charter chill

Facing federal funding freeze, Success to nix lottery preference

After becoming one of the state’s first schools to reserve seats for English language learners in its lotteries, Success Academy Charter Schools are now planning to roll back the special treatment. The charter school network is making the revision under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, which has mandated the change as a condition to continue receiving $15 million in grants aimed at helping Success expand its reach.

The concession comes despite an all-out effort to reverse the decision by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz, who made her case in dramatic terms directly to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“[T]he millions of dollars in funding that your Department is threatening to withdraw is a gun pointed at our head,” Moskowitz wrote in a letter to Duncan in April.

The dispute has to do with a disagreement over the interpretation of federal education laws about how a charter school must structure its admissions process. A federal reading of the law is that school lotteries can’t reserve seats for at-risk students, unless their state’s charter school law specifically allows it.

In New York, charter school law requires that admission preferences be given for three student groups: returning students, siblings, and students who live nearby.

But policymakers here say that a 2010 provision in the law, which requires schools to meet quotas for at-risk student groups, meets federal compliance on lottery preferences.

The provision left it up to schools and their authorizer to figure out how to hit enrollment targets. State officials have argued that a lottery preference will end up being the best way, making it effectively required.

“For these charter schools, we believe it is, practically speaking, necessary for them to implement [an at-risk] lottery preference to comply with the NY Education Law,” Susan Miller Barker, executive director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which authorizes charter schools, wrote to a federal education official earlier this year.

Update: In a statement, Commissioner John King said, “We are optimistic the USED will reconsider their legal interpretation. We are certain the USED shares our commitment to ensuring equal access for high needs students to a high quality education, whether that is in a district school or a charter school.”

Success’ 20 charter schools are the state’s first to be affected by the U.S. DOE’s interpretation. But the change will eventually force many schools into the same dilemma: Eliminate their at-risk lottery preference or forfeit grants seen as crucial during the start-up years.

“It’s to the detriment of charters and the students we want to serve,” said New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman.

Many charter schools already reserve seats for at-risk students. Some offer seats to poor students and, increasingly, new charter schools are opening with preferences for specialized groups of high-need student populations.

For instance, the Children’s Aid Society’s charter school allots seats for students from single-parent households. The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem leaves open 15 percent of its seats for students with autism spectrum disorders. And Mott Haven Academy provides two-thirds of its seats to students who are a part of the child welfare system.

But these types of new schools would have to eliminate their lottery rules to qualify for some of the $113 million in start-up grants that New York was awarded in 2011.

“These funds are just critical,” Merriman said. “They hire the people who put together the school.”

The federal grants, called the Charter Schools Program, have also been awarded to charter networks such as Success. Since 2010, Duncan has awarded the Success network two grants totaling more than $15 million to open or expand 24 schools by 2016.

U.S. DOE spokesman said that grant guidelines have been consistent and disputed the notion that any changes have been made.

“The Department of Education has not offered new rules nor have we made changes to any existing rules,” said the spokesman, Cameron French.

Despite their objections, authorizers have taken the federal grant guidelines seriously as they prepare to review a new slew of charter applications. In a memo sent last month, a SUNY CSI official warned new charter applicants that they would be ineligible for federal grants if they include admissions preferences as part of their school’s development.

Merriman said that threatening to withhold federal funding sent a message that would discourage schools from finding ways to serve at-risk students.

“It’s a fundamentally misguided policy,” he said.

A frequent criticism lodged at charter schools is that they don’t do enough to serve as many high-need students as district schools. In the case of Success, the criticism was renewed last week in a series of Daily News articles about families whose students attended Success schools.

Spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis disputed the criticism that Success schools didn’t do enough to serve its special education population. She said that 15 percent of the Success student population — 1,000 students — are classified a special education, near the city average.

Success schools don’t give preferential seating for poor or special education students, which Sedlis said were not under enrolled at the network’s schools. A legal memo sent by Success lawyers to the U.S. DOE argued that an ELL lottery preference is necessary because its schools struggle to attract families who aren’t proficient in English to apply. At Cobble Hill Success, for instance, just 4.1 percent of first-year students were ELLs, 19 percentage points lower than what was set aside in its lottery, according to the memo.

Success managed to convince the U.S. DOE to reverse the funding threat for this year. But yesterday, the city sent out public notices about revisions to the Success charters, which would affect lotteries for next year’s admissions.

“We have worked with Success Academy regularly over the last few months for them to remain eligible for the grant program,” French said.

In a statement, however, Moskowitz suggested she wasn’t done fighting.

“We were the second school in New York state to offer this preference because of our strong commitment to serving English Language Learners and we are fighting to reinstate it.”

Eva Moskowitz letter to Arne Duncan

Success Academy Legal Memorandum to U.S. DOE

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.