unchartered territory

In New York City, a new siting process paves the way for more charter schools

The state budget bill’s expected passage includes several dramatic education policy shifts for the city, but perhaps none have been more fiercely debated than new provisions for providing new city charter schools with free or subsidized space.

Now that the dust has settled, the process that those charter schools will go through to get access to that space is under new scrutiny, as lawmakers and advocacy groups work to make sense of the new provisions.

The budget agreement doesn’t dig into the city’s mayoral control law, but it does dictate, quite specifically, what Mayor Bill de Blasio can and can’t do when apportioning public school space.

Here’s what we know about how the process will work. From now on, New York City is required to provide new charter schools with “access to facilities,” which is enshrined in law as either a free co-location plan or a rent subsidy for private space. After 2016, the state will cover some of the private costs.

Under the provision, eligible schools will need to submit a “written request” for public space, which state officials said could be done as part of their charter application. It is then up to the city to respond with an offer of city-owned space or pay a school extra to find its own facility.

But if de Blasio chooses the co-location route, he will be limited in where he can place the schools. The provision states that a school must get space in the district that its charter was approved for, meaning de Blasio could have trouble putting a school approved for the South Bronx in another high-needs area, such as East New York or Brownsville.

The law’s provision makes it clear that the plans also must follow the same rules governing its current co-location process.

For some lawmakers, the outlines weren’t enough of an explanation for how the space-allocation process—a fraught topic in New York City—will play out.

“No one can actually explain how this will actually work,” Manhattan Senator Liz Krueger said on the Senate floor while professing her opposition to the charter school provisions.

Harlem Assembly member Keith Wright, who sponsored a bill to curtail mayoral control because he disagreed with the Bloomberg administration’s handling of its space-sharing authority, said he was more supportive of the deal.

“I don’t know if I’m optimistic,” said Wright, whose district encompasses many of the charter school co-locations that have stoked the most controversy. “I’ll say I’m hopeful that we can at least stop the tension.”

Nevertheless, the law anticipates tension between the city and future charter schools and lays out a process for settling disputes over assigned space. Charter schools have 30 days after receiving the city’s offer to appeal, which can be done with a court lawsuit, a direct appeal to the state education commissioner, or through an independent arbitrator.

The teachers union and parents have often taken such legal action against the city in the past as a way to challenge Bloomberg’s charter school co-locations. Some were initially successful, but few, if any, resulted in reversing any co-locations purely through litigation.

It’s not clear how much these provisions will cost the city, state officials said. But de Blasio won’t have to pay much next year, when most of the new charter schools are already sited for public school space. And the three schools whose co-location plans were nixed by de Blasio in February are likely to get their space back as a result of the state legislation.

The city will incur more significant costs in the 2015-2016 school year and in subsequent years. In addition to the 24 schools approved to open next year and in 2015, the city is permitted to open an additional 52 schools under the state’s charter cap. Most of those schools have already been approved for public space and the de Blasio administration has said the 2015 plans are pending.

Under the new provisions, the city would be allowed to pay whichever is cheaper: the 20 percent extra in per pupil money, or the cost of rent that a private landlord is charging. 

One example of a charter school planning to open in 2015 is Charter High School for Law and Social Justice, which is seeking space in the South Bronx. If it opened in private space, they could be eligible, unless rent is cheaper, for roughly $333,000 from the city. The figure is based on additional per-pupil funding for 2015-2016, $2,775, and the 120 students who are projected to attend the school in its first year.


Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the future site plans for the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice. 

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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.