on the table

IBO: Charter school rent, ATR reform should be budget options

Slashing parent coordinators, charging rent to charter schools, and limiting time spent in the Absent Teacher Reserve are among the menu items that the city’s budget watchdog said could save the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Independent Budget Office released its annual list of options that it believes city government officials should consider as they head into their final negotiations before adopting a budget for the 2013 fiscal year. The Department of Education, an agency that eats up about one-third of the $67 billion citywide budget, was listed in 10 of the 72 recommendations.

The IBO estimated that the city could raise $53 million in revenue by charging rent to charter schools and save $28 million if it slashed its summer school program.

The ideas reflected policy positions from all corners of the ideological map. Some of the proposals can also be found on a list of contract demands the city made in 2010. But others are straight from the teachers union’s wishlist.

“Mostly bad ideas,” a spokesman for the union, Dick Riley, wrote in an email, referring specifically to the summer school cuts. “And a few promising ones – like charging rent to charter operators.”

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center, disagreed.

“Charter schools are public schools, so asking them to pay rent is like asking the fire department to pay for their firehouses or the NYPD to pay for their precincts,” Merriman said in a statement.

Others options on the table are to eliminate all parent coordinators – and save $70 million – and end a $32.6 million teacher coach program.

The proposal to charge charter schools rent has emerged as a contentious issue in the last year. Last February, the IBO estimated that charter school students in public school buildings received about $700 more than their DOE counterparts, largely because the schools don’t have to budget for rent and other building-related costs. This summer, education advocates filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education for not collecting an estimated $100 million for these costs.

One item that Riley declined to comment on was a proposal to cap the number of years that excessed teachers should be allowed to collect salary as part the Absent Teacher Reserve . That proposal would save the city $53 million annually.

The issue has been buoyed by the Department of Education and The New Teacher Project in the past, but it has not gotten as much attention during budget talks in recent years. Last year’s budget negotiations to save thousands of teaching positions yielded an ATR deal that required excessed teachers to replace substitute teachers by filling short- and long-term vacancies.

Previously, the IBO has generally left education cuts alone when it publishes the report, but it has bulked up its education division after legislators named it a data watchdog for the Department of Education in 2009.

This year’s report reflects the closer scrutiny. Seven of the 15 budget options added to the 2012 version were education-related. There’s even a proposal “encourage” teachers to complete jury duty in the summer months so they don’t have to miss as much time ($2.4 millionin estimated savings) and one to eliminate a “Banking Time” mandate that gives DOE central staff 20 minutes every two weeks to cash in their checks at  a nearby bank ($1 million).

IBO officials said the point of the report isn’t a popularity contest, but rather a tool to help key budget negotiators during their final round of talks on the adopted budget.

“Budgeting is a series of tradeoffs as the Mayor, City Council Members, and other city officials seek to balance the level of services that can be provided with the revenues that must be raised to fund those services,” said IBO Director Ronnie Lowenstein. “This volume is designed to help city officials and the public consider how some of the tradeoffs can be achieved.”

A full copy of the report is embedded below. Here’s all the education-related cuts and their projected savings (*denotes new option)

  • Eliminate Public Funding of Transportation For Private School Students* ($39 million)
  • Eliminate Elementary and Middle Summer School Program ($28 million)
  • Impose a One-Year Hiatus on the Creation of New Small Schools ($14.4 million)
  • Eliminate City Dollars and Contracts for Excellence Funds for Teacher Coaches ($32.6 million)
  • Eliminate Hiring Exception for New Schools ($12 million)
  • Institute Time Limits for Excessed Teachers In the Absent Teacher Reserve Pool ($50 million)
  • Eliminate the 20-Minute “Banking Time” For Certain Education Department Staff ($1 million)
  • Encourage Classroom Teachers to Serve Jury Duty During Noninstructional Summer Months ($2.4 million)
  • Charge Rent to Charter Schools in Shared Facilities ($53 million)

Options 2012

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.