No Parent Left Behind

City slow to ensure compliance with PTA law for charter schools

Nearly nine months after Albany passed legislation requiring all charter schools in New York City to form parent groups, the city does not yet know exactly how many city charters are in compliance with the law.

Speaking to a meeting of the New York Charter Parents Association on January 20, the director of the Department of Education’s charter school office, Recy Dunn, told parents that the city was just beginning to monitor schools’ compliance.

“I don’t have the answer on how many charters currently have PTAs,” Dunn said. “Would I like to find out? Absolutely.”

In September, the DOE directed all city charter schools to launch parent groups by October to comply with the law, and report back to the city with their progress by that time. City officials said today that many of the schools did not respond to that directive and that they had not since followed up with many of the schools.

Officials said that going forward they would check if schools have parent groups when they make their annual site visits to each school they authorized. They’re also including the question on a survey that it sends to each school in the city.

“We’ve informed charters of the legal requirement and asked them to confirm that they have a parents association,” said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld. “We’re now in the process of following up with them, and expect that they’ll all make the necessary arrangements.”

The slow response time in ensuring compliance can partly be explained by a personnel shortage in the city’s charter office. The city’s charter school office has experienced high turnover in the past year and is currently working with almost half the staff the office had last year. Dunn told the charter parent group that one of his first priorities is staffing up the charter office.

Dunn is the third person to lead the charter office since the law was passed last May. The former director of the city’s charter office, Michael Duffy, left the DOE in July. Aaron Listhaus, the charter office’s former Chief Academic Officer, stepped in as interim director, before Dunn took over the office in the middle of the school year. Listhaus has also since left the office to lead the Hebrew Charter Center.

The effort to confirm that all schools are in compliance is also hindered by some disagreement over which schools are subject to the parent association provision in the law, which was hastily written during late-night negotiations over the bill to double the number of charter schools allowed to open in the state.

While the provision explicitly requires all charters located in the city district to establish parent associations, it was inserted into the school governance law, which does not govern charter schools. When the city told all charters to start parent groups, the SUNY Charter School Institute told the 49 city schools it oversees independently of the DOE that the provision did not apply to them.

Out of the 125 charter schools currently operating in New York City, 69 were authorized by the DOE. Many of the rest operate in public building space, which gives the city leverage to require that they adhere to the parent association mandate.

City officials still interpret the law as applicable to all charter schools in New York City, regardless of authorizer, but it is more difficult for city officials to check compliance at schools it does not directly oversee, officials said.

There is little clarity about how many charter schools in the city already have parent associations. City officials and charter advocates say that anecdotally they believe most schools have parent groups in place now. But Mona Davids, the parent advocate who founded the New York Charter Parents Association, believes that the number is much lower than city officials expect.

The issue of whether charter schools should be required to have parent associations has been a sticky one for nearly a year. Parent advocates like Davids argue that mandating parent groups preserves parents’ rights and prevents schools from shutting parents out of school decision-making. Some charter advocates, on the other hand, contend that the presence of parent associations does not always automatically lead to strong parental involvement and that requiring them erodes the bureaucratic autonomy charters were originally intended to have.

New Arrivals

Advocates decry Fariña’s explanation of low graduation rates among English learners

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants hosts a press conference on English Language Learner graduation rates.

When the head of New York City schools suggested that English Language Learners fail to graduate, in part, because they lack formal schooling and are “coming from the mountains,” advocates from a group that serves Haitian immigrants said she undoubtedly missed the point.

“We are insulted by her statement,” said Nancie Adolphe, a case manager at Flanbwayan, a group that helps young Haitian immigrants, during a Thursday press conference. “As a community of immigrants, of English learners, we care about what happens to each student, no matter where they come from.”

The city pointed out that combining current and former English Language Learner graduation rates, 57 more students graduated this year. Fariña also said that while she is working to help more English learners graduate, it is harder for students to earn a diploma if they start off years behind.

Members of Flanbwayan have a different explanation for the city’s 27 percent June graduation rate for English learners, a 9.6 percentage point decrease over the previous year. In their view, many ELL students face a huge disadvantage because of how the city’s high school admissions process treats newly arrived immigrants.

New York City’s admissions process, which allows students to apply to any high school throughout the city, is notoriously difficult even for students born and raised in New York. But for newly arrived immigrants, the process is even worse, said Darnell Benoit, director of Flanbwayan.

