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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.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”