the new space wars

As charter sector continues to swell, a space dilemma grows for de Blasio

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

City education officials aren’t backing away from a pledge to not force additional schools to share space, even in the face of a new law that will make that a pricey proposition.

This week, a top city education official said that Chancellor Carmen Fariña has given orders not to make any space-sharing plans until the city has come up with better ways to get feedback from community members. Fariña wants future co-locations to happen only when they “come from the community and are not imposed on them,” Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said at a City Council hearing.

The statement from Grimm, the department’s longtime school facilities chief, signaled that the de Blasio administration remains committed to limiting future co-locations. (A department spokeswoman later said that a new process would solicit more community feedback, but that the city would still come up with its own proposals.)

Together, the statements outline the difficult position that Mayor Bill de Blasio will soon find himself in, given the continued growth of charter schools—which city officials do not control—and new charter school legislation, which will make co-locations financially advantageous.

“The governor has presented the mayor with a Hobson’s choice: spend money on facilities or disrupt schools daily through co-location,” said Brooklyn College Education Professor David Bloomfield.

The new law requires the city to provide new charter schools with free space inside the city’s own buildings or public funding to cover rent in a private facility. The legislation is a rebuke from state lawmakers of de Blasio’s criticism of charter schools during the mayoral campaign and his early months in office.

One challenge the law poses for de Blasio is that it makes financial sense to keep charter schools in city buildings. If the city doesn’t provide space, the law provides for charters to receive an extra funding allowance for each student, which in 2015 would be $2,775, from the city.

Thirteen charter schools have already been approved to open that year, serving 2,000 students at first and 5,800 at full capacity. Private space for those schools would cost as much as $5 million in the 2015-16 school year and $16 million once they are all at capacity, based on enrollment estimates.

In addition, the city is planning to spend $5.4 million next year for three displaced  Success Academy schools, which will have fewer than 500 students next year, to operate in Catholic school buildings.

Many of the schools approved to open in 2015 originally told their authorizers that they were planning to find, and pay for, private space, but the new legislation is likely to change those calculations. Vasthi Acosta, head of Amber Charter School, said the school’s board will consider requesting city space or funding for their newly approved second school.

The other option for de Blasio—siting all of the new charter schools in public school buildings—is likely to be a hard sell to communities.

Charter school co-locations, which make up about 10 percent of co-locations citywide, have frequently stirred resentment from parents and staff members at traditional public schools—some of which have been required to downsize to make room in their buildings. Bloomberg’s critics saw the encroachment as symbolic of his eagerness to supplant the traditional public education system with privately-run charter schools.

Some co-locations also cause major inconveniences. Schools have had to use auditoriums for storage and closets for classrooms, conditions that may violate students’ state constitutional rights, the Campaign for Educational Equity argued in a new research brief.

But supporters of the co-location policy also see it as an innovative—albeit imperfect— way to deal with New York City’s unavoidable space-crunch. And they point to a body of research that links the small schools and charters, which co-locations often made possible, to improved academic outcomes for students.

David Umansky, CEO of Civic Builders, a nonprofit that helps develop private space for charter schools, said he believes there is enough space in the system’s 1,200 buildings to responsibly add new schools. The question is, he added, how much the administration is willing to “deal with difficult issues with the communities.”

For a mayor who has promised to build consensus around major school planning decisions, and wants to keep money in the traditional school system, neither option is a clear win.

That leaves de Blasio and Fariña focused on changing a co-location decision-making process they have said is in serious need of repair.

To fix it, they have created two working groups whose members include several charter school leaders, including KIPP Founder Dave Levin. (Umansky is part of one.) Their charge is to identify ways to change to how school space is measured and allotted in the city’s yearly building utilization report, known as the “blue book,” and improve the public review process.

Some cosmetic changes are coming soon. Lorraine Grillo, CEO of the School Construction Authority, said at the hearing this week that it would be released earlier to give officials more planning time and be more “user-friendly” than previous versions. Substantive tweaks to the way school space is calculated won’t happen until next year, Grillo said.

