Tag Archives: Governance

It’s Time to Stop Overlooking Juvenile Justice Education Policy

Just as juvenile justice education programs are commonly overlooked in mainstream educational equity conversations, they are also left behind in state education policy. The consequences for students are dire.

Juvenile justice education programs, as Bellwether Education Partners defines them, serve students in the court-ordered custody of a local or state agency. Settings can include short-term detention centers, long-term secure facilities, residential treatment centers, or other publicly and privately run facilities. The best estimates tell us that nearly a quarter of a million students were detained or committed to such facilities in 2019, where they had extremely limited access to education opportunities of all kinds including online learning, differentiated coursework, tutoring, dual-credit courses, career technical education, and work-based learning.

Our latest report finds that the governance, accountability, and finance policy designs are convoluted, inconsistent, and in some cases entirely absent in juvenile justice education programs. We reviewed state policy in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and uncovered what advocates have long suspected: a mess of dizzying policies, contradictory regulations, and exceedingly complex statutes. Despite the best efforts of well-meaning and devoted educators, these incoherent policies mean that the vast majority of juvenile justice education programs fall short of anything resembling a “school.”

Students in juvenile justice education programs are unlikely to be offered education opportunities aligned with their needs while locked up — and more often than not, they will never enroll in school again when they’re released. 

If state leaders structure policy reforms around coherence within and among these three policies (governance, accountability, and finance), they can meaningfully improve the education provided to students in their care.

Governance

Governance policies define who is responsible for providing (or ensuring the provision of) education services to youth in custody. In at least 26 states, the agency responsible for providing education services in local detention centers is not the same as the agency responsible for education in state-run facilities. In some states, one agency is responsible for providing direct instruction in a juvenile facility, while another agency controls the funding. In California, only youth detained or committed for offenses considered most serious or violent are held at the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice facility, which operates separately from facilities run locally by county boards of education. 

A class-action lawsuit from 2014 shows how inconsistent governance policies can lead to finger pointing and ultimately the abdication of responsibility for student learning. In Contra Costa County, California, the county probation agency was responsible for discipline policy but the county office of education was responsible for educational services. The two entities disagreed on who was responsible for education in restrictive security programs, leaving teachers unable to provide students in solitary confinement with the same modality, quantity, or quality of instruction as their peers. 

Even trying to find and confirm governance policies for our research illustrated the problem: we had to call numerous offices in individual states to cross check competing information. 

Accountability

Accountability policies determine how programs are evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering. In traditional districts, agencies use assessment and attendance data, teacher evaluations, school visits, and other data-collection strategies to ensure schools provide a high-quality education. Each education agency then defines the interventions that follow when a program does not meet expectations.

To measure school success, education agencies need to decide on their “measuring stick,” or the kind of data they will evaluate. While traditional educational policy conversations still grapple with these questions and acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, juvenile justice education programs are light years behind altogether.

Given the governance structures described above, it’s no surprise that juvenile justice education programs interact with many government agencies and are often required to submit data to offices with competing and incompatible goals, requirements, and processes.

Imagine this common reality: Mr. Dewan has students at a 9th-grade and 12th-grade level in his classroom. Some stay for a few days or weeks, while others stay for a few months — he never has the same group twice. Most of his students arrive without academic transcripts, so he relies on their recollection of past coursework and grades while awaiting prior records from any number of institutions. Over time, some students get shuffled to another facility without notice, while others attend a mandatory court date and never come back. Mr. Dewan doesn’t always know when a student has left the program, so he cannot plan for assessments in advance. The security or probation officers on staff periodically come in and remove a student from Mr. Dewan’s classroom, even when he has no concerns about safety. 

Having worked in and with such constraints, we respect how difficult it is to collect data, measure student and school success, and implement effective interventions. That said, a necessary component of any accountability system is defining how programs will be evaluated and what happens when they aren’t delivering for students. Our survey indicates that unlike nearly every other kind of education setting, most states have not defined in statute how juvenile justice education service providers are held accountable. 

Finance

Finance policies explain how states allocate funding to the agencies responsible for operating juvenile justice education programs. The people responsible for overseeing or operating these programs are best positioned to know where funding is needed the most. 

But our research shows that time and time again, the agency in control of finance is not the same as the one held accountable for results, creating a disincentive to allocate the resources necessary for high-quality programming. The greater the disconnect between finance and governance, the greater the chance that funding is not allocated for the right things. 

Beyond defining agency responsibility, there is little transparency about dollar amounts that actually make it to these educational programs. We know very little about how much states allocate for per-pupil funding in juvenile justice education programs. The reality is that students generally arrive at juvenile justice education programs lagging behind academically, in addition to potentially having significant unmet mental, behavioral, and physical health needs. State finance policies must take this reality into consideration and fund juvenile justice education programs accordingly. 

For this population of students, the stakes are too high not to get the fundamentals right. A child in the custody of a state agency is entrusted to the care of the government, creating a heightened moral responsibility (and arguably a legal one) for policymakers to provide that student with the highest-quality educational opportunities.

Read our new report here or view this resource to find out your specific state’s current policies. 

Lightfoot Seeks to Change the Chicago Board of Education from Appointed to Elected. Does it Matter?

For most of Chicago’s history, a school board appointed by the mayor has overseen the city’s schools. Then, in the late 1980s, it shifted to an elected board only to revert back to an appointive system in 1995. Now, Chicago’s new mayor Lori Lightfoot wants an elected school board overseeing the Windy City’s schools, but first she had to appoint one while a change to state law is hammered out. Are you following?

While these machinations in the third largest district in the nation might be confusing, the proposed change in governance may not matter.

According to a 2016 Pew Charitable Trust report: “There is no consensus among researchers about whether any particular form of school governance—including state takeovers, mayoral control, or elected local boards—leads to better student performance or fiscal management.”

But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from trying. Centralizing and decentralizing education governance is a popular American pastime. Continue reading

Six Lessons on Education Governance from Rhode Island, the Ocean State

This post is part of a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness.

Those who govern our schools (e.g., members of elected and appointed school boards) make and enact policies that are local in scope and potentially enormous in impact. They choose how resources are allocated to support staff and implement programs; they weigh in on decisions being made by district and school leaders that drive day-to-day activities; and they ensure the work being done for kids is aligned to federal and state policies and enacted in keeping with local priorities.

We assume boards make a difference for how our districts and schools function and ultimately, how well kids learn and develop. But what do we actually know about the link between board effectiveness and school quality?

Bellwether has conducted some important research on this very connection. In our 2016 study “Charter Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” we described the relationship between board characteristics, practices, and school quality in Washington, DC, one of the most robust charter sectors in the country. In collaboration with Colorado Succeeds, we developed an evidence-based framework for evaluating school board effectiveness. And in 2018, we received a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to help leaders at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) understand if there was a relationship between its different governance models, their practices, and the performance of their schools across the Ocean State.

Rhode Island has six school governance models, described in the table below, which communities may choose from to suit their local contexts and goals. (For more detail on the state’s historical approach to education governance, see this new report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.)

Bellwether’s mixed-methods approach to learning more about these models included researching state code and regulations on governance models, reviewing research on best practices for board governance, conducting interviews with RIDE staff and other state leaders, designing and administering a survey to governing boards and school leaders throughout the state, and analyzing student achievement results. Our findings include feedback from over one-third of the governing board (called “school committees” in Rhode Island) members and superintendents across the state, primarily representing the two largest governing models: traditional districts (52% of respondents) and independent charters (39% of respondents). We had few respondents from the other school types.

Six takeaways from this research, listed below, may provide insights for state education agencies, school boards, and charter boards both inside and outside Rhode Island about why people serve on boards, how governance is consistent and how it is different across districts and charters, and why observing boards in practice may be critical to understanding links between their decisions and consequences for families and children: Continue reading

Charter Board Members Shape DC’s Charter Sector in Countless Small Ways

In a new report “Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” my co-author Allison Crean Davis and I provide a wealth of new information on charter boards in Washington, DC. But there’s one simple fact that merits further consideration: 62 different boards oversee the schools that enroll nearly half of the city’s children. Individually, each charter board makes consequential decisions for their school. But collectively, their decisions shape how the whole sector evolves.

School-level governance means charter boards can act quickly, approve the roll out (or roll back) of programs in response to feedback, and even address individual student or parent concerns. Decisions at this scale can be faster, more responsive, and less bureaucratic than those at the district or state level. In short, it is far easier to change the course of a speedboat than the Queen Mary (or the Titanic, depending on your optimism regarding district reform efforts).

Depending on a school’s particular challenges, one charter board may spend a great deal of time and energy debating whether and how to increase the salaries of their teachers. Another may focus on student recruitment and retention. A third may spend most of its time searching for their next school leader. The open responses to our survey showed board members wrestling with each of these issues and many more. In these myriad discussions and decisions, small organizations are responding and adapting to changing needs, problems, new information, and opportunities.

