initial assessment

Advocates offer praise, some of it measured, for state budget's charter school deal

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman took a measured tone while praising the charter school deal that came out of state budget negotiations.

In a statement released Saturday morning, Merriman credited Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Senate for the deal, which ensured that the New York City’s 183-school sector will continue to expand. The deal requires the city to provide new or expanding schools with co-location plans or pay for a part of their private facilities costs, which includes rent.

“Governor Cuomo meant what he said and said what he meant and because of his leadership, and the good work of our legislature, particularly the state senate, we have secured the future growth of New York City’s charter sector,” Merriman said, referring to Cuomo’s outspoken support for charter schools. “We are grateful.”

Merriman also mentioned a shout-out for Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose chilly relationship with the charter sector has thawed in recent weeks. “We are also heartened by Mayor de Blasio’s clear efforts to work with charter leaders,” the statement continues.

Merriman did not criticize another part of the deal, which involves how charter schools are funded. Charter schools will likely receive significantly less than district schools in per-pupil funding increases under the deal, prompting Merriman and other advocates to mount a last-minute lobbying offensive this week to nix the plan.

Merriman barely alluded to those concerns in his statement, instead focusing on what he believed were the positives.

A separate group of charter school leaders, which has cozied up to de Blasio, called the “modest increase in per-pupil aid next year” a “welcome development.” But the group, called the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, raised concerns about many schools in private facilities that won’t benefit from the state budget.

“Many charter schools in private facilities have added thousands of seats to the system at their own expense and will not see relief under this budget,” the statement says.

A member of the coalition, Renaissance Charter School Principal and founder Stacey Gauthier, was more critical in an interview. She said that her school, which is unionized and must pay for teachers’ pension and healthcare obligations, needed all the money in per-pupil funding that it could get. Since funding increases would be capped at $500 over the next three years, she said, the school would take a big financial hit.

“I find that really horrendous,” Gauthier said. “I run my building on per-pupil money. I think it’s a tremendous loss.”

Merriman’s statement also played the role of mediator, calling for an end to what has been a weeks-long campaign waged in support of the legislation by Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and her allies (Merriman’s group among them).

“With many fiscal and legal uncertainties now settled,  it is the time for all of us to put aside politics, ads, rallies, divisive rhetoric and campaigning, and instead continue our shared task of delivering the best possible education to all of our children,” the statement said.

Jeremiah Kittredge, who heads Families for Excellent Schools, the group that funded the campaign, said Cuomo and the legislature “responded to a groundswell of parent voices, and made a historic down payment on ensuring all public school families are treated equally.”

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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.