear your stories); their direct experiences are much more powerful than my observations and interpretations.  That said, I would like to try.

Safety: All students; all staff.  Whether it is students who “run” from classes, buildings and playgrounds, or students who express their frustrations in physical ways,  experienced SEAs who know their students can be a key factor in keeping students and staff safe.

Well-being: All students; all staff.  With students, some of this comes down to having basic needs (feeding, toileting….) consistently attended to.  This is not happening with some students now.  With all — students and staff — the stress factors related to understaffing are huge.  It is no accident that we had an approximately 20% turnover of CC teachers last year.  I don’t have a figure on SEA turnover, but I know more than a handful of good, experienced SEAs who burned out and left.  Additionally, about 40% of Cross Categorical (CC, Special Education) teachers hired last year lacked full certification (they were working on emergency permits), and over 25% of those hired did not have general education certification either (emergency licenses). The presence of unqualified and inexperienced CC teachers increases the workload and stress of our experienced staff, making other supports more necessary.  SEAs can help.

Student learning. Unless safety and well-being are taken care of, learning is going to be minimal.  One of the criticisms of SEA staffing is that they end up doing teaching work that should be done by highly trained and qualified teachers; I know in some of our classrooms we have highly qualified teachers doing support work that should be done by support staff.  This is not a good use of our resources, either human or fiscal, and it is not good for our students’ progress.

Relationships:  Relationships are a point of emphasis this year in MMSD, and this could be a good thing.  Common sense and solid research shows that strong relationships between staff and students, and among staff can contribute student and staff well-being, staff retention, and most important student academic progress.  I anticipate hearing from our administration that there is already enough staffing/money in the budget, and the current system of plugging in emergency and short term staff to address crises is working.  Even if by deploying in this manner we do have enough staff, it goes against everything we know about the importance of relationships.  It isn’t a good idea to move staff in and out of schools and classroom, and this is especially true in relation to students with complex needs, that often include great unease with change.   Adding staff will allow more of the late allocations to be permanent, and subject fewer students and staff teams to instability.

The Misuse of Research

It is no secret that much of the consulting class and the professoriate  are hostile to Educational Assistants (what they tend to call paraprofessionals).  Bottom line minded budget-cutting hacks, find Special Education in general, and EAs in particular easy targets.  Others appear to be out of touch with the realities in our schools, and/or over reacting to past or isolated mis and overuse of Educational Assistants.  Michael Giangreco, who was one of the keynotes for the MMSD Summer Teaching & Learning Institute, appears to be very well-intentioned, but somewhat out of touch and in the over reaction mode.  Unfortunately, it also appears that MMSD staff have not realized the aspects of his work that make it problematic when applied to our district and have been using it to justify cuts to SEAs (accompanied by reallocations to Cross Categorical teachers).

I have been digging into his work, and there is much to like.  Generously he links to many of his articles and materials on his website (see the link with his name); I have also explored some things that are behind firewalls.

One of the big lessons from his work is that staffing for inclusion should be done with a whole school approach (General Education and Special Education), and that it should be done by design, not through piecemeal tweaks.  I know that the special education budget amendment will be a tweak, but I also believe the shifts that contributed to the need for this amendment were done piecemeal.

For what follows I am going to (mostly) rely on the article that was linked in the Summer Learning Institute materials, “Precarious or Purposeful? Proactively Building Inclusive Special Education Service Delivery on Solid Ground” by Michael F. Giangreco and Jesse C. Suter.

Here and elsewhere, Giangreco does a fine job identifying (what I would call) preconditions for successful inclusion models; delineating the interactions of various factors tied to creating positive school cultures and successful student learning; offering multiple measures useful in assessing staffing allocations, and much more; in this article he includes these measures for what he calls “the exemplar model.”  I am confident that a school that both met his preconditions and followed his model would be a wonderful school for both students and staff.  Unfortunately, MMSD is very different than the exemplars.

At the October 23 meeting (and previously in private conversation) Anna Moffit alerted me to one issue, that of class size.  Giangreco’s exemplar (K-8) has class sizes of 17-21.  MMSD has some very small classes, but many, many well over 21.  Elsewhere — in an article titled “Constructively Responding to Requests for Paraprofessionals: We Keep Asking the Wrong Questions” (behind a firewall) Giangreco and his co-authors write about Middle and High School teaching loads:

Research in middle and high schools suggests understanding total student load (TSL, i.e., the total number of students with whom a teacher interacts) is a service delivery variable of importance related to teacher–student interactions and achievement (Ouchi, 2009). TSL levels about 80 allow teachers opportunities to know their students, respond to student work, and have sufficient time out of the classroom to make themselves available to students for individual assistance. This allows students to know their teachers understand and care about them—a key foundation of the learning process and ultimately to student achievement. Exploring general and special education service delivery variables allows schools to establish a baseline and provides a wealth of information in considering how they might contribute to school system health.

All good and true.  I believe MMSD High School TSLs are generally over 120, or half again as large as Giangreco recommends.

Also of note are the demographics for his Exemplar.  Here is a comparison with MMSD (September 2017,  third Friday count):

Exemplar MMSD
Minority 10.97% 57.3%
Free/Reduced Lunch 35% 45.9%
English Language Learners 6% 28.3%
Special Education 14% 14.5%

MMSD is significantly higher in all but one measure.

Leaving aside these other factors, the kicker is that the exemplar model calls for huge increases in SEA, Cross Categorical, and General Education Assistants.  Huge.

Exemplar MMSD Current MMSD with Model MMSD Increase
Total Students 433 27231
SPED Students 60.62 3931
CC Teacher FTE 7 293.6 561.57 267.97
CC Teacher Caseload 8.7 13.39
CC Teacher Density 1:63 1:93
SEA FTE 10 289.24 648.68 359.44
SPED Student to SEA 6.06 13.6
SEA Density 1:43 1:94.15
CC to SEA 1:1.4 1:1.02
EA total 15 439.7 943.34 503.64
EA to Student Density 1:28.87 1:61.93

Date Notes: MMSD date from (internal) Datadashboard (I used current instead of third Friday here), October Budget Update, June Budget, CC = “Cross Categorical.” MMSD school based CC estimated, and this estimate was used for caseloads, ratios, and density.  Caveat, the Exemplar model should be compared at the school level, it was done here at the district level because time and data access limitations did not allow for a school by school analysis.

So to meet the exemplar model, MMSD should add 267.97 school based Cross Categorical teachers, and 359.64 SEAs (along with 144.2 other EAs).  OK, let’s do it!

The one thing MMSD should not do based on this model is to cut small numbers of SEAs to allocate even smaller numbers of Cross Categorical teachers, but that is exactly what has been done.   We are and were relatively more understaffed with SEAs and EAs than we are and were with Cross categorical teachers (according to this model).  Adding some SEAs for the short term seems like a reasonable correction.

Conclusion

The Board has an opportunity to make investments NOW that will improve the experiences, safety and well being of or students and staff.  The scholarship that has been used as one of the justifications for decreases in SEA staffing was misapplied.  Allowing things to continue to deteriorate will only make implementing systematic changes more difficult.  For these (and other) reasons, I will by supporting a special education staffing budget amendment.  When you can give a helping hand, you should.

Thomas J. (TJ) Mertz

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Foot(note) Stompin’ — The IMA Proposal + Related Update

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Update, 8/14/17, 1:14 PM: The Board just received an email that the IMA vote meeting will be rescheduled to 8/21/17.

Note:  I began this post in January 2017, and then set it aside.  As a result, some of the introductory material has been superseded.  For better coverage of events since January (and some prior to January), see this post and this one. More recently I finished the sections on footnotes 5 & 7, added the section on footnote 27, and wrote the conclusion.  I like the conclusion, so I am going to quote it here: “ If the people behind IMA can’t do better with their proposal, how can we trust them with our children and our money?

