breaking bread

Charter group gets a seat at the de Blasio table, then backs him up

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Salim Virji

A charter group angling for the city’s support finally got a meeting at City Hall. Not long after, it’s become Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staunch ally on some politically-sensitive education issues.

First, it publicly distanced itself from a high-profile charter school rally being organized by de Blasio’s opponents. Then on Friday, it emerged as perhaps the only supporters of the city’s controversial decision around dozens of charter school co-location plans.

The loosely-connected group still doesn’t have a name and its founding members are hesitant to label themselves. “I’m not even sure it is a group yet!” Harlem RBI Executive Director Rich Berlin said in an email recently. 

Recently, it goes by “community-based public charter schools”. Its membership is a moving target, with schools signed onto some statements but missing from others. But its core leadership has stayed the same, consisting of, among others, Berlin, New Visions for Public Schools President Robert Hughes, Renaissance Charter School founder Stacey Gauthier, Teaching Firms of America founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, Future is Now Schools founder Steve Barr, and Jonathan Gyurko, an education consultant and former city education official.

Despite their uncertain status, they’ve made quick inroads since forming just a month ago. They were called to a meeting with Blasio’s top aides on Thursday morning, just hours before the city announced it was rolling back three Success Academy charter school co-location plans. A pressing item on the agenda was to offer a sneak peak at the reasoning behind the city’s decision and, possibly, get some political cover for what the city knew would be seen as a controversial move.

A day later, the group came through for de Blasio. In a lengthy statement, they said they “came away with the impression that the city’s process was thorough and decisions principled.”

“I think it’s always disappointing because people want space and need space,” Gauthier said of the decision in an interview on Friday. “But I think they went through a fair process. It’s still disappointing, most especially for Success that has kids who are still moving to another grade.”

It was rare public approval for the decision, which has so far been roundly criticized by most sides involved. City Council members and the schools they represent where many of the plans will continue said de Blasio didn’t go far enough. On the other side, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and her allies pledged to aggressively fight the decision, possibly with legal action.

(The city said it canceled one of the Success plans, which evicted currents students from a building for next year, because it would have resulted in the reduction of a program for students with disabilities.) 

It’s the second time that de Blasio has been backed by the group of charters while the mayor has been vulnerable. Yesterday, they said they were ditching a rally in Albany that was organized Moskowitz and other charter schol advocates because it was on the same day as a big prekindergarten lobbying effort planned by de Blasio’s team.

“The message you’re sending is that you just want a war,” Barr said, referring to the charter school rally. “I love political strength and organizing, but tactically to lead with that, it sounds more personal to some folks.”

The new support has been eagerly embraced by de Blasio’s team. A City Hall spokesman was the first to share both statements with Chalkbeat and a consultant from the public relations firm handling press for de Blasio’s pre-K campaign, BerlinRosen, blasted out a copy of the group’s anti-rally statement this morning.

The City Hall meeting included Intergovernmental Affairs Director Emma Wolfe, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, Jr., and the chiefs of staff for both de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Charter leaders who attended the meeting said they didn’t get anything in return for offering their support for de Blasio on these sensitive issues. They said they were just happy to have a seat at the table.

“When we first actually got together, our goal was just to have a dialogue,” said Gauthier. “Getting a meeting with senior officials is not necessarily easy.”

Gauthier and other attendees said that they also discussed, in broad terms, ways that the city could leverage its authority as school building landlords that house charter schools. One idea was to require schools to fill empty seats vacated by students who leave the school, a practice known as backfilling. Many of the highest-performing charter schools don’t backfill beyond early grades, which some believe can keep test scores high.

Another idea discussed was that, instead of paying rent, charter schools could pay for programs that could be shared by all co-located schools in a building, such as renovation costs, enrichment events and professional development sessions.

“We all left feeling very positive about this meeting, that the administration was really sincere in its efforts to work with us,” Gauthier said.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the impact of the Success Academy expansion)

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.