data preview

Researcher says city's charter schools aren't pushing students out, though other cities' are

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Richard Kahlenberg discusses charter schools at the Hunter College's Roosevelt House in Manhattan on Tuesday.

A charter school researcher says an upcoming study will clear New York City charter schools from criticism that they systematically “push out” high-needs students.

“I can say there is definitive evidence of some cities in the U.S. of ‘pushout’ and that New York City is not one of them,” said Macke Raymond, director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

That takeaway was offered by Raymond on Tuesday night as she spoke about a CREDO study that she is overseeing. Raymond said the research, comparing the performance of charter schools in 45 cities, would likely be released in October. (Raymond also warned the audience that she hadn’t verified all of the data with the New York State Education Department.)

Raymond, speaking at a panel discussion about charter schools hosted by the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, didn’t offer other details about the study or mention the cities where charter schools were found to be the worst offenders. But the finding could become another significant data point in an ongoing debate about charter schools, which have long faced criticism for serving lower percentages of students with special needs.

As director of CREDO, Raymond has been researching charter school results for more than five years. Her work includes an influential 2009 study that found a majority of charter school students in 15 states and Washington, D.C. performed as well as or worse than their peers in traditional schools.

That study also found that New York City charter schools were an exception to that trend. An update to that study, in 2013, upheld that finding and found charter schools had surpassed traditional public schools in reading gains and pulled even in math, progress that Raymond attributed in part to charter management organizations.

Raymond let the detail about her latest comparisons slip toward the end of the 90-minute discussion on Tuesday night, which included Century Foundation fellow Richard Kahlenberg, Hunter College Professor Joseph Viteritti, the state’s former charter school chief Sally Bachofer, and John Witte, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

More broadly, panelists agreed that the city’s charter sector would continue to grow in the short term. A new state law virtually ensures that the sector will continue to add schools without past restraints around funding for space, and dozens of new schools are in the pipeline to open in the next several years.

Where there was less certainty was how Mayor Bill de Blasio will confront that growth. Viteritti said that however de Blasio has felt about charter schools in the past, he won’t be able to ignore the specifics for much longer.

In particular, Viteritti said, de Blasio needs to offer a clear plan for tackling controversial issues like how charter schools share space with traditional schools. The department has announced small changes to the way the school building space is allotted, but city officials have promised more sweeping changