Sunday, September 27, 2015

An open letter to the Morgan Hill Unified School District Board of Trustees

I rarely take political positions in public, in particular not on this blog, and I do so for good reasons... This one is different, and an issue I deeply care about. Apologies to my regular readers.
On Tuesday evening, the Morgan Hill Unified School District Board of Trustees will vote on whether to extend the charter for the Charter School of Morgan Hill (CSMH) for another 5 years. CSMH has now been operating for almost 15 years. All 3 of our children are -- or were -- students at CSMH and have been happy and successful at the school.
While the relationship between the District and the school has often been a little bit rocky, this time the district staff is going too far by asking the Board of Trustees to extend the charter only with onerous and questionable conditions attached.

I took a close look at the report prepared by District staff outlining their concerns regarding the CSMH charter extension petition. While the report raises some valid issues, none of them rise to a level that would be reason for not extending the charter. Thus I emailed the following letter to all trustees.

Dear MHUSD Board of Trustees,
I have read the staff report on the CSMH charter renewal petition and generally take issue with the underlying tone of the report, which consistently implies that CSMH somehow does a bad job in educating our children.
However, let me address a few specific details that stand out in the staff report.
Since one of the primary factors for granting petitions to charter schools is student achievement, let's look at the data presented on page 8 of the staff report.
The staff report claims that "The highlighted cells demonstrate that in most grade levels MHUSD schools are outperforming CSMH".  The report bases that statement on results in Math testing, a useful, but not necessarily complete evaluation of overall student performance.

Another argument in the staff report is as follows:
"In a number of references throughout the petition, CSMH referred to exceptionally high student achievement based on standardized test scores. These claims have the effect of distorting the public perception of actual student achievement relative to similar students in local public schools due to the demographic exclusivity of student enrollment at CSMH. When the data is broken down by subgroups, it is apparent that the differences in school comparison performance on exams contradict overall student achievement levels in many circumstances."  [highlighting mine]
Since CAASPP scores are the best data available to measure student performance, staff chose to base their argument on disaggregrated CAASPP scores. A sensible choice.

A more detailed look at the table for non-SED Latino students on page 8 reveals that out of the 8 schools listed CSMH ranks as follows:
   3rd grade: 2nd @ 2453 (spread: 2383 - 2491)
   4th grade: 3rd @ 2496 (spread: 2449 - 2508)
   5th grade: 1st @ 2529 (spread: 2437 - 2529)
   6th grade: 2nd @ 2546 (spread: 2442 - 2559)
I.e. non-SED Latino CSMH students are outperforming their peers in most MHSUD schools. Nice.

So the "demographic exclusivity" CSMH apparently serves badly must be in the white population, since that's the other table presented in the report! 
Let's take a look how CSMH ranks among Morgan Hill schools for non-SED Whites in Math:
   3rd grade: 5th of 6 @ 2472 (spread: 2463 - 2500)
   4th grade: 1st of 7 @ 2531 (spread: 2464 - 2531)
   5th grade: 5th of 7 @ 2520 (spread: 2477 - 2557)
   6th grade: 1st of 8 @ 2586 (spread: 2489 - 2586)
   7th grade: 2nd of 4 @ 2617 (spread: 2586 - 2630)
   8th grade: 1st of 4 @ 2614 (spread: 2594 - 2614)
So, with exception of 3rd and 5th grade results, even for non-SED Whites CSMH Math scores compare very well to schools in MHUSD. I find it more believable to treat the latest 3rd and 5th grade results as a fluke than a consistent pattern of bad performance.
In light of above data the quote in the staff report should actually read:
"The highlighted cells demonstrate that in most grade levels some MHUSD schools are outperforming CSMH."

Phrased another way:
CSMH outperforms Nordstrom and Britton in most grade levels.

Nordstrom and Britton are both excellent schools within MHUSD and I wouldn't be surprised if they have similar demographics as CSMH.

Unsurprisingly as a high performing school, CSMH has a wait-list (to my knowledge at every grade level). Thus, the school can address any demographic imbalances primarily through new students in K, as well as to a lower degree when existing students leave the school.