Update (8/13/17):  This week, the MMSD Board of Education will have at least one, and maybe two important meetings on Charter Schools.  On Monday 8/14 the Operations Work Group will be discussing a new, much more “Charter-friendly” policy.  It is being recommended that the Board approve this at the end of the month.  The last time the Board revised the Charter policy, it took six months and many meeting.  We may not want to take that long, but there are too many things  — involving both what is there and what isn’t —  that need examination and (Board and community) discussion to cover in two meetings, with a vote at the second.

The second meeting, for a vote on the IMACS proposal on Wednesday 8/16/17  does not appear on the legal notice (despite my request to add it).  Board Members are now being told this may be rescheduled (to my knowledge no Board Members were asked about their availability before this meeting was scheduled by the Board President, and none have been asked about their availability in relation to a possible rescheduling).  At this time we the Board do not have any update on a revised contract in response to the votes in July (the language of those votes is here).  We have been told “The goal is to get a draft document out prior to the meeting,” but there is no guarantee that will happen (we have also been told by the President that no public comment will be scheduled).  I am not clear why there is a rush.  Our policy calls for contracts to be concluded about five months prior to the school opening, IMA will have about twelve months if approved.  I do know that it would be a huge mistake to approve any contract without sufficient time for the Board and community to review.  Stay tuned.

Foot(note) Stompin’ Post

Foot Stompin’ by the Flares (click to watch/listen)

During public discussions of the Isthmus Montessori Academy (IMA) proposal to open a charter school with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), I repeatedly stated that the matter before the Board of Education was the proposal submitted, not the role of charter schools, the value of Montessori education, or a host of other things.  Other issues may contribute to our thinking, but as a Board we have an obligation to follow our policy (possible revisions of the MMSD Charter School Policy are scheduled for discussion and vote in May — Note: Now August, see update at the top) and state statutes, which means considering each proposal on its own strengths and weaknesses, according to set criteria (the required National Association of Charter School Authorizers Guidelines here).  The majority of this post concerns weaknesses of the IMA proposal in the area of citation and footnotes, but first some background.

It is undisputed that the IMA proposal did not meet the established criteria (nor did the initial proposal meet the criteria to go to the next step). On this basis MMSD staff did not recommend approval (memo here, rubric here, minutes here).  However by a vote of 6-1 (I dissented) the Board (emphasis added)

[A]pprove(d) the proposal for the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter
School and that the District enter into a contract, consistent with applicable Board policy and state law, to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School as an instrumentality charter school for a period of five (5) years from July 1, 2018 until June 30, 2023. Such approval shall be contingent on the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School supplementing their current proposal to address the following areas of concern by no later than May 31,2017:
● Student Body and Demographics
● School Data
● Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction
● Financial Operations

With a second vote (6-1 also, I dissented again), the Board took care of some housekeeping requirements, and set July 1, 2017 as the contract deadline.

[See the update and the linked posts at the top for more accurate information on how events have unfolded] This is where things stand now, by May 31, 2017 MMSD staff — without a formal role for the Board — will decide whether the requested supplementary materials are sufficient to meet the requirements, if they are deemed sufficient, contract talks will begin and prior to July 1, 2017 that contract will come to the Board for approval (not amendment, this is a yes or no vote).  Among my objections to this process was that many (perhaps all) of the criteria are subjective, and although I respect the professional opinions of our staff, with subjective criteria I believe the Board should decide.

The Board and the public have also been provided with only minimal information related to the staff analysis of the proposal (this is something I think we need to address in the looming policy revision).  In addition to the memo and rubric linked above, a three-page “Financial Analysis” and a one-page (financial) “Key Factors” document were distributed.  All total this comes to nine pages of analysis for a 121 page proposal (and given that the financials and rubric have much white space, that is a generous count).

The use of citations or footnotes is among the things not referenced in any of the materials provided.  As a college instructor and (recovering) academic, I can’t help but look at and consider the references and how they are employed (part of subjectivity is that different things are important to different people).   For me, footnotes serve two important purposes.  First, they allow the reader to verify the information provided in the main text.  Second, they provide some clues to the intellectual journey of the author(s).

On my second read of the final IMA proposal, I began making notes for myself on this topic.  What follows is revised version of those notes.

The general format is a cut & paste of the passage from the proposal that contains the footnote (because of formatting issues, these are mostly images, not text), the footnote with a link to the source material, followed by a brief discussion of the source material and how it does or does not support or shed light the passage (there is also a digression on Lumin Education included for reasons that should be clear).  Here we go.

Passage and Footnote #1

passage 1

1 Efimova, V., and F. Ratner. “Integrating the educational principles of Maria Montessori in the process of pedagogical support for pupils with learning disabilities.” International Review of Management and Marketing. (2016).

Discussion

For many reasons, the small study — 30 students, 80 minutes a week, for three months —  is not impressive.

The authors are Russian academics, and the journal appears on this list of “[p]otential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” (see also the Calling Bullshit project). Although the Journal title indicates a marketing and management focus, they appear to publish in a wide array unrelated of fields.

In relation to the passage the footnote is applied to, there is nothing at all in the paper about “differentiated curriculum,” “well-rounded education,” “achievement gaps,” “socioeconomic status,” and very little about “self-initiated exploration,” or even “ability backgrounds” (the classification/definition of “learning disabilities” is limited to those without “any evident deviations in functioning of the nervous system, … no marked motor, sensory impairments or intellectual impairment”).

The “educational principles of Maria Montessori” used in the study are described here:

One section of the objective environment in Montessori approach to education was described as the exercises of practical life. The work of the child under the exercises of practical life program entails the fulfillment of various “household” affairs: Sweeping, washing hands, washing a table, shoe-polish and so forth. Any of these exercises mean the solution of direct and indirect tasks. Even if direct tasks (to learn to wash a table, to clasp buttons, to sweep away garbage from a table, to wash dishes, etc.) aren’t connected directly with educational activity, then indirect tasks solved in the course of a child’s activity, are important to the preparation for writing, reading and the development of other learning skills.

Among the conclusions of this “study” is that students with disabilities should be educated in “special centers.”:

The educational principles of Maria Montessori, in our view, fully meet the requirements of the new standards of education adopted in our country. However, the presence of the class-lesson system limits the possibilities for the application of the educational principles of Maria Montessori in a regular school. It seems to us that the process of pedagogical support for children with learning disabilities can be managed in a more flexible manner on the basis of special centers.

IMA has explicitly presented their version of Montesori education as inclusive for students with disabilities, (however it appears that some public Montessori schools in Milwaukee  employ staff for “More Restrictive Placements,”examples here and here).

I can discern no good reason why IMA included a citation to this article.

Passage and Footnotes #2 and #6

passage 2

2“[The Montessori] child-centered classrooms provide for a greater level of student engagement possibly due to more positive teacher-student relationships. It is also possible that students at child-centered classrooms participate at a greater proportion, complexity, and intensity in class work than students in more traditional educational settings do because alternative curricula provides more opportunities to develop higher levels of competency.” Franczak, 2016.

The full cite for Franczak appears elsewhere (the first use should include the full cite): Franczak, Iwona. “Comparative Analysis of Behavioral Engagement and Transferable Skills in Conventional and Montessori Schools.” 2016 NCUR (2016). The passage from the IMA proposal that cite annotates reads:

passage 3.png

Discussion

At the time of the study Ms Franczak was an undergraduate student at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston (the journal publishes the proceedings of an undergraduate research conference held annually in Asheville, NC). As far as undergraduate research goes, it is fine work. There are, however, a number of issues.

First, the study says nothing directly about “test scores,”or “achievement gaps,” or even “achievement” (it does make a case – based on other work – that engagement and transferable skills increase academic achievement), very little about “opportunities to follow their own interest and develop deep understanding,” but much on “transferable skills.”

