Budget Battle

In budget deal, a facilities boost for some—but not all—NYC charter schools

Updated, 11:25 p.m. New and expanding charter schools in New York City will get access to facilities funding, but existing charters already in private space will receive less aid, according to people briefed the framework of a state budget deal.

The deal also includes extra per-pupil aid for all charter schools, which would come from the state and be spread out over three years—an increase that would break several years of flat funding.

Legislators are still hammering out the final pieces of the state budget legislation and aren’t expected to submit a final budget until Friday. But they have come to an agreement on some major issues relating to charter school space-sharing problems, a centerpiece of the year’s negotiations.

The deal puts New York City on the hook to find space for charter schools in city buildings, something that the Bloomberg administration offered to about two-thirds of the city’s 183-school charter sector without a legislative imperative. If the city can’t or does not want to work out a co-location arrangement, it will have to pay schools extra so that they can afford to rent and operate in private space, according to the terms of the deal, the sources said.

A third-party arbitrator would make a final ruling if the city and a charter school disagrees over a co-location plan.

Those changes would be significant at a time when the de Blasio administration has dramatically tempered the Bloomberg administration’s enthusiasm for co-location. Earlier this month, it rolled back three space-sharing plans for Success Academy charter schools, although it also allowed several others to proceed.

De Blasio’s shift against charter schools ignited a public relations battle waged by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz and other charter school advocates. Their campaign received a lift from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who promised to “save” the sector so that it could continue to grow.

The following week, the State Senate’s budget proposal included a package of pro-charter school bills aimed at ensuring that the schools didn’t have to pay facilities costs out of their operating budgets.

One of those proposals, to offer privately-housed charter schools a share of state building aid, was not included in the deal, apparently getting yanked off the table as recently as yesterday. That will affect the city’s 68 charter schools in private space, as well as all 57 charter schools outside of the city in private space.

The omission disappointed advocates who hoped these schools, which put together serve about 45,000 students, would get more facilities help.

“We are happy to see that new charter schools in New York City will have access to space, but it’s unfortunate that schools in private space, both in the city as well as across the state, received nothing under this deal,” said Northeast Charter Schools Network President Bill Phillips. “Their needs were just as severe.”

Charter schools in private space, because they must pay for facilities costs out of their operating budgets, have less money to use on educational programs. In New York City, the gap between district and co-located charter schools is about $3,500 and ranges from less than $1,000 to close to $3,000 elsewhere in the state.

“Those schools in private space have, in effect, been subsidizing the education of kids in the city,” Phillips added. “They’ve been paying for their own building and they got no help in this deal.”

The budget deal has one upside for all charter schools in the state, no matter where they are housed. Charter schools will receive an overall $500 increase in per-pupil funding over the next three years, starting with $250 next year. The funding will come from the state, saving de Blasio and from incurring new costs at a time when he is negotiating retroactive raises for the city’s teachers and planning a massive expansion of pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.

The state will pay $125 per charter school student in the second year and $125 in the final year (A larger increase, which a spokesman for Speaker Sheldon Silver confirmed, was in the original version of this article). In just New York City, that would cost the state nearly $50 million based on the city’s charter school enrollment projections. Enrollment is estimated to grow from about 70,000 this year to 125,000 in three years. There are another 20,000 charter school students outside of New York City.

But New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman said he saw it less optimistically. By his estimation, he said in a statement, the negotiated increase is worse off for charters than than the funding mechanism originally proposed in Cuomo’s budget proposal in January. That would have lifted a per-pupil funding freeze that had been held flat at $13,527 for the last three years.

Instead, the freeze was extended for an additional three years, which means that districts won’t have to divert money away from its portfolio of district schools. The state’s $500 increase is designed to partially compensate for that, but Merriman said it wasn’t enough.

Referring to comments made by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to Capital New York on Thursday night, Merriman criticized that part of the deal.

“Speaker Silver’s assertion that the budget is a boon for charter schools and results in fair funding for charter and district schools, is highly misleading,” Merriman said in a statement.

The final budget is not yet complete and lawmakers are still hammering out details about what kind of access charter schools will have to pre-k funding, sources said. If lawmakers want to have the budget bill ready for an on-time vote on Monday, they must finalize the language by the end of the day on Friday.

But legislative leaders said that they were nearing the finish line. Senate co-leader Jeff Klein said that all that was left was wrapping up “technical details.”

“We’re very very close to an agreement in everything,” Klein said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the total per-pupil increase that charter schools would receive under the state’s tentative deal.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.