Students have years to wade through a thick directory of more than 400 high schools, tour the ones they like and apply for competitive programs. For new immigrants, that process is often replaced by a quick trip to an enrollment center. Many times the only seats left are at low-performing schools, and students often find they don’t have access to the language help they need, Benoit said.

“They don’t have a lot of time to fight for their lives,” said Alectus Nadjely, a Haitian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was twelve and is now a senior in high school, about the process.

A student’s high school placement is directly connected to whether or not they will graduate on time, advocates said. When newly arrived immigrants enter the country, they have to move quickly to pass the state’s required exit exams in time for graduation — and they need all the support they can get, advocates said. Twenty-seven percent of English learners in New York City drop out before graduating, according to state data.

“If a student is not set up in the right placement from the start, the likelihood of being able to stay engaged, be on track for graduation and not drop out, all of that will be impacted,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children. “We really think the high school enrollment piece is a really critical point.”

Education department officials pointed out that the graduation rate for former English learners went up by more than five percentage points this year. They also noted that enrollment information is available in Haitian Creole and that they have increased translation and interpretation services.

“We’ll continue our work to ensure that all our students receive a high-quality education,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell, “and have the support they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.”

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Charter changes

This sweeping proposal would rewrite Tennessee’s charter school law

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rep. Harry Brooks and Assistant Commissioner of policy Elizabeth Fiveash present the charter proposal to lawmakers on Wednesday.

A wide-ranging charter school bill written by the State Department of Education seeks to overhaul Tennessee’s 15-year-old charter law and address concerns of both advocates and opponents.

Called the “Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act,” the bill attempts to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The legislation clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure, and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

“This bill develops a stronger partnership between the (districts) and the charter schools,” said Rep. Harry Brooks, the Knoxville Republican sponsor.

But smoothing over fractious relationships won’t be quick or easy, based on the first discussion in a House subcommittee on Wednesday. Lawmakers adjourned before casting a first vote on the proposal, with plans to pick up the discussion next week.  

And while representatives of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Charter School Center told lawmakers that the bill is a “step in the right direction,” some critics remain concerned about the growing sector’s impact on traditional public schools.

For years, local school board members — especially from districts in Memphis and Nashville, which are home to most of the state’s charter schools — have charged that charter schools drain resources from traditional public schools. Charter leaders, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t get enough funding to cover facilities, forcing them to spend money that should go toward students instead on rent and building upkeep.

The Department of Education tried to address both concerns in its bill. The legislation establishes a $6 million fund over three years to help cover leaky roofs and cramped quarters that operators say make their jobs harder. But the bill also allows local districts to charge operators an authorizer fee to offset oversight costs.  

Local districts have sought to charge an authorizer fee for years, and charter operators in Memphis recently have shown willingness to voluntarily pay one. In 2015, the state legislature voted to allow the state’s Achievement School District to begin collecting a fee, too.

The state proposal would allow a district with 21 or more charter schools to charge a fee up to 1 percent of per-pupil funding. Districts with 10 to 20 charters could charge a 2 percent fee, and those with 10 or fewer could charge 3 percent. The change would go into effect in 2018.

“The local district has significant responsibility in regards to being an authorizer of charter school,” Brooks explained when introducing the bill. “There’s expense tied up in that; there’s personnel tied up in that.”

But some think the proposed fee isn’t nearly enough, especially in Memphis and Nashville, where the ASD and State Board of Education can charge charter schools 3 and 4 percent, respectively. In Shelby County Schools, for instance, the district is doubling the size of its charter office to keep up with its oversight duties.

“When state authorizers are getting higher fees than districts, that’s a red flag,” Nashville school board member Will Pinkston told Chalkbeat. “One percent seems like a nice first offer, but districts need to make significant counter offers to get that higher.”

Other parts of the expansive bill would curb local attempts to rein in charter schools. One section says that applications can’t be based on “conditions or contingencies” — a provision that concerns Pinkston, who spearheaded an effort to make the approval of Nashville charter schools contingent on their location.

“Every local school system needs to have the ability to ask for the details they think are necessary before making a decision,” he said.

Charter operators argue that such contingencies put them in impossible situations, unable to secure a location without a contract, and vice versa.