With the second passage, the biggest problem is that this is not a “longitudinal study,” but rather for three non-randomly selected schools, “[o]bservations were conducted at site in three thirty minute intervals during the first three hours of a school day for five days.” Referencing observations that took place over five days as “longitudinal” is a big problem.

It should be noted that the statements on “self control, team work, and problem solving” in the study were not based on anything “measured,” (the word used in the IMA proposal) in the research, but rather are presented as “additional qualitative data” (teacher surveys – no survey instrument is provided – are said to “confirm” these observations, but elsewhere it is noted that there were no differences found among the schools in the parent survey). These are also big problems.

The quality of the research is questionable and IMA mischaracterizes the findings.

Passage and Footnote #3

passage 4

3 “[The] benefits of parental involvement in school… include: improved parent–teacher relationships, teacher morale and school climate; improved school attendance, attitudes, behavior and mental health of children; and, increased parental confidence, satisfaction and interest in their own education.” Hornby, Garry, and Rayleen Lafaele. “Barriers to parental involvement in education: An explanatory model.” Educational Review 63.1 (2011): 37-52.

Discussion

This is generally fine. The authors are recognized scholars, the journal is respectable, and the information being annotated is generally related to the source cited. The article itself says nothing about Montessori, so it is a little off,  but there isn’t anything egregious with this citation.

Passage and Footnote #4

passage 5

4  Abigail Jordan, Bailey Fern, Chelsea Morris, Rebecca Cross, and Smita Mathur,“Critical Thinking in the Elementary Classroom: Exploring Student Engagement in Elementary Science Classrooms through Case-Study Approach” Journal of Emerging Trends in Educational Research and Policy Studies 5(2014) 6: 673-678, 665.

Discussion

Undergraduate research once more, this time published by an organization on the ““[p]otential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers” list linked above.

Again it is a fine as undergraduate research, but overall not very impressive, and it has little or no relationship to the passage it supposedly supports. The words/phrases “Montessori,” “customized learning plans,” or “systems of support” do not appear. The article does endorse “Constructivist” education, and the relationship between Constructivism and Montessori is complicated and controversial (see here). Here is the conclusion

Through our research, we have found that male students in the elementary classroom often need multiple forms of engagement to learn. Specific examples of engagement include physically stimulating opportunities and moments that involve emotional engagement such as personal connections to material. It is important for teachers to remember that behavioral engagement does not always relate to cognitive success. For students to truly understand and connect to science material, a layered engagement approach must be administered.

I can discern no good reason to cite this article here.

Passage and Footnote # 5 and Uncited Statistics

passage 6

5 See: www.public-montessori.org/sites/default/files/resources/EDCS%20Outcomes%20Charts%20and%20Graphs.pdf (note: The link from the application no longer works, the document has been archived here).

The “increasing research base” turns out to be two pages of a 2010 newsletter from an organization now called Lumin Education.   There is a “research base” on Montessori (parts of which appear elsewhere in the IMA application), but that’s not what this is.

The same organization and statistics from the same two pages appear elsewhere (without a citation) in the IMA application  to support of IMA’s projections for student achievement (I also covered this in an earlier post here). Here is that passage:

For the last thirty years a public Montessori Charter in East Dallas, where the area has a 50% high school drop out rate, has boasted third grade student math and reading scores in the top 36% nationwide, graduation rates of 94% of high schoolers, with 88% going on to college. The school has a higher than district-average percentage of ELL students and economically disadvantaged students, and  a per-pupil expenditure 14% less than the district level. IMA believes in the power of the method to produce similar results for Madison. For these reasons, our academic achievement goals are ambitious.

Lumin began 38 years ago as a small private (Montessori) school; in 1999 they opened a pre-K to grade 3 charter school. There was no Charter School 30 years ago.  They also operate two pre-natal to age three programs, one of which now has toddler and primary classrooms, and is slated to add elementary (as far as I can tell these are private, not charter or public).

Many more problems here. The first is that there is no source given for this data, no footnote, although it appears all of the figures are from the same 2010 newsletter cited above.. Next is the comparison of drop out rates with graduation rates, without defining either. There are many ways to calculate drop out rates and graduation rates, but only rarely do they lend themselves to simple comparisons between the two. This mistake appears to be the work of the IMA team, because the newsletter states both in terms of “graduation rates.” It isn’t clear from the source which schools or students are included (does this combine the private school with the charter, are any students who attended for any length of time included or only those who attended for a certain number of years), nor how data was obtained and for what percentage of students (neither school goes past 4th grade and it can be difficult to track outcomes for mobile students over time). All these things matter. One thing that distinguishes quality research from promotional materials is that quality research provides these sorts of details.

Whatever the sources or quality of data behind the assertion about graduation rates, the numbers involved appear to be very small. The private school currently has a total pre-K to 3d grade enrollment of 72, with only 9 3d graders. The public charter has 272 students with the vast majority in pre-K and Kindergarten and only 32 in grade 3 (the single tested grade).

The achievement statistics from the newsletter  — which form the basis for IMA’s aspirational projections —  come in two forms.

One is characterized as being based on “a ten-year study of standardized test scores (1993 – 2003),” with no further information given.  Since the Charter school opened in 1999, at most 3 years of this unavailable study could include that school.  Again, IMA misrepresents the figures they are citing.

The other statistics are clearly from the state TAKS tests, however there is also some confusion and misrepresentation with these.  This graph from the newsletter does not indicate whether the data is from the Charter or the Private school, or a combination of the two:

edc 1

Further investigation appears to show it is from from the Charter.  In 2008-9 there were 20 students from the Charter tested in reading, so the number was very small.  Further investigation also reveals how this graph is misleading.  Note that the Charter students are all in grade 3, but the comparisons are to the “Sum of all grades tested.” If you only include 3d grade, in Region 10 for 2008-9, the percent meeting standard was 94%, or within 1% of the Charter school.  This fits with a 2011 study by NWEA which showed that the TAKS cut scores were generally very low, and that 3d grade had some of the lowest.  It is also worth noting that the newsletter says nothing about math scores, probably because only 76% of their students met the standard in 2008-9 (compared to 84% in Region 10).  Add to this well-reported findings that “suggests they [the TAKS tests] are virtually useless at measuring the effects of classroom instruction,” and problems present become even greater.

It should be noted that those who “analyzed” the IMA materials  for the Board displayed little or no awareness of any these issues with the single newsletter IMA referenced as an “increasing research base” (nor any of the issues raised here with any of the other citations)  That’s a problem too.

Passage and Footnote #7

imacs foot 7

7. Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Lia Sandilos,“Improving Students’ Relationship with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning” American Psychological Association, (2011).

Discussion

This is another case of a perfectly fine presentation, by respected researchers, published on a respected forum, being presented by IMA as supporting assertions about Montessori, when the article says nothing about Montessori.  Nothing.

As far as attribution and “increased achievement” goes, here is what the authors have to say “Solely improving students’ relationships with their teachers will not produce gains in achievement. However, those students who have close, positive and supportive relationships with their teachers will attain higher levels of achievement than those students with more conflict in their relationships.”

It would be fine if the authors of the IMA proposal took Rimm-Kaufman and Sandilos’ work and in a systematic way drew parallels between their findings and Montessori practices.  Failing this, it would be acceptable to simply include something in the footnote like “for more on relationships and child-centered environments in general, and outside of Montessori, see:…).  To imply that these authors “attributed” “increased achievement” to the “Montessori method,” is dishonest.  See also the section on footnotes #2 & #6 above.

One More, Passage and Footnote #27

Note:  When I was first drafting this post back in January, this is where I intended to stop (at some point you hit diminishing returns, and it becomes increasingly clear that you have put more work into critiquing the research cited than went into doing the cites in the first place).  However, in recent weeks I found one more instance I would like to include.