We note in our report a number of data points that suggest boards of low-quality charter schools are changing their practices. As we might expect, the boards of the highest-quality schools are most likely to evaluate their school leaders, they meet most often, and they have the most accurate knowledge of their school’s student population. However, the board practices of low-quality schools fall between those of high- and middling-quality schools rather than below them.

These data points present the possibility that board members of low-quality schools are responding to their own sense of urgency to improve school quality and/or pressure from the DC Public Charter School Board. (More research, especially analyzing board practices and school quality over time, would shed valuable light here.)

School-level governance means that the potential impact of a charter board’s actions are correspondingly smaller than the potential impact of an urban district’s comprehensive reform plan. However, school-level governance also enables each charter school to adapt more quickly, in a thousand small ways. Meanwhile, the education policy community watches to see whether these adaptations collectively fulfill the promise of a continuously improving charter sector. I’m optimistic.

You can read the full report here.

The Detroit Education Commission: A Big Step For Motown Schools

The April bill paving the way for the transfer of schools from the Louisiana Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) made the policy world sit up and take notice. It signaled the next chapter in America’s most ambitious education reform story. Most observers were glad to see the schools transferred back to local control but uneasy about OPSB taking the reins, with the exception of my colleague Andy Smarick who has pragmatic concerns about the policy mechanisms and would have voted against the move.

But policy analysts have given far less attention to a similar debate about the future governance of charter schools in Michigan, where a broad and diverse Detroit-based coalition, the Democratic mayor, Republican governor, and the state senate are supporting the creation of the Detroit Education Commission (DEC) through SB710.

[UPDATE: MI House passes DPS debt relief bill HB 5384 which does NOT include the DEC]

The DEC is important because it offers an entirely new governance model for urban education, which is sorely needed: Detroit Public Schools (DPS) is the worst large urban school district and is thirty days away from running out of money. The rest of the landscape is bedlam too. The DEC will accommodate multiple operators (a district, charters, and a state-run district), coordinate their efforts, and put them on a level playing field. To do this, the DEC would have four responsibilities:

  1. Develop and publish an annual supply-and-demand report to measure gaps in school services.
  2. Develop a single A-F accountability system for all public schools (DPS and charters) and publish the results widely.
  3. Allow any school that earns an A or B grade to replicate freely. All new schools or lower performing schools must earn approval from the DEC before opening or replicating (again, applies to DPS and charters).
  4. Require an authorizer (in the case of charters) or the state (in the case of DPS) to intervene in any school that earns an F grade (i.e., close or transform the school).

Importantly, the DEC wouldn’t run schools. It wouldn’t control budgets. By law, it would be restricted to those four functions listed above. The DEC’s siting and accountability plans must be approved by the state and shared broadly before any action can be taken. And any action the DEC takes can be appealed by schools to the state.

A recent meeting of city, district, and charter leaders improved upon the bill by adding three amendments to make city-owned facilities equally accessible to charters and district schools, apply standards for school openings and closings equally between district and charter schools, and decouple the financial condition of DPS and the DEC.

The legislation isn’t perfect. For instance, the DEC is supposed to operate on $1 million annually, which seems very lean for an agency that will require top talent, deep analysis, serious community engagement, and constant communication of important information.

On a more technical note, the relationship between the DEC and charter authorizers isn’t clear; it hasn’t been since Governor Rick Snyder’s initial proposal. When I read deeper into SB710, it was clear that things could get complicated if the DEC, an authorizer, the State School Reform Office, and the state superintendent disagree on whether a specific school should open in a specific location. The accountability lines aren’t as clean as I’d like them to be, but that’s a function of policy proposals going through the meat grinder of negotiations.

While it’s not the swift quantum leap that Louisiana took with the Recovery School District, it is a positive incremental step toward a modern urban school governance model. The DEC accomplishes the important tasks of providing local control, establishing an enforceable focus on quality, and matching schools to neighborhood need. Oh, and it’s supported by key constituencies: the state senate, the mayor, the governor, the DPS superintendent, many Detroit charter leaders, parents, and business leaders.

However, should the DEC be established, the risk of “Detroit fatigue” in Michigan’s capital of Lansing could mean lawmakers aren’t willing to do the kind of long-term shepherding that’s needed to improve on an important first step. Accountability lines should be clarified. Mid-course corrections will have to be made. In the unfortunate case that the DEC isn’t producing the results it’s supposed to within five years, the bill states that it must sunset — a prudent clause for a high-stakes new endeavor.

If the only other option is a debt-free district with a sketchy track record and a Wild West charter sector, it seems like a risk worth taking.