damned if you do

State policy an obstacle to charter school serving English learners

A charter school that hoped to focus on students who don’t speak English is changing tactics after being told by the state that it cannot give admissions preference to the students it wants to attract.

Though New York City’s charter schools admit relatively few English Language Learners in comparison to district schools, Inwood Academy for Leadership intended to be the exception. When Principal Christina Hykes applied for a charter, she envisioned a school where half the students were English Language Learners and half were general education students, making Inwood Academy the first charter school in the city to propose such a model.

Hykes planned to achieve this balance by giving admissions preference to ELL students living in Inwood, something Department of Education officials agreed she could do. State law encourages charters to focus on students “at risk of academic failure,” and students with little English seemed like prime candidates. They routinely have lower scores on the state tests than their English-speaking peers and are less likely to graduate high school.

But officials at the State Education Department disagreed with the city’s reading of the law, telling the DOE and Hykes that ELL students don’t fall in the “at risk” category. As a result, Inwood Academy’s application would have to lose all the language giving ELLs enrollment preference if it wanted to get a charter.

“Because a student is an ELL doesn’t necessarily mean they’re at risk. That’s their [SED’s] interpretation,” said Michael Duffy, director of the city’s office of charter schools.

“What’s ironic is that it seems like at the Regents level there’s a real interest in seeing charter schools that can reach out to ELLs in the way Inwood was trying to do,” he said.

According to the state, ELL students are considered “high needs,” but not “at risk.” To bridge this distinction, the Board of Regents recommended last week that the state legislature raise the charter cap to encourage the growth of charter schools targeting “high needs” high school students,” said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for SED.

A change in law could offer hope to future charter operators looking to focus their attention on specific student groups like ELLs.

Charter schools won’t hold lotteries until April, leaving state officials time to change their interpretation of current law and the city time to lobby them, Duffy said.

In the meantime, Hykes has modified Inwood’s application enough to get it approved by the Board of Regents last week.

Inwood’s charter now says it will give admissions preference to students living in District 6 who get low scores — 1s and 2s — on the state math and English exams. Because of their low scores, the state does consider these students to be “at risk.”

“We’re being specific about how we recruit,” Hykes said. “We know where the need is. We’re going to have our meetings in the projects. What we’ll try to do is reach out to recent immigrants who came here in third or fourth grade. But there’s a chance we still won’t get 50 percent ELL.”

Without being able to give preference to ELL students, Hykes could land 110 fifth graders who have low test scores but are English-speakers.

“We would also like that language back in our application to show we’re devoted to these students,” Hykes said.

Traditional public schools don’t face the same admissions restrictions charter schools do. The high school Inwood Academy is using as a model, Gregorio Luperon High School in Washington Heights, only admits Spanish-speaking students who have lived in the U.S. for fewer than two years.

“There are criticisms out there about charters not enrolling enough ELL students, and I think those are valid criticisms,” Duffy said. “Here you have a school like Inwood that wants to go the extra distance and they’re being stymied and it doesn’t make sense.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”