breaking news

Parents, Weingarten sue DOE, Klein over charter school siting

Parents and a slew of community leaders filed a lawsuit today against the Department of Education, demanding that the department reverse its decision to shutter three struggling elementary schools and replace them with charter schools. The parents say the decisions violated state law, because they happened without any consultation of the elected parent councils that have replaced community school boards.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers union; Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and a slew of parents of children at the schools are among the plaintiffs to the suit, which personally singles out Chancellor Joel Klein as a defendant. (Read the full suit here, in PDF form.)

Suing Klein and his department is a dramatic escalation of the ongoing saga over the city’s decision this year to shut down three elementary schools — two in Harlem and one in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn — and fill their buildings with charter schools instead. Charter schools are publicly funded, but operate outside of the regular district bureaucracy, meaning they usually lack teachers unions and can only serve a limited number of students.

A central complaint in the lawsuit is that the changes would leave families in the schools’ neighborhoods with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them. Instead, the families could either go to a traditional public school in another neighborhood or they could enter the lottery that determines charter school admissions. The charter schools being installed in their old school building would give them preference in the lottery.

The lawsuit, written jointly by the United Federation of Teachers and the New York Civil Liberties Union, says the city’s decision “disenfranchises” families. It also accuses the city of violating state law by leaving a neighborhood without a zoned school without the approval of elected parent boards called Community Education Councils, or CEC’s. CEC’s are legally required to approve any change in school zones.

The city Department of Education had no comment today. A spokeswoman for the city’s law department, Elizabeth Thomas, said in a statement, “We have not yet received the legal papers. We will review them thoroughly upon receipt.”

In the past, the DOE has defended its decisions as the best way to serve children in Harlem and Brownsville. Just before the lawsuit became public, I spoke to John White, the city’s chief portfolio officer, about the three schools: P.S. 194 and P.S. 241 in Harlem and P.S. 150 in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

White argued that school officials and the chancellor have an obligation to provide students with the best quality school they can find. He pointed out that while at P.S. 194, for instance, the most recent test scores show that about 60% of students cannot read on grade level, every charter school in the same district, District 5, that received a city report card last year got an A.

The charter school tentatively slated to enter P.S. 194, Harlem Success Academy 2, has not yet had students take state tests, and does not yet have a progress report. But city school officials point out that the school network is massively popular: Last year, 6,000 students applied for 500 seats at Harlem Success.

“The overwhelming evidence in New York City is that charter schools en mass are performing as well as or better than the larger set of our schools that have the same populations or the same challenges,” White said. “That’s just not something that we can disregard.”

Parents filing the lawsuit counter that what they deserve is to be included in the process of school improvement. “It’s not that we’re not aware of what things need to be improved,” said a parent leader at P.S. 194, Ta-Tanisha Rice. “But you didn’t even ask us as parents! You didn’t even ask the students themselves.”

Rice said she only learned that P.S. 194 was being shut down in a meeting in December, where White and the city’s chief parent engagement officer, Martine Guerrier, asked parents not whether they wanted the school to be shut down, but what kind of a school they wanted to create in its place. “You’re not considering our goals, you’re not considering our ideals for our students!” Rice said she told White and Guerrier that day.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.