April 11 — 5:41 pm, 2012

With Renaissance vote approaching, SRC seeks to balance results and cost

houstoun Photo: Harvey Finkle

by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

As the School Reform Commission prepares to vote on converting four more District schools to charters, it will weigh the hope of duplicating preliminary test score gains in its first cohort of Renaissance turnaround schools against the reality that expanding the initiative is likely to cost the District between $800 and $1,000 per student in the first year.

“That is the calculation,” said Commissioner Feather Houstoun.

“We have a pretty good sense of what the [new charter conversions] may mean in terms of budget impact. There’s a return because of the value of what happened to children that has not happened in decades.”

Houstoun spoke Monday at a forum on the Renaissance Schools initiative organized by local nonprofit Research for Action (RFA). During public remarks and a later interview, the longtime public administrator and former president of the William Penn Foundation touched on a wide range of issues related to the Renaissance initiative, saying she was “disturbed” by some critics’ characterization of charter conversions as a tool for privatizing public education.

“I don’t see this as privatization,” Houstoun said. 

“We work with people who can produce quality education, whether they be principals and teachers in District-run schools or charter operators.”

Monday’s event came 10 days before the SRC’s scheduled April 19 vote on the proposed conversions of Cleveland, Creighton, and H.R. Edmunds Elementary Schools and Jones Middle School to Renaissance charters. School Advisory Councils at each school have been vetting prospective managers for the last several weeks. The SACs are expected to make their final, non-binding recommendations to District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen by next Monday night, April 16.

In February, RFA released a report documenting impressive gains in student achievement at the District’s first cohort of K-8 Renaissance schools. At seven Renaissance charters and four District-run Promise Academies, student scores on state reading and math tests improved at a significantly faster rate than at a group of 72 similarly low-performing comparison schools. Similar gains were not seen in two Promise Academy high schools.

“There’s no question that we think these are innovations from which we can learn a lot,” Houstoun said.

“We think we can find ways to engineer dramatic change in persistently failing schools.”

Houstoun demurred, however, when asked about the current cost of the Renaissance initiative. This year, there are 13 Renaissance charters and nine Promise Academies. 

“It’s a very complex set of calculations because there are costs that fall away, there are costs that stay the same, and there are decisions about how the buildings will be operated,” she said.

A District spokesperson said that an internal review of the cost of the initiative, which has been ongoing for several weeks, has not yet been finalized.

The SRC is still trying to find roughly $20 million in cuts or savings to close this year’s budget gap and is projecting a shortfall of at least $189 million for next year.

District-run Promise Academies have already suffered because of the cuts, said RFA research associate Felicia Sanders.

Inside two Promise Academies where RFA has conducted research this year, Sanders said, “The effects of budget cuts left many [teachers and staff] wondering whether the Promise model was being undercut.”

Houstoun said it would be “silly” to pretend that the “turmoil and uncertainty at the School District” this year had not had a negative impact on this year’s Promise Academies. But she stressed that the SRC has not given up on the District’s internal turnaround model.

“We wanted to give the Promise Academies some breathing room to decide what should be in the model,” Houstoun said. 

“We decided that there would be a pause while we took stock [and] figured out how the model was evolving.”

Given the District’s dire budget situation, some have questioned the SRC’s decision to prioritize more charter conversions even while staff and basic services are being slashed at hundreds of traditional schools.

Houstoun said the SRC is concerned about all schools, but that turning around failing schools must be the priority.

“The greatest inequity is a school that has existed for decades [and is] failing children,” she said.

“If we know how we can fix it, that has to be part of the equation.”

RFA executive director Kate Shaw stressed that her organization’s study did not address the question of cost and could not say whether the Renaissance initiative is a wise investment given the expense.

“We have not done a cost-benefit analysis about whether [expanding the Renaissance initiative] is the best way to spend limited resources,” she said.

Shaw also responded to a recent critique of the RFA study by the What Works Clearinghouse, a project of the U.S. Department of Education. 

Last month, WWC issued a “quick review” stating that the RFA study “does not meet WWC evidence standards.” The review indicates that because the comparison schools used in the study were not as low-performing as the Renaissance schools themselves, “any changes in student achievement or attendance cannot be attributed solely to the implementation of the Renaissance Schools Initiative.”

Shaw acknowledged that the RFA study “does not reach the gold standard” of purely scientific research, but said that her research team used the best possible design given that the District specifically targeted its very lowest-performing schools for turnaround, rather than randomly assigning schools to the Renaissance initiative.

“We think the study has significant rigor,” Shaw said. 

“The comparison schools are not exactly equivalent to the Renaissance schools…simply because the School District did not choose to conduct its Renaissance Schools Initiative based on what would be best for researchers.”

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