Parent involvement

Charter parents' inclusion call yields a bill but not city support

Charter Parent Action Network Director Valerie Babb addresses charter school parents and students in Albany. (Photo courtesy of the New York City Charter School Center)

An annual caravan of charter school parents to Albany took place today with a specific mission: convince legislators to approve a bill allowing charter parents to run for the city’s local parent councils.

It’s a battle that charter advocates will have to fight without the Department of Education’s help. The city has never supported allowing charter parents to run for parent councils, even as it has encouraged the proliferation of charter schools and allowed them to operate in district space.

State law requires that each school district in the city field an elected parent council, known as a Community Education Council, to provide an avenue for parents to weigh in on schools policy. Some of the council’s duties, such as presiding over public hearings about co-locations, involve charter school issues. But the Bloomberg administration has constrained the councils’ authority and their only statutory function is to redraw school zone lines, which do not affect charter schools. They do not actually approve or reject co-locations.

Still, the CECs are seen as one of the few formal venues for parents to voice opinions about department policies, and charter school parents see the exclusion as an equity issue. They have convinced two legislators — Assemblyman Peter Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, and State Sen. Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn — to introduce a bill that would reserve one of the 11 seats on each council for a charter parent.

“In order to protect our children and their continued access to a great public education, charter parents need and deserve a seat at the table to help inform the decisions about the schools in their neighborhoods,” said Valerie Babb, director of the Charter Parents Action Network, in a statement. “By supporting this legislation, our lawmakers will send a strong signal to families that their voices carry just as much weight as other public school parents in their districts.”

The city’s position is that the same signal would also undermine the very foundation of what makes charter schools unique. In 2009, District 1’s council invited charter parents to join and said they would lobby for a change to let the parents participate. At the time, a department spokeswoman pointed out that there is a reason the state law and city regulations do not have a mechanism for including charter parents in district committees.

“What makes a charter school a charter school is that they operate outside the jurisdiction of the district,” the spokeswoman said.

Today, department officials said the city’s position remains the same: Seating charter parents on CECs would represent an inappropriate conflation of charter and district school management. Charter schools and district schools are governed by different state laws.

It is true that charter school parents typically cannot enter the regular CEC election process — a process that has always attracted few candidates and last year was spectacularly botched. But they are in fact eligible to serve on CECs if they have children in both district and charter schools, had a child in a district school in the last two years, or are appointed by the borough president.

Lisa Donlan, president of CEC 1, said today that few charter parents avail themselves of those options.

“Why would they make that their main ask when they could do it now through a variety of mechanisms and they aren’t doing it?” she asked. “They don’t necessarily need to go up and change the legislation.”

The request was the centerpiece of this year’s Charter Lobby Day, which drew more than 1,200 charter parents to Albany today to push the CEC issue and other equity concerns. Last year, more than 2,000 people made the trek and focused on funding, particularly for facilities. The year before that, parents sat in on a budget hearing and took aim at a state law that capped the number of charter schools; later that spring, legislators raised the cap.

But while the size of the caravan was smaller this year, the number of schools represented increased. Of the city’s 136 charter schools, 114 sent parents to Albany today, where they were joined by parents from 22 additional schools across the state. Last year, parents from 80 of the city’s then-125 schools participated.

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.