The staff report claims CSMH lottery information is misleading with regards to school admittance.
In particular, on page 15 the staff report claims "In addition to the preference above, CSMH employees and siblings of CSMH current students have been admitted early and therefore exempted from public random drawing since the opening of the school.[...]
Each year, about 50% of the available kindergarten seats are filled with students exempt from public drawing, leaving about 50% of the spaces available and open for students who reside in the district, students who qualify for free or reduced price meals, and any other applicants. The admission process could be misleading to families who believe that their application will be considered based on a lottery."

An unsuspecting reader of the staff report might get the impression, that 50% of the spots are given to students that have not gone through the lottery.

In fact, many of those early admission students have gone through the lottery in previous years and were added to the wait list, as is clearly laid out on the CSMH web site (

"Q: What are the Charter School of Morgan Hill Admission Lottery Preference Categories? Enrollment preferences shall be given in the following order:
  1. Children of Launch Team members residing in the District, and children of Charter School staff working 50% or more who also reside in the District.
  2. Siblings of existing Charter School students
  3. Children of CSMH staff working less than 50% residing in the District
  4. All other residents of Morgan Hill Unified School District


"Q: If I am a prior year applicant who is still on the waitlist what is the status of my application for next year?
A: Your status needs to be updated. You will need to re-apply by submitting another complete application. The good news is that as a prior year wait-list individual you will not go through the lottery again, you will get carried over on the list in your order. Please note Kindergarten applicants are not eligible for prior year's waitlist carryover, even if they applied the prior year. "
As a side-note, we have gone through this exact process 9 years ago when our daughter was admitted to CSMH in 4th grade. The process as outlined above has been in place for many years.

The staff report notes a special section on the CSMH budget. In particular "the reliance on donations to balance its operating shortfalls is troublesome".

As everyone working in public education knows it is very hard to do multi-year projections for school funding. The staff report points this out and notes that "the [CSMH] organization has fifteen years of successful operations including recent experience during a period of unprecedented reductions in State funding for education. CSMH has a strong finance team who have demonstrated credibility in managing the organization's finances."  and "the apparent deficit is the result of expenditures included in the operating budget which would only be incurred if funding is available from the Foundation".
As clearly noted in the staff report, CSMH does not use funding from the Foundation for ongoing operational expenses, but rather for major capital expenses, field trips, class room supplies, etc.
The staff report also clearly notes that detailed budget information was not included in the petition. Instead Staff relied on other sources of financial data to go on a fishing expedition to find *anything*. ... and then goes on to tie future budget projections to a doubtful note "that reducing expenses would likely affect the ability of CSMH to support the education program described in the petition".

I very much appreciate sound skepticism when looking at financial numbers, but the tone in the "Supplement Information: Budget" section goes way beyond skepticism and borders on paranoid.
With that said, the financial viability of a charter school, while important, is not part of the five facts to support a charter petition.

In summary:
Yes, CSMH can and should continue to increase their outreach to under-represented demographics, as well as address certain short-comings around EL teacher certification.

However, these are not grounds for placing onerous conditions on a charter renewal petition.
CSMH continues to excel at educating students that go on to be successful in MHUSD high-schools. This is by far the most important aspect of a successful charter school.
CSMH has a fair admittance lottery system.

CSMH has demonstrated financial stability even with extreme state funding reductions.

Therefore, I urge you to unconditionally approve the CSMH charter renewal petition.

Thank you for your consideration.

Update 2015/09/29:

At the board meeting tonight the charter extension was approved with no conditions, and the whole board voting in favor of a revised resolution that had several unlawful recommendations in the original resolution dropped, and others brought to reasonable levels. Both CSMH and the district pledged to work together on a memorandum of understanding structuring closer collaboration.


Alfa66 said...

I admire you too this position, and hope that others will follow.
We applied for Nico, but we only received an answer 3 years after we entered him in the lottery (or maybe was a waiting list?)
Anyway, the (sad) reality is that Charter Schools are generally better and differentiating, and as such are a threat to what we call Public School System.
Since we pay big buck$$ in taxes, we should have a saying regarding where we send our children to school: a few years ago there was an idea about a voucher, the Teacher's Union Association did not like that ...

Bernhard Beck said...

We got lucky that CSMH expanded 4th grade at just the right time for us.

I'm not convinced that vouchers are the answer, and I do believe that great public school education is possible and achievable. However, I realize once you start pulling there's a long string of dependencies and interests which make doing general overhauls difficult ...