IMA 27

27 Diamond, A., “The Evidence Base for Improving School Outcomes by Addressing the Whole Child and by Addressing Skills and Attitudes, Not Just Content.” Early Education and Development, 2: 780-793. (2010)

Discussion

On the surface this is simply (yet) another case of IMA placing a citation to a perfectly fine article as supporting evidence for assertions about Montessori that the article does not make (there are no mentions of Montessori in Dr. Diamond’s article).  Certainly misleading, and to me dishonest.  What makes this one special is that in the IMA proposal it comes with a “hot link,” that doesn’t take you to the article, but rather sends you to this (Walton funded) Public Montessori advocacy organization.  That’s a whole new level of misleading.

Conclusion

As Mark Twain wrote, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest.”  After the citations examined here, I stopped my systematic researches.  With the others I did look at, I found some that were fine, and many that were problematic.  Regardless of what the scorecard for the entire proposal might be, the clear failings revealed in those covered here are beyond troubling.  If the people behind IMA can’t do better with their proposal, how can we trust them with our children and our money?

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Filed under Accountability, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, MMSD, Uncategorized

[Update] — Still a Sow’s Ear — Isthmus Montessori Academy Contract

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Pigbag — Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag (click to listen and watch).

See here for the latest.

Update #2:  I had read the recent documents as making 3K as well as 4K wrap around services provided by IMA Inc optional, and from that reading assumed that this meant that 3K students — like 4K students — could attend the morning, MMSD portion of the day without paying tuition.  Based on this understanding I asked some questions about admission to the morning, MMSD, 3K portion of the day.  The response from MMSD staff, indicated that neither of these may be true, that wrap around  and/or tuition may be required for 3K students to access an MMSD school, that at this time — 6 days from the vote — there is not clarity.  This means that the 3K portions of the Tuition section of the  initial post may not be moot.

I also received information from MMSD staff that Federal guidelines exempt preschool and childcare subsidies from the requirements which would exclude undocumented students (I had based my assertion on state guidelines).  I am confused by this apparent conflict, but accept that 3K and 4K IMA Inc students will not be excluded from obtaining subsidies based on immigration status.

 

 

Update: Yesterday evening the Board was provided with a number of new documents related to IMA. Among these is a different (or clarified) plan for 3K and 4K which renders moot much (or all) of the section below on Tuition.

I have not looked at all of the rest yet, but am posting them here, now: Memo, Budget, Cost Per Pupil, Enrollment Model, Attendance Area.

I will probably be posting on these — especially the attendance area transportation issues — within the next week.

Monday July 31, 2017, The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will consider and vote on a contact for an Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School (IMACS).  This will be the third time the Board has voted on a version of this proposal.  The previous two times the Board and the Administration agreed that the proposal did not meet the requirements of the MMSD Charter School policy (related concerns about state statutes were also expressed by some Board Members).  Each time, a majority of the Board voted to advance the proposal in order to provide opportunities to address the shortcomings (I voted no each time).  Among the questions before the Board on July 31 is whether this has been accomplished; whether a sow’s ear has been transformed into a silk purse.  I think it is still a sow’s ear.

In this post I detail how I reached that conclusion by looking at three big areas: charging tuition to place students in public school classrooms; a staffing plan that does not meet Association Montessori International standards (and perhaps violates state Administrative Rules; and most importantly, will not serve students well), and a budget that is not sustainable.   These overlap with, but are not identical to the areas where the Administration and the Board previously concluded that the proposal did not meet expectations.  It should also be noted that it is my understanding, and according to MMSD policy, all proposals must meet the terms of our policy and statutes. They are minimum requirements, and are not the basis for an automatic approval. There are other aspects of the proposal that I find wanting. But these are not the focus of this post.  Before proceeding, some background is in order.

Where We Are, and How We Got Here

The first time the Board voted on IMACS was on September 26, 2016 (minutes here, Initial Proposal here, memo here, reviewers’ rubric here, budget key factors here, video here;  related September 19, 2016 Operations Work Group minutes here, video here). Contrary to the Administrative recommendation, by a 5-2 vote (Anna Moffit and I voted no) the Board requested that IMA develop a “Detailed Proposal” to be submitted by November 1, 2016.  According to the MMSD policy, the detailed proposal is to be analyzed by a (staff) Charter Application Review Committee, and forwarded to the Board, along with a recommendation, for a January vote.  Many of the areas of concern identified in September — finances, staffing, attendance area,  transportation, inclusion of 3K and secondary students, services for students with special needs, services for English Language Learners, enrollment…  — remained areas of concern in January, and — for me — those concerns have yet to be satisfied.

IMA was given two opportunities on the detailed proposal, an initial version due at the deadline set by policy, and a revised or final version due three weeks later. There is nothing in the MMSD Policy either allowing for two detailed proposal submissions, nor explicitly disallowing. But this seems to be contrary to the intent of the policy (“Detailed Proposals must be filed in the Office of the Secretary to the BOARD by 3:00 pm on the due date set forth in Section II.A, above. No exceptions shall be made to the timeline. Late submissions will be returned unopened to the applicant”).   Memos on IMA refer and link to a “revised charter school process,” and that document does include an opportunity to revise, but it has not been approved by the Board.

A version was submitted on November 1 (at the time, my requests to district staff and IMA for a copy of this version were refused; it was only provided to the Board after I made an open records request).  This version was found to not meet expectations in 9 categories: Vision, Mission Goals; Values and Instructional Theory; Student Body/Demographics; Academic Achievement Data and Analysis; Student Access to Opportunities; Curriculum; Instructional Design;  Financial Operations; and Facility Plan (rubric here, letter here).  The subsequent version is the one the Board considered and voted on in January.

Confusingly, the subsequent and “final” version of the proposal also bears the date “November 1, 2017.”  This proposal also did not meet the established criteria ( (memo here, rubric here, rubric including both the November 1 and the “final” version here).  In 5 of the areas the reviewer found the changes made to be sufficient, in the areas of Student Body/Demographics, Academic Achievement Data and Analysis, Instructional Design, and Financial Operations, the rating remained “Fails to Meet Expectations.”  Based on this, the Administration memo from Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham stated that she “cannot recommend that the Board of Education approve the IMA application for school year 2017/18.”  However, the memo continued:

Should the Board choose to move forward with the IMA application, in concept, the Administration recommends that the Board of Education only consider approval for the school year 2018/19 contingent on the submission of an updated plan which addresses all areas of the rubric that do not meet expectations by May 31, 2017. Those areas of the application are:
●Student Body and Demographics
●School Data
●Curriculum Assessment & Instruction
●Financial Operations

This is the what a majority of the Board chose to do (see below, I was the lone no vote).  It should be noted that as with a second detailed proposal, the MMSD policy neither explicitly allows nor disallows contingent or delayed approvals, and this action took us into uncharted territory outside of our policy.  Because of this, it is essential to look closely at all the documents and records, and what actions the Board has taken so far.

There were two votes related to IMA on January 30, 2017.  Here is the wording for first (from the minutes):

[A]pprove(d) the proposal for the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School and that the District enter into a contract, consistent with applicable Board policy and state law, to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School as an instrumentality charter school for a period of five (5) years from July 1, 2018 until June 30, 2023. Such approval shall be contingent on the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School supplementing their current proposal to address the following areas of concern by no later than May 31,2017:
● Student Body and Demographics
● School Data
● Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction
● Financial Operations

and the second:

It was moved by Ed Hughes and seconded by James Howard that, consistent with BOE Policy 10,000, the Board of Education approve the following actions:
1) upon the successful satisfaction of all outstanding contingencies, the
District will notify the State Superintendent of Public Instruction of its
intention to establish the Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School
as an instrumentality charter school on or before March 1, 2018;
2) by no later than July 1, 2017, the Board will approve a contract with
Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter School to operate the charter
school for a five-year period beginning with the 2018-2019 school
year;
3) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter
School to minimize expenditure impacts on the District’ budget and to
maximize revenue-generating opportunities including grants, state
aids, and other sources resulting from the implementation and operation
of the charter school; and
4) the District will collaborate with Isthmus Montessori Academy Charter
School to assist the school with its planning and preparations in order
to ensure the successful implementation and operation of the school
consistent with the terms of the charter (contract).

