race to the race to the top

Five questions the new charter school law leaves unanswered

New York State Capitol, photo via Flickr.
New York State Capitol, photo via ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/stgermh/394233893/##Flickr##.

One consequence of the charter cap legislation passed in Albany today is clear: it’s now possible for 114 new charter schools to open in New York City over the next four years, more than doubling the number of charters and students in them. Statewide, the door is open for 260 new charter schools to open by 2014.

But the new law also includes a slew of changes to the way the schools are opened and run, leaving advocates, officials and observers with at least five big unanswered questions.

1. What’s the deal with the new Request for Proposals process?

Under the old charter school law, educators could ask to open charter schools simply by applying to do so. Now, prospective school leaders will have to formulate their applications as responses to Request for Proposals. These will be issued by both the Board of Regents and the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute.

Advocates and union officials today disagreed on exactly how the RFP’s will be used. One school of thought is that the RFP will be a tool for limiting charter school leaders’ freedom to open in a location of their choosing. Indeed, the law declares that operators that receive an endorsement of their school district will have a leg up in the RFP process. That could make it harder for operators to open schools in some upstate districts whose school boards strongly oppose charter schools. (Or imagine a less charter-happy mayor in New York. Mayor de Blasio?)

In an interview today, city teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said that the union plans to “advocate through the RFP.” He meant, he explained, that the UFT will lobby authorizers not to issue RFPs for schools in neighborhoods deemed overwhelmed with charter schools.

But charter school advocates said they aren’t concerned about the RFP process. Beyond creating more bureaucratic hurdles for authorizers and new charter schools, they said, the process will not significantly change how authorizers determine which schools should open. “The difference may appear larger than it actually is,” said James Merriman, head of the New York City Charter School Center.

2. Can the New York City schools chancellor continue to authorize charter schools?

Until today, the city Department of Education’s charter school office played a similar role to SUNY: It accepted applications for new charter schools, reviewed and approved them, and then passed the applications on to the Board of Regents for final approval. The city acted as the main authorizer for those schools, monitoring the schools and shutting them down for poor performance.

Under the new law, the schools chancellor can still recommend charter school applications to the Regents — and now can also recommend schools to SUNY for approval. And that recommendation matters to some degree: The rubric authorizers must use to evaluate applications gives preference for schools with a district endorsement. But it’s unclear whether the city will retain the power to oversee and shut down failing charters.

John White, a deputy chancellor for the city, noted that the law still names the chancellor as one of the state’s three “charter entities” who legally have power to oversee schools.

But Jonas Chartock, the head of SUNY’s Charter School Institute, said that his reading of the law suggests that his center will retain the ultimate oversight over schools it authorizes.

“To me, it’s not exactly clear,” said Merriman. “A reading of the bill would allow either interpretation at this point. It’s something that I think we have to see how counsel for the various parties…view that.”

3. How does the law force charter schools to accept more English language learners and special education students?

The law requires that charter schools maintain a certain number of English language learners and special education students over time. Schools are supposed to hit targets for both student enrollment and student retention that match neighborhood schools. Here’s what the law says authorizers have to make sure of:

THAT SUCH
   37  ENROLLMENT TARGETS ARE COMPARABLE TO  THE  ENROLLMENT  FIGURES  OF  SUCH
   38  CATEGORIES  OF  STUDENTS  ATTENDING THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS WITHIN THE SCHOOL
   39  DISTRICT, OR IN A CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT IN A CITY HAVING A POPULATION  OF
   40  ONE MILLION OR MORE INHABITANTS, THE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, IN WHICH
   41  THE  PROPOSED  CHARTER  SCHOOL  WOULD  BE  LOCATED;  AND  (2)  THAT SUCH
   42  RETENTION TARGETS ARE COMPARABLE TO THE RATE OF RETENTION OF SUCH  CATE-
   43  GORIES  OF  STUDENTS  ATTENDING  THE  PUBLIC  SCHOOLS  WITHIN THE SCHOOL
   44  DISTRICT, OR IN A CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT IN A CITY HAVING A POPULATION  OF
   45  ONE MILLION OR MORE INHABITANTS, THE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, IN WHICH
   46  THE PROPOSED CHARTER SCHOOL WOULD BE LOCATED; AND

But it’s not clear how that requirement will be enforced. Among other implementation problems is data-keeping. “SUNY’s going to need access to data we’ve never been able to obtain,” Chartock said.

4. Does the law change relationships between charter schools and district schools that share space?

The new law creates a “building council” to coordinate collaboration between schools housed together. Right now, co-located schools have building councils that include only principals from each school. The new councils will include principals, teachers and parents from each school in a building.

The council does not have the power to veto the city’s co-location plans. But it will be able to draw public attention to the plans. And public attention isn’t without its own kind of power: The new mayoral control law created public hearings when schools were recommended for closure. The hearings created quite a firestorm and arguably played a role in the recent court decision overturning city-enforced school closures.

5. Where does the money come from?

The increased bureaucracy and oversight required by the new law will require resources. Given the state’s doomsday fiscal climate, it’s unclear where that money will come from. Already SUNY’s Charter School Institute, which will see the number of charters it oversees double, is facing a proposed 70 percent funding reduction under budgets proposed by both the Senate and the Assembly.

The law also includes a provision requiring that any improvements to a charter school facility worth more than $5,000 must be matched in the district schools that share its building. The measure was widely praised on all sides as a way to assure equity between charter and district school students.

“But I want to be very, very clear,” Merriman said. “We do expect that the mayor and the chancellor step up and meet their commitment to provide such funding so that charters and district school students attend school in equal and high quality facilities.”

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.”