Call for ban on co-locations has charter school backers nervous

The city’s charter school sector is pushing back against a groundswell of support for a moratorium on the space-sharing arrangement that has allowed the schools to proliferate.

Their resistance is not unified in tone. Some charter school advocates are requesting that proponents of a moratorium reconsider and others are taking their fight to the street.

The Bloomberg administration has relied heavily on co-location, the practice of allowing one school to open in another school’s building, to open new schools. Its critics say the arrangement breeds unnecessary tension and takes resources away from existing schools.

Now, three of the Democratic candidates for mayor — Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, and former comptroller Bill Thompson — have all said they think Bloomberg should not be allowed to close or co-locate any schools in its last year. A bill proposed in the State Senate would bar school closures even into the next mayor’s term, and Assembly members are lining up to sponsor their own version of the bill.

Blocking co-locations and the school closures that often make space for them would be a serious blow to the city’s charter sector, which has flourished because the Bloomberg administration has offered more than 100 charter schools free space in district buildings. It would be difficult for new schools to open at the same pace if they had to find and pay for private space.

The threat has united independent charter schools and schools in management organizations, which are sometimes at odds, in the sector’s defense. On Wednesday, two dozen school leaders and advocates distributed a statement asking the mayoral candidates “to set aside the call for a moratorium on co-locations and show the kind of thoughtful leadership New York City needs.”

Several of the signatories handed out flyers to people attending the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators’ event featuring mayoral candidates on Wednesday evening, where the candidates later reiterated their support for a moratorium.

“I believe anyone who wants to lead the city is going to be a thoughtful person,” said Rafiq Kalam Id-Dinn, head of Brooklyn’s Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory Charter School. He said that if candidates surveyed city charter schools’ strengths, they should think, “Hmm, maybe we shouldn’t push pause.”

Some charter school operators are taking a more aggressive stance. Unlike representatives of the other major charter school networks in the city, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz did not sign on to the sector’s letter. Instead, parents from her schools protested outside the three mayoral candidates’ offices this morning.

Outside Liu’s office, more than 100 parents from Success waved signs accusing the candidates of being pawns of UFT President Michael Mulgrew. The union has long opposed closures and co-locations, at times suing to stop the city from going through with them.

“We’re out here because we want co-location,” said Ali Aybakal, who has a child at Harlem Success Academy 4 in Harlem and three at New Heights Academy.

“Liu, Thompson, and De Blasio declared basically to destroy charter schools,” said Kelly Alday, an outspoken parent from Bronx Success Academy who is often a ringleader at the network’s protests. “They’re basically turning their backs on us.”

Moskowitz, who aims to open six new schools in public space this fall, 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.  A former City Council education committee chair, she has also sought — and received — more space from the city than any other charter school operator, at times forcefully proposing space-sharing plans directly to the chancellor.

Now, she is taking an extra share of criticism about the practice of co-location.

“Another thing that has to change starting in January is that Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” de Blasio said during the mayoral debate, where Moskowitz was the only school leader named, to loud applause. “She was giving the orders and chancellors were bowing down and agreeing. That’s not acceptable.”

In a statement responding to this morning’s protests, Melinda Martinez, a parent at Cobble Hill School for International Studies, said, “The Bloomberg-era policy of ‘what Eva wants, Eva gets’ is at stake now, and only the mayoral election can stop her from continuing to hurt our students, because not everyone can be bought off.” Success Academy Cobble Hill moved into the school’s building this year.

Perhaps anticipating this year’s political rancor, many independent charter schools opted out of a rally to support the sector last year. “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,” Harvey Newman, who heads the Center for Educational Innovation’s charter support network, told GothamSchools at the time.

Charter school parents – who number over 100,000 and counting — could potentially be a significant voting bloc in the mayoral election. At an event to mark National School Choice Week this morning at Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem, a parent asked Chancellor Dennis Walcott what families can do to support the sector. Walcott suggested holding a forum for mayoral candidates and giving them each a report card based on how much they favor charter schools.

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.