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.

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.