Still, not all charter school co-locations are contentious. At the John F. Kennedy Campus, the two New Visions charter schools are seen as good neighbors by people working in the building’s six other high schools.

“People say, how do the charter schools and the district schools co-habitate so happily?” Karalyne Sperling, a principal in the building. She says it’s because most of the schools are associated with New Visions, a non-profit that also provides support to district schools.

“We have so many people that we know in common that it makes us more friendly toward each other and work things out,” Sperling added.

Follow Chalkbeat on Twitter for the latest New York City schools news. 

Two for one

DSST doesn’t want to open a new school in Aurora. The charter network wants to open two.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post
Sixth-graders at DSST: College View Middle School in class in 2014.

DSST, Denver’s largest and fastest growing charter school network, wants to open two new schools by 2021 that would serve nearly 2,000 students — in Aurora.

That’s according to a formal proposal DSST submitted to Aurora Public Schools this month. The DSST charter application was the only one the district received by the annual deadline for charter school applications this month.

The application comes with a provision that the schools operate in buildings provided by the suburban school district. Space for charter schools in Aurora has been historically difficult to find, and the district has provided little to no support in helping them locate space — until now.

Superintendent Rico Munn last year offered to build DSST a new building, if the network would pay half. Board members and existing charter school leaders questioned the superintendent on why this deal was offered to one charter school, excluding others. Charter schools are public schools receiving public tax dollars but operated by a board independent from a school district.

The Aurora school board has allowed Munn to continue discussions with DSST, but members cautioned that it did not mean there would be any guarantees and that final approval would wait until DSST went through the district’s charter approval process. Munn has said the deal is in part about connecting with a network that has a record of success on student achievement, as well as a way to offer more choices around science and technology. The Aurora district has been working to improve student performance before potentially facing state sanctions next year.

Munn’s invitation to DSST to help with a building also stirred controversy over the district’s bond request in November as some charter leaders and the union opposed or scaled back support for the measure.

Munn had proposed that the district and DSST split the cost of the new school building. The Aurora tax measure approved by voters in November included $12 million that would cover the district’s share. Leaders of charter schools already in Aurora questioned how fair it was that their funding requests were excluded from the bond proposal, while a Denver charter network would potentially get a new district-owned building.

DSST had responded that it would help with fundraising but wanted the district to take the lead in coming up with the rest of the funding. In Denver, the school district has provided space for the charter network’s schools.

The charter application did not give more information on how the buildings for the two proposed schools would be paid, but did state that the district has committed to providing the facilities.

“DSST is excited and grateful for the initial commitment from Aurora to provide DSST facilities for two 6- 12 campuses,” the application states.

The first school would open in 2019 and the second in 2021. Both would open serving 150 sixth graders, adding one grade level per year until they each served grades sixth through 12th.

In the application, DSST noted they have started outreach efforts in northwest Aurora, where the first school would open. They also cited that DSST schools across Denver already serve about 200 students who live in Aurora and who would like to “attend a DSST in their own communities.”

Some of those students, including one who said her parents driver her half an hour to school each day, attended a school board meeting in Aurora earlier this month to ask the board to consider approving the charter school.

At February’s board meeting, Aurora district officials mentioned to the board in an update about work on bond projects, that DSST had started working with the district on preliminary plans for the new school building in northwest Aurora, so the district doesn’t build something “that won’t fit.”

“We are talking to them,” Amy Spatz, Aurora’s director of construction management and design, told the board. “We’re getting feedback early.”

As far as who would attend the schools, the application proposes that the DSST schools would be open enrollment schools meaning anyone in the district would be able to apply and attend. The school would provide an application form that families would fill out during a three-month window of enrollment. If more students apply than the school has room for, the school would hold a lottery to select the students attending.

Like at other DSST schools, the application states the schools will have a goal of mirroring the overall demographic population of the district, including by enrolling at least 30 percent English language learners and 10 percent of students who are in special education.

Depending upon student and family need, DSST also noted they are interested in exploring the possibility of purchasing bus services from the district for their students.

The application will be reviewed by the district’s new Charter School Advisory Committee, then the District Accountability Committee, before going to the district’s board for a final decision in June.

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.