At some point in the discussion, I (informally) proposed inserting a step in the process to allow the Board to review the staff determination on whether the contingencies had been met, and then based on this review decide whether to go forward with the contract negotiations (or not).  This received no apparent support, so I did not make a motion to amend, and I did vote against the second motion (which passed 6-1).

Part of the reason I floated this proposal was because the nature of the identified failures to meet expectations and the standards used were (and are) lacking in detail.  The Board and the public had been provided with only minimal information related to the staff analysis of the proposal (this is something I think we need to address in the looming policy revision).  In addition to the memo and rubric linked above, a three-page “Financial Analysis” and a one-page (financial) “Key Factors” document were distributed.  All total this comes to nine pages of analysis for a 121 page proposal (and given that the financials and rubric have much white space, that is a generous count).

This is a crucial issue.  If the contingencies aren’t clear, then it is extremely difficult to determine if they have been met  Since the Board vote only identified general areas, I don’t have any easy answer, but would suggest reviewing the relevant documents, and meetings to get a sense of what the concerns were.  In addition to the materials linked above, I would add the minutes from the January 23, 2017 Operations Work Group, the memo from that meeting, as well as the January 23 and 30th videos.  State statutes (especially Chapter 118), and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers Principles and Standards (which state law requires the Board to “adhere” to), are also relevant.

The supplemental materials submitted in response to the contingencies are a Special Education additionan ELL addition,  a revised Budget, a (confusing) Enrollment Model,  and a (achievement) Data Update. I will cover some of these materials below, but in sum the changes in relation to Special Education and English Language Learners mostly concern schedules and professional development; the revised budget and enrollment model call for a slightly smaller school, lower (lead) teacher/student ratios, higher special education teacher ratios (and lower special education assistant ratios), designates Bilingual Resource Teacher and Specialist allocations (these were folded into other categories in the January version), a slightly smaller school, and a 5 year budget shortfall that increases from $58,681.36 to $516,157.01; the Data Update does little but relabel unrealistic “Goals” as “Aspirations.”

The Administrative review of these documents concluded that the contingencies and expectations had been met.  I disagree (and will explain some of that disagreement below); you can draw your own conclusions.

At a Special Board Meeting on July 10, 2017 (video here), the Board was presented with a draft contract (memo here), and discussed the contract and supplementary materials.

As stated at the top, on July 31, 2017 the Board will vote on a (revised) contract.  That’s where we are.  Now to dig into three areas where I believe large problems remain: Tuition, Staffing and Finances.

Charging Tuition to Attend an MMSD School?

Much of this section is about legal issues, which are significant and complicated; some of it is about financial issues, which are also significant; but for me the most significant issue is one of principle, and that is whether we want to be a district that creates a situation that requires some students to pay tuition in order to be in a MMSD classroom.  I don’t.

The last two iterations of the IMA proposal have referenced 3K students paying tuition; the budget in the recent submissions includes a “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teacher %)” of $53,901.33 in the first year (it increases slightly each year).  Discussions have also included references to 4K students paying partial tuition, but at this point it isn’t clear what ,if any, plans there are for that.

Since state law and MMSD policy are clear that “A charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition, except as otherwise provided in s. 121.83(4)” (WI Statutes 118.40); and “A charter school shall not: …Charge tuition” (MMSD Policy 10000), IMA has proposed that the private school (IMA Inc) charge the tuition, and — in the latest version — turn some (but it doesn’t appear all) of that tuition over to MMSD via the “Reimbursement payment” referenced above.

There is much wrong with this arrangement; some that is legal, some of that financial, and some based on principle.

The MMSD Charter Policy only allows for “Instrumentality” charters, which means — among other things — that “the school board shall employ all personnel for the charter school.”  The classrooms that 3K and 4K students would attend, are the same classrooms 5K students would attend, taught by MMSD employees.  The supervision of these employees, and the other supports for these students would be provided by MMSD employees.  These classrooms would be sublet by IMACS and MMSD (see the contract), from IMA Inc.  (Almost) all the liability for these students would be MMSD’s (there may be a little that is IMACS), so far there has been no indication that IMA Inc. would take on liabilities, but we don’t — yet — have a contract with the organization (for this and other reasons — see below — I have requested that we review a draft contract with IMA Inc prior to voting on the IMACS contract).  In every way, these would be MMSD classrooms and MMSD students.

With that in mind, how can a private school charge these students tuition?  I don’t think they legally can, but since it isn’t 100% clear, it is worth looking at statutes and precedents.

First, there appears to be a distinction between 3K and 4K (there are also some differences for children with disabilities that I am not going to cover, except to say that I can’t find any circumstance where tuition may be charged for educational services provided to “Residents 3 to 20 years old” in these instances.  Chapter 121.77 states: “Every elementary school and high school shall be free to all pupils who reside in the school district.” 115.01 says “Where reference is made to “elementary grades”, the reference includes kindergarten, where applicable. Where reference is made to “kindergarten”, the reference includes both 4−year−old and 5−year−old kindergarten, except as otherwise specifically provided.”   Reading these together, I don’t think MMSD can collect or authorize the collection of tuition for 4K students in our classrooms.

However, in Chapter 120, the enumerated powers of school district governments include
(13) PREKINDERGARTEN CLASSES. Establish and maintain classes for children less than 4 years of age under such regulations as it prescribes. The school board may accept and receive federal funds for such purpose and expend such funds in conformity with the purposes and requirements thereof. The school board may charge a reasonable fee for attendance at such classes but may waive the fee or any portion thereof to any person who is unable to make payment.

and 120.14 has a similar provision for “Child Care Programs.” Districts may charge tuition for 3K or child care.

But the IMA proposal does not have MMSD charging tuition, it has IMA Inc. charging tuition for MMSD classrooms and services.  Nothing I can find gives the district the power to make that arrangement.  I don’t think the power exists, and I don’t think the power should exist.

This is probably as good a place as any to note that in my research I found one instance of a charter school in Wisconsin charging tuition for 3K.  The school is Downtown Montessori a 2r (non-intrumentality) charter authorized by the City of Milwaukee (you can look at the contract here ,and tuition page here).  This appears to be in violation of the following provision “charter school governing board may not…1. Charge tuition” provision quoted above, but as 2r charter Downtown Montessori is also a Local Education Agency (MMSD would be the LEA for IMACS), and this may allow them to take advantage of the provision that empowers the school district to charge tuition for 3K.  It may not.  It certainly doesn’t serve as a precedent for allowing IMA Inc. to charge tuition for district classrooms.

Some people have referenced community based 4K services as a precedent for what IMA is proposing, but there are key differences.  In those arrangements, MMSD staff come into private preschools and provide educational services for a few hours a day (I think, but I may be wrong).  These services are free to all.  Some, but not all, students who receive these services also pay tuition to the private provider for the remainder of the day, and other services.  This is different from the IMA model in two huge ways.  First, the private schools provide services and coverage, in the IMA model all of this is being done by MMSD.  Second, students may access the MMSD portion of the day without paying for the other portions.

I don’t think what is being proposed is legal, but for the purposes of looking at the finances of the arrangements, I am going to set that aside.

IMA proposes setting the “3K Tuition /IMA Reimbursement payment (cover 3K classroom teachers)” at 2/3 of the cost of a teacher, or $53,901.33 in the first year.  The thinking appears to be that 1/3 of the students in the 3K to 5K classrooms will be 3K students, there will be two of these classrooms, therefore 2/3.  This leaves out all the other costs associated with the school, or more accurately shifts them to other funding sources, by far the largest being local property taxes.  This is a bad deal for MMSD.

It may be even worse, if IMA intends to charge what they are charging now.  Current 3K tuition at IMA is $995/month.  20 students at $995/month, for 9 months = $179,100, which is $125,198.67 more than IMA wants to pay MMSD for these students.  $125,198.67 for processing 20 applications, cashing some checks, and pointing the students toward an MMSD classroom (IMA promises an annual, additional “Financial support payment from the parent organization IMA Inc.” to MMSD, but these do not appear to be linked to 3K or 4K and only in year one do these payments approach the projected tuition collection surplus).  Nice deal for IMA; not so nice for MMSD.  If they intend to charge partial tuition for 4K students, it gets even worse.

Tuition related concerns about accessibility and equity have also been raised.  IMA currently participates in the state Wisconsin Shares program, which provides some tuition assistance, based on qualifications and needs.  Although this does improve equitable access, eligibility is limited, payments may be partial depending on circumstances, and undocumented students are not eligible.  More importantly, I don’t think the arrangement IMA has proposed — collecting tuition to send children to public school classrooms — would allow them to qualify for the subsidies.  The program has extensive requirements for providers (and here).  Among other things, this process requires submissions on the qualifications of the teachers.  IMA Inc. will not be employing any 3K or 4K teachers (they will be MMSD employees), so I don’t see how they can claim MMSD employees as their teachers (and MMSD classrooms as their classrooms) in order to receive state funding.

Will the Staffing Plan Provide Quality Education?

Leaving everything else aside, I don’t think we should create a new school unless we believe that it will be successful for our students.  Staffing is a key part of this. The changes in the staffing plan since January are relatively extensive, but still — in my opinion — insufficient to create that confidence.

The January staffing plan was a bad joke.  By my estimation (see pages 12 & 48 of the Proposal) in year one they had 7 classrooms, 223 students (ranging from 27 to 35 students in each classroom), and 5.8 teachers, (including an unspecified number of Bilingual Resource Teachers, but not the 2.3 Special Education Teachers).  Apparently one or more classrooms would not have had a teacher.

The above referenced Association Montessori International standards require classes of 28-35 children, with one “AMI trained teacher,” and one “Non-teaching assistant” for each class.  The proposal voted on in January had for year one, a total of 1 “Educational Assistant, incl BRS,” and 0.8 Special Education Assistant (like Special Education Teachers, and Bilingual Resource Teachers, BRS, and SEAs have specific responsibilities and they can not be used as general “assistants”).  At best, this staffing plan was also short 6 assistants.

The new plan is in some ways an improvement.  For year one, there are now 6 classrooms, 190 students (ranging from 30 to 36 in each classroom), and 6 classroom teachers.  In addition, there are 1 BRT, 0.5 BRS, 1.5 Special Education Teachers, and 1.2 Special Education Assistants. There are no “Non-teaching assistants”in the plan.  The standards call for 6.  The estimated cost to add these would be about $300,000 in the first year, and over $1.5 million over five years.

The staffing is so inadequate, I am not clear how the could manage the required “duty-free lunch” periods. The Special Education Teacher to student ratio is worse (assuming 14% of the student population receive special education services in both versions), going from 13.57/1 to 17.73/1, while the SEA to student ratio improves from 39.03/1 to 22.16/1.  If the students are very low needs, this may be adequate.  If the students are higher needs and this is not adequate, MMSD is obligated to provide additional staffing and services, at additional costs.

There are no Arts, Music, World Language, Computer, or Physical Education teachers, nor a budget for these.  All of these are problematic, and the lack of certified physical education staff appears to be contrary to Wisconsin Administrative rules.

I have not done a systematic analysis of the staffing at public Montessori schools in Wisconsin, but among those I have looked at, many seem to employ Art and Physical Education teachers, most seem to have a classroom teacher to student ratios in the mid to low 20s, all seem to have sufficient classroom assistants (some data here if you are interested, but note that I have found that this file often does not match the information from school and district directories).
Despite the lack of adequate staffing, IMA continues to put forth delusional projections for student achievement; and these continue to use one 2010 excerpt from an annual report, from one 3d grade class, at one small 3K to 3d grade Texas school as the primary reference point (there is also a reference to another source, which in turn references a flawed 2006 study of one Milwaukee school...don’t get me started on the offensively bad use of citations and “research” in many parts of the IMA proposal, I started but never finished a long post on that…maybe next week).
[As an aside, and in light of the discussion above, I want to note that Texas school currently has a 19.35/1 student teacher ratio (IMA projects 22.35/1 when Special Education and Bilingual Teachers are included), and employs 9.83 Instructional Aides for 272 students (IMA projects 1.7 Aides– all either Bilingual or Special Education — for 190 students).]
IMA is correct to note that it is difficult to project student achievement data for a school that does not yet exist (state law actually requires that these projections be done and incorporated in charter contracts, see below).  However, it isn’t difficult to produce more realistic projections than those IMA offers.  Here is one section of their updated data projections.
IMA Map Data
I am not going to make projections myself, but I will offer some data for context and critique.
MPS MMSD IMA compare

All data is from WISEDash or DPI Report Cards (spreadsheet here).  The “Closing Gaps” measure compares value added scores between subgroups, using statewide data for the higher scoring subgroup and school data for the lower, relevant school subgroups are combined (more here).  The Milwaukee schools are all the public Montessori schools in that city; the Madison schools are from the IMA “transportation zone.”  As with any standardized test based data, it is important to keep in mind that these are very limited measures, and do not come close to providing a full picture of students or schools.  In this case, it is also worth noting that a number of schools had significant percentages of students who were not tested.  The projections from IMA are based on MAP and this data is from Forward, but the cut scores MMSD uses for MAP are relatively well aligned with the Forward cut scores.

Before going forward,  look at the chart — especially columns 3,4, and 6 — and take a minute or two to reflect on how bad (almost all of) our schools — Madison and Milwaukee — are doing with disadvantaged students.  We need to do so much better.

Just a couple of observations on this data.  First, there is no “Montessori Miracle” happening in Milwaukee; some schools are doing well, some are even doing well with disadvantaged students, but some are not doing so well, and only one — Fernwood — shows results that are similar to those IMA projects (and even that one is not “closing gaps”).  Second, the demographics of the Milwaukee Montessori schools — with very few exceptions — are much less challenging than Milwaukee as a whole, Madison as a whole, and the Madison schools in the transportation zone; lower poverty, fewer students with disabilities, almost no English Language Learners.
One last thing on student achievement data.  The Principles and Standards that state law requires the Board to “adhere” to, call for
…[C]harter contracts that plainly:
• Establish the performance standards under which schools will be evaluated, using objective and verifiable measures of student achievement as the primary measure of school quality;
• Define clear, measurable, and attainable academic, financial, and organizational performance standards and targets that the school must meet as a condition of renewal, including but not limited to state and federal measures;

The proposed contract does not do this.  Instead it lists many possible measures, and leaves target setting to the SIP process.

The SIP goals currently used by MMSD are subject to revision, and include inappropriate comparisons between grade cohorts that are very problematic for a small, non-attendance area school. They briefly measure goals such as “% proficient grades 6-8.” These can fluctuate greatly if there are significant differences between the outgoing 8th grade class and the incoming 6th grade class, even if there is no change in achievement with the advancing 6th to 7th grade, and 7th to 8th grade.  This is problematic for all schools, but much worse for small non-attendance area schools, and even more problematic with small subgroups.  We have seen this with Badger Rock as well.

Without clear targets and standards, the renewal process gets very, very messy.   I think the best way around this is to have cohort based growth goals (but not the MAP growth measures as used by MMSD, those essentially label students who are not falling behind their peers who started at the same RIT score as meeting targets, which in relation to our students who are struggling amounts to a pat on the back for continuing to be well behind).

Will IMA Be Financially Sustainable?

No.

Even with the insufficient staffing, problematic tuition reimbursement payments from IMA Inc, the other payments from IMA Inc., probably unrealistic fundraising promises, the budget does not balance in any of the five projected years, and there is no indication of how it would balance in subsequent years. As I noted above, the version voted on in January had a five-year deficit of $58,681.36 (and this budget was found to not meet expectations); the supplemental materials increase this to $516,157.01 (but apparently met someone’s expectations). At times people have asserted that the deficit is offset by adding “value” and/or attracting “new” students to the district.  This is worth examining.  There are three major categories of students who might attend IMACS: MMSD resident students currently enrolled (or who would enroll) in MMSD schools, non-MMSD resident students currently enrolled in other school districts or private/homeschooled, and MMSD resident students currently not enrolled in MMSD schools (private school students, homeschooled students…).  The financial implications for each are different.

For MMSD resident students currently enrolled in MMSD schools, there will be no offsetting increase in revenue limits or state aid.  Because IMA would be realitively small, and will draw students from many MMSD schools, offsetting savings elsewhere are likely to be very small, or nonexistent.  Taking 5 or even 55 students from a variety of grades at another school will only rarely change the staffing needs of that school, and will do nothing for the fixed costs.Non-resident, open enrolled students create a net loss for MMSD.  A balanced budget for IMA would have public funding equal to the open enrollment payment amount.  The IMA projected budget averages about $525/student/year more than this.  So MMSD would subsidize each student who open enrolls in MMSD by that amount.  There is no increase in the revenue limit for these students.

Resident students who are not currently attending MMSD are more complicated.  For simplicity’s sake I am going to use a figure of $7,500 per student, per year for the costs of IMA students to MMSD (I am also rounding other numbers).  For the 2017-18 budget a good estimate of equalization and per pupil state aid, per student,combined, for MMSD is $2,100.  One way to look at the cost of these students to the district is the difference between these, or $5,400 per student.  However, these students would also increase MMSD’s revenue limit by an amount greater than the $7,500, a difference of about $4,200.  This money, if MMSD taxed to the max, could be spent on other MMSD students, and in some senses represents a net gain to the district.

Before closing on the budget and finances, I want to say a few more things about the donations and fundraising.  I called the fundraising projections unrealistic based on tax documents filed by IMA, that show they have never raised over $10,549 a year, and are now promising $60,000 or more annually.  IMA has secured one pledge of $100,000 (see here, page 90), via an individual who opposed building apartments in Shorewood because “This project increases the voting rolls by 20 percent with people who have different values – I’m not saying bad values – but different values from what we have here.

Which brings up the issue of “Leverage Philanthropy,” whereby individuals and groups with money use (relatively) small donations to leverage (relatively) large amounts of public money for ends that are not aligned with and may be opposed to the public good.  It is not unheard of for charter schools to receive support from those who desire the end of school districts.  I am confident that the founders of IMA are sincere in their stated desire to expand accessibility to what they believe is a beneficial system of education, and to do so within a public school context.  I am not so sure about their potential donors, and am generally uncomfortable when people use the promise of funding to sway the decisions of governmental bodies.

The last thing on fundraising concerns the contract.  As currently drafted the contract only allows a good cause termination if payment and fundraising promises are not met two consecutive years.  I think it should be one year, or at very least two years without the consecutive.  The draft contract also reduces district support the following year when these promises are not met.  I don’t like that because it punishes the students.  I already think the staffing is much to small, any further reduction would only decrease the likelihood of students being served well.

Conclusion
Unless there are radical changes between now and July 31, I will be voting no on the IMACS contract.  I believe it is the Board’s role and responsibility to only move forward charter schools which at a minimum, we believe meet the standards and requirements of  our policy and state law, and that:
In making its decision, the BOARD shall, at a minimum, consider the information included in the detailed proposal, the information provided by the SUPERINTENDENT, whether or not the requirements of BOARD Policy have been met, the level of employee and parental support for the establishment of the charter school, and the fiscal impact of the establishment of the charter school on the DISTRICT. [from MMSD Policy 1000]
This is our job, and if we do not find the supplemental materials and the contract satisfactory (which I do not), our obligation is to vote against the approval of the contract.
TJ Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, AMPS, Budget, education, Equity, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, MMSD, Uncategorized

New MMSD Tech Plan Funding Scheme (and Related Thoughts) — Updated

computer_money

Funkadelic — “No Compute” (click to listen or download).

The Firestones — “Buy Now, Pay Later” (click to listen or download)

Update 7:45 PM, 6/8/15: There was little or no support for this proposal expressed by Board Members and it is “off the table.”

 On the MMSD Board Operations Work Group agenda for Monday June 8, 2015 (5:00 PM), a proposal (pages 19 & 20 of the “2015-16 Budget Review and Input” here)  to delay $4,115,000 in debt payments till 2026 and 2027, and add $1,428,348 in debt service payments, all in order to “Make it Possible to Support Annual Increases in the Tech Plan thru 2019 without Drawing Away Funds from Other Areas of the Budget” (the latest version of the Tech Plan budget has full implementation in 2022). For many reasons (too many to go into here), this seems like a very bad idea. In general, I think we should begin again and create a Tech Plan that we can afford without these kind of shell games.

Here is the key page:

Tech Plan DebtThe right hand column has the ugly details.

Tech Plan Debt3This not an item up for a formal vote. I will be advising against pursuing this option in the strongest terms (there will be public testimony at the meeting where you can share your thoughts, and the Board can always be contacted via board@madison.k12.wi.us).

Leaving aside the dubious merits of tech purchases as a priority (at a time when we are cutting classroom staff, deferring building maintenance, and looking at more cuts next year and beyond), it is simply bad policy to push debt into the future at a cost of $1.4 million in order purchase or lease items that will not even still be in service when it comes time to pay the bill.  The Tech Plan originally had a three year replacement cycle on most items; more recently that has been changed to a four year cycle (page 126 here, and more here, except the most recent expenditure — voted in April to be placed on hold brought before the Board were for a three year lease on Chromebooks and Tablets, so it is hard to say what the current thinking is).  Whether a three year cycle or a four year cycle, items purchased or leased in 2015 through 2019 will be out-of-service by the time the $2 M+ payments are due in 2026 and 2027.

Even if this “buy now, pay later” scheme made sense, it would only cover the annual expenditure increases through the year 2019 for a plan that now is not supposed to be fully implemented until 2022 and has projected ongoing costs of $6 M or more each and every year thereafter.  It is a very expensive temporary band-aid.

What Next?

Given the reality of depressing prospects for school budgets in Wisconsin in the foreseeable future, it is hard not to conclude that the Tech Plan adopted by the MMSD Board of Education in 2014 is unaffordable (I was the lone vote against, joined by Luke Gangler, the student Rep).  Instead of tinkering with changing three year replacement cycles to four year replacement cycles, or five year implementation timelines to seven year implementation timelines, and trying desperately to make the existing plan “work” in this reality,  we need to start again.

It is past time to create a plan that we can afford. I have been pushing for this, and getting (almost) nowhere.

Continuing down the path of attempting to salvage an unaffordable plan wastes both staff (and Board) time, and has a high likelihood of creating new inequities among our schools. If we do one, or two, or three years of purchases under the existing plan, those schools will get the full treatment, the Cadillac version. The schools further back in the queue, after the schemes run out and the realities of having to cut staff to buy tablets hit again, will probably not be so fortunate.

I am not against increased tech spending. I was the one who pushed including tech infrastructure in the recent referendum (and when I pushed for other tech expenditures to be included via short term bonding, I was told that they did not want to borrow to pay for ongoing expenses. Presumably that position has changed.  I do believe that any Tech Plan must be affordable, in the sense that using conservative budget assumptions, proposed spending is weighed against the prospect of budget cuts in other areas (including cutting staff).  It also must be equitable, in that it provides a realistic way to provide equivalent access to technology in all of our schools in a reasonable time.

In my opinion,the best place to start on a new plan would be with a needs assessment.  I asked about this when the plan was being approved about a year ago, involving the budget for the assessment, and finally it appears to be in the works.  Let’s put everything on hold, do the assessment, combine it with budget projections, and then move forward.

There will almost certainly be more Tech Plan expenditures on the June 29th Board  agenda (probably the tablets and Chromebooks that were put on hold in April) and the ones that follow. In the absence of an affordable and equitable Tech Plan, I will be voting against these.

TJ Mertz

Note:  Prior to this post, I had not blogged since being elected to the Board of Education. I have started a few times, but never posted.  Recently I decided it was time to make a real effort to write and post blogs again.  I had hoped that my return entry would be something more positive, but a number of people have asked me for more information on the state of Tech Plan in general and this proposal in particular.  I am not sure how often I will be posting; watch this space and the Progressive Dane site.

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Song of the — Martin Luther King Jr — Day

Kings Marching in Selma Neighborhood

Solomon Burke — “Now Is The Time” (click to listen or download)

See also “Quotes of the  — Martin Luther King Jr. — Day.”

Thomas J. Mertz

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It’s — Mertz for — Madison Time, or I’m Running for School Board

TJ.logo-268It’s Madison Time Part 1 & 2 Ray Bryant Combo

In December I announced my candidacy for the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education, Seat #5 (announcement below).   There will be a primary election February 19, 2013 and the general is April 2, 2013.  I hope I have earned  the support of the readers of this blog.  You can find out more about my campaign, endorse, volunteer and donate at MertzforMadison.com.  I am not sure if I will be doing any blogging during the campaign, but if I do things directly related to the Madison schools will be posted at MertzforMadison.com, and anything posted here at AMPS will be more about state and national matters.

Prepared, Progressive, Passionate

I am excited to announce my candidacy for the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education, Seat #5.

Our public schools are the backbone of our community, the wellspring of our democracy, and the best means we have of providing a better future to all our children. As a parent, scholar, advocate, activist and organizer, I have worked with parents, professors, students, school boards, administrators, legislators, educators, and their unions to better understand and strengthen public schools. I don’t think there has ever been a time when the challenges to our schools have been greater. I want to help Madison meet these challenges by serving on the Board of Education.

I have stood against the pressures of privatization, worked against the expansion and misuse of standardized testing, and have fought for adequate and equitable funding based on the idea that all of our students deserve broad and rich opportunities.

These struggles will continue and expand. As Madison prepares to welcome a new Superintendent, I see opportunities to do more than react. Madison is a community and district where we have the means and the will to show that diverse public education can live up to its promises. To do this we must honestly assess those failings illustrated by the achievement gaps, but also listen to voices of our classrooms and community to understand what is working and build from our strengths.

None of this will be quick and none of this will be easy. I ask for your help and support. Visit www.mertzformadison.com to endorse, donate, or volunteer; and “like” the TJ Mertz, Madison School Board, Seat #5 Facebook page to keep updated.

Thomas J. Mertz

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What to Keep an Eye on in Tony Evers’ Budget (updated)

Eyeball sculpture by artist Tony Tasset from the Eye Si(gh)t blog.

Mavis Staples, “Eyes On The Prize” (click to listen or download).

Update: Still haven’t seen the details, but according to the Press Release, the answer to question number three is a partial yes, with calls for “full funding” of SAGE (it isn’t really “full funding,” see here on the complexities of SAGE funding), increased sparsity aid, increased Bilingual/BiCultural aid in the second year, increased special education aid in the second year, new grant programs around STEM and vocational education, “educator effectiveness, ” and more).  No poverty aid.  For overall state funding  the combined  “categorical and general school aid”  Evers calls for would be  “a 2.4 percent increase in the first year of the budget, the same as the Consumer Price Index, and 5.5 percent in 2014-15.”  I don’t see anything on Revenue Limits.  More later.

Update #2: From a second Press Release, on Revenue Limits: “The plan restores revenue limit authority to all districts. It calls for an increase in the per pupil revenue limit to $225 per student in the first year of the budget and $230 per student in 2014-15.” More details on Fair Funding and other matters in this Press Release also.  A district by district tally may be found here.

Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers will reveal the remainder of his 2013-15 budget proposal on Monday (the first portion was released in September, but it lacks full school finance information;  WisconsinEye will be covering the event).  Evers has also announced he is seeking re-election next April (campaign website here; see here for thoughts on elections and holding Evers and others accountable for their actions and inaction).

We know that Evers budget will be based on the Fair Funding For Our Future framework.  We know that in outsourcing how our state defines what it means to be educated to  American College Testing (the ACT) it will call for an increase in spending of time and money on standardized testing and the processing of standardized test based data (for a horror story outsourcing testing related things in Florida, see “The outsourcing of almost everything in state departments of education,” from Sherman Dorn.  We know that it will in most ways be better than what Governor Scott Walker proposes, especially if the rumors that the Walker proposal will include Tim Sullivan’s “Performance Based Funding” are true ( by design this would direct resources away from those students and schools that are struggling and toward those that are thriving, an incredibly bad idea and the essence of the Republican philosophy).  But there are some essential things we don’t know.  Here are three things I’ll be keeping an eye on.

1. How much of an increase in State Aid will Evers call for?

Wisconsin school have endured huge cuts in state aid in both the last budgets.  Depending on how you count the combined dollar total is close to $2 Billion.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,  the per pupil cuts in Wisconsin have been the fourth largest in the nation.  Here is their chart:

The vast majority of districts have experienced cuts in state aid (the most recent figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, here).  How much of this lost ground will Evers try to make up?

2. What increases in Revenue Limits will Evers call for?

The FitzWalker gang essentially froze cut Revenue limits for 2011-12 and provided a $50/student increase for most districts for 2012-13.  Revenue Limits matter.  Higher Revenue Limits give local district the power to make up for lost state aid and more.  To what extent will the DPI budget restore this local control?  As the bar in expected achievement keeps getting raised, through a combination of state and local resources, we need to give the schools the resources they need to meet their challenges.

3. Will the DPI budget direct resources to those students and schools with higher needs?

In particular, will it call for increases in aid for English Language Learners,  for Special Education, for SAGE reimbursements, for Sparsity (see this column for Kathleen Vinehout on school budgets in general and sparsity in particular)?  Will it direct real aid to those schools identified as needing improvement by the new “Accountability” system (see here for a discussion of that system, including this issue).

One thing the new State Report Cards confirmed is that poverty is a great predictor of which students and schools are struggling.  Will the Evers budget address this in a real way by providing additional resources instead of the property tax cuts to based on student poverty that have been in every other iteration of the Fair Funding plan?  Property tax cuts don’t help students; students need help.  For more on school funding “fairness,” see this report from the Eduction Law Center (Wisconsin doesn’t rank very well).

Last Thoughts.

Those are the big three.  I’ll also be looking at the size of the guaranteed state funding per pupil (which in essence replaces the levy credits in Fair Funding), what kind of “hold harmless” provisions Evers includes, and like all of us I’ll be looking at the impact of the package on my school district (along with a variety of other districts I’ve been informally tracking for years).

This is step one; the next steps involve key players like WEAC and WMC, advocates in general, the Governor and the Legislature.  Much of what will happen with these is predictable.  I can say with great confidence that I will consider whatever Tony Evers proposes to be better than what comes out of the Republican controlled budget process.

One thing I don’t know is how advocates and Democratic Legislators will react.   If past actions and the recent press release from Senator Chris Larson  are indications, they will follow Tony Evers lead and take up Fair Funding as their own.  Depending on the answers to the questions offered here, I hope that people who care about our students, inside and outside the Legislature, keep an open mind to advocating for something better than Fair Funding, something that does make up the ground lost over four years of cuts, something that does give real local control, and most of all something that does a better job directing resources to the schools and students who most need the opportunities of quality public education.  Penny for Kids would be a start, perhaps in conjunction with Fair Funding.

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