over-the-counter prescription

Law keeping mid-year arrivals out of charters could have a fix

Brooklyn Prospect Charter School students listen to a sports writer speak during February's Career Day.

The phone calls are bad, but the visitors are the toughest to reject.

That’s how Daniel Rubenstein feels about the admission requests that his charter school, Brooklyn Prospect, gets each summer from families who moved to the neighborhood after the school’s April lottery.

“This is a population that needs to be in a good school,” Rubenstein said. “Our school — which is a small, relationship-driven, intimate environment — would be better for someone that needs a community.”

But by law, Rubenstein must turn the families away. The state’s charter school law does not make provisions for schools to reserve seats for students who arrive to the city from far-flung locales after their April admissions lotteries. That means that charter schools, which are charged with serving the city’s neediest students, must exclude some of the students with the greatest need.

But after lobbying by Rubenstein and other charter operators, as well as by officials at the city Department of Education, one of the state’s charter authorizers is working on an option that would allow charter schools to open their doors in the middle of the year.

The mobile students — known as “over the counters” in Department of Education parlance — number more than 55,000 a year. They make up a student population larger than the total enrollment in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, or Boston.

Some of those students are transferring from one city school to another, according to city officials. Some are returning to the system after relocating temporarily, dropping out, or being incarcerated. And a large portion have never attended school in New York City before, city officials said.

The new students often have significant needs. “Many are students with disabilities, many are English language learners, and all of them are disadvantaged just by starting the school year later,” said Paymon Rouhanifard, the department’s executive director of school portfolio management.

About 30,000 of the new students are elementary- or middle-school aged, the grades served by most of the city’s 136 charter schools. But the responsibility of enrolling them has fallen entirely to district schools — exacerbating longstanding tensions over whether charter schools are fulfilling their mandate to serve the neediest students.

“One thing that is a breach between public schools and charter schools is that public schools have to take kids from their catchment area all year round,” said Morty Ballen, the CEO of the Explore Schools network of charter schools in Brooklyn.

Now, for the first time, a small group of charter school leaders and city officials are working to close that gap.

For about a year, Department of Education officials have been exploring ways to let charter schools enroll “over the counter” students. So have some charter operators, such as Rubenstein and Ballen. Last summer, Rubenstein sent a formal letter to the state requesting that officials examine how he could reserve a few seats for off-schedule applicants.

At first, the response that Rubenstein and city officials got was that only a revision to the state’s charter school law would allow them to take students over the counter. Under the current statute, “there’s really no way to hold seats that would allow kids to leapfrog” over families who applied through the regular lottery, Sally Bachofer, a State Education Department assistant commissioner, said earlier this month. SED authorizes some of the city’s charter schools.

Months passed without an update, Rubenstein said. Then, early last week, days after a reporter sent questions to his school’s authorizer, SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, he got a call from the institute’s chief lawyer. The lawyer, Ralph Rossi, reported that he thought the law could be interpreted in a different way.

The new possibility would take advantage of the long waiting lists that 97 percent of city charter schools maintain.

All charter schools turn to the waiting lists between the lottery and the first day of school as some families opt for other schools. Some charter schools also use the lists to fill spots that open up when students leave over time, a process known as “backfilling.” But students who apply to a charter school after the lottery deadline are added to the end of the waiting lists, practically ensuring that they’ll never get in.

But what if the schools could shoot late arrivals to the top of the list? Already, charter schools can ask their authorizer for permission to give admissions preferences to groups of “at-risk” students, such as English language learners or students who require special education services. A school with those preferences in place would either reserve seats for those students in its lottery or give the students extra chances to have their names drawn.

SUNY lawyers think it could be possible to construct a new category just for students who come to the city after the regular admissions cycle, according to Cynthia Proctor, a SUNY CSI spokeswoman. When spaces open up in schools that have adopted the new category, those students would have the first crack at the seats.

Details about who the new at-risk category would include are “fluid at the moment,” according to Rouhanifard, who has been discussing the issue with the state for over a year. The category might privilege students who are new to New York State only, or just English language learners who are new to the city, or just families that arrive after Oct. 31, according to people involved in the discussions. All are agreed that any policy would have to safeguard against families who relocate temporarily for the sole purpose of gaming a charter school waiting list.

The fix would have to be refined and signed off on by SUNY and city lawyers before becoming an option for schools, which wouldn’t be until next year out of fairness to the families that applied in April under the current rules, according to Proctor. But if it passes legal muster, the change could go into effect for families that move to New York City from all corners of the globe in 2013.

It’s not clear what would happen if SUNY’s lawyers decide the change actually does not fit with state law. Rouhanifard said the city would consider pursuing legislation, which Rubenstein said he would be eager to support. But charter advocates say that with city charter schools’ future hinging on the next mayor, encouraging legislators to reassess a law that took a brawl to pass in 2010 isn’t high on the agenda.

“It’s important, but given all that’s going on it isn’t the most important thing,” said James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center, about the issue of over-the-counter students. “It’s an interesting issue and one that my guess is we will see more discussion about over time.”

The discussion is likely to be hastened by growing scrutiny on charter schools’ mixed record of serving high-need students, such as students with special needs and English language learners. The state is in the process of setting enrollment “targets,” as required under state law, giving charter schools an added incentive to enroll more English language learners, whom they have so far failed to serve in large numbers.

While precise numbers are not available, officials say mid-year arrivals include a larger proportion of English language learners than in the city’s overall student population.

Even if the preference does become an option, there’s no guarantee that all charter schools would adopt it. The city would not require charter schools to admit mid-year students or fill spaces that open as students leave over time, as Denver and New Orleans have begun doing amid criticism that their charter schools were not serving the neediest students.

“That’s not a direction that we are moving in right now,” Rouhanifard said. “We respect the autonomy of charter schools.”

Without being required to accept mid-year arrivals, charter schools that do not “backfill” would continue not to accept students over the course of the year. (They might still set a preference that would allow them to take summer arrivals in a school’s entry grade.) A recent self-evaluation of the city’s charter school sector identified whether to “backfill” vacated spots as a major point of dissent among schools.

Rouhanifard said he had spoken to at least a dozen charter school operators interested in being able to accept off-schedule arrivals. But they represent a fraction of the city’s charter schools.

“Not every charter school wants to do it because it is a disruption,” Ballen said about figuring out how to accept the needy students who arrive mid-year. “I don’t know how many charters have the appetite to do it.”

But those that do won’t just be helping needy students, Ballen said. “If we can solve this, it [will] remove a wedge in the charter-public school community,” he said.

Leo Casey, a teachers union vice president, said the policy shift would have the most impact if prominent charter networks that do not currently “backfill” begin using over-the-counter students to fill seats that open up through attrition.

Still, Casey said, allowing charter schools to choose to accept the students “would be a step in the right direction.”

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.