internal conflict

Charter school rally brings out deep tensions within the sector

At last year's rally, students and families protested in Harlem against a lawsuit that sought to prevent charter school co-locations.

A large public rally to support the city’s charter school sector this afternoon is expected to draw thousands of people, but the event is also notable for who won’t be there.

Organizers say the rally is meant as a show of political might to mayoral candidates, whose support for the sector is unlikely to rival Mayor Bloomberg’s.

But in a sign of what sources say is a widening rift within the sector, two major groups that support charter schools have declined to participate, and large numbers of independent charter school operators are sitting the rally out. Many say they believe the event’s leadership and timing reflect a larger truth about the future of the sector: that it is promising for schools that are part of large networks and less so for independent charter schools.

“The charter world is kind of breaking up into the haves and the have-nots. There’s a schism,” said a source with a long history in city charter schools.On one side of the schism are operators, many of them independent, who have focused their energies and resources on school-based operations while quietly steering clear of front-line battles over ideology. On the other side are operators who also see charter schools as a weapon in a political fight against teachers unions to reform the larger school system and believe that the fight requires robust, hands-on organizing and lobbying efforts.

In recent years, operators who hold that view have seen their networks grow and win support from well-funded advocacy groups, particularly as many of their schools have outperformed their local districts and the city on state tests.

Several of the advocacy groups spearheaded today’s rally, set for City Hall Park at 3 p.m. Education Reform Now, which former Chancellor Joel Klein chaired until April, secured a permit for a crowd of 3,000 and is supplying the event with volunteers. Families for Excellent Schools, a parent organizing group, arranged busing and coordinated a steering committee. The five-member committee included representatives of four high-profile networks — Success Academy, KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Public Prep — and one independent school, Coney Island Preparatory Academy.

Last year, the charter sector held a 2,500-person-strong rally against the UFT and NAACP, which had filed suit to stop 18 charter schools from opening or expanding in city school buildings. Without the common foe, and with the prospect of competition for scarcer resources on the horizon, that unity has frayed this year.

“We have … chosen not to participate in this or any other event that perpetuates the exclusion of independent charter schools from leadership in directing and planning these events,” said Rafiq Kalad Id-Din, founder and principal of Teaching Firms of America Charter School, who helped organize last year’s rally.

Critics of today’s event said its leadership had created a major wedge.

Harvey Newman, who heads the Center for Educational Innovation’s charter support network, said the school leaders in his coalition felt the event was too closely aligned to the political agenda of Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of the Success network. A former City Council education committee chair, Moskowitz has long represented the more radical wing of the charter movement, bringing busloads of parents to defend her network’s schools at public hearings and meetings where criticism is likely.

Newman said a representative of Moskowitz’s network approached him about signing on to the rally just days after Moskowitz indicated that she was considering a run for mayor.

“There was a sense that there is a political element to this, and people thought that demonstrations that looked like Eva’s demonstrations did more to divide than bridge,” said Newman.

Organizers for today’s event downplayed the tension and said the dissent did not represent a majority view.

“This is NOT about Eva in any way and it’s unfortunate that a tiny number of people feel that way,” Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools, wrote in an email. Eighty of the city’s 136 charter schools are expected to be represented at the rally, she said.

“It’s to show folks who might be running for mayor that there is a large number of us who support charter schools,” said Martinez. “We want to show them that we believe that some of the policies in place, such as co-location, works.”

But co-location — the city’s practice of handing space in public school buildings to charter schools at no cost — is precisely one of the issues where independent charter school operators say they have been pushed to the side.

A larger proportion of independent charter schools are housed in private space, and an operator who runs a school that did not get public space said high-profile charter networks were unfairly given “the first pick of the litter” when the city allocates space. Last fall that dynamic played out in District 15, where a long-planned independent charter school seeking public space was denied to make way for a Success Academy school.

Preserving co-location, which allowed charter schools to thrive under the Bloomberg administration, is the sector’s preeminent concern for the next mayoral administration.

“That’s definitely a key element that I think the group is going to want to convey,” said Coney Island Prep founder Jacob Mnookin about today’s rally, which he helped organize.

But even the leading charter school advocacy group in the city, the New York City Charter School Center, is staying away from the rally, sources close to the group confirmed.

CEO James Merriman said he was “supportive of schools and parents coming together to publicly support charter schools” but declined to comment on today’s event. Multiple sources said the center, which has lent resources and support to rallies in the past, had decided against participating in today’s event because of the leadership and timing tensions.

Several prominent charter network operators who serve on the center’s board are absent from the rally’s list of participants as well, including Jeff Litt of Icahn Charter Schools, Geoffrey Canada of Promise Academy Charter Schools, and Joseph Reich of Beginning with Children Charter Schools.

Also not on the agenda is Newark Mayor and “ed reform rock star” Cory Booker, who was billed as the keynote speaker in an email announcement sent late last week. The New York State Charter Schools Association sent the alert prematurely and had never confirmed Booker’s attendance, according to an official there.

Booker’s possible appearance triggered charter school opponents to organize a counter protest at the same time and place this afternoon. After learning that Booker would not attend, they sent out an updated media alert: “Keynote Speaker Cory Booker a No-Show; Why is He Hiding?”

Mnookin, of Coney Island Prep, said it’s essential that tensions within the charter sector not overwhelm the schools’ shared interests.

“Obviously, we have incredibly diverse and varied schools,” Mnookin said. “But the opportunity to come together as a united group is a huge benefit.”

The event falls at a time when most charter school days aren’t over and with the school year winding down, organizers said they didn’t expect every charter school to be represented at the rally.

Some charter school parents and organizers said they had gotten very little information about the rally.

A parent at a school that is not part of a network said parents had received a generic invitation through email late this morning. The invitation, a Word document created by Families for Excellent Schools, included the words “Insert school logo” and billed the rally as an end-of-year celebration.

“I don’t even know who is sponsoring it or what it is about, just that we are invited,” said the parent, whose school appeared on a list of confirmed participants provided by a rally organizer. “I doubt anyone would show with such little info.”

And Joanne Hunt, the principal of the independent Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, one of the city’s longest-running charter schools, wrote in an email that she hadn’t heard about the rally. “Was it publicized?” she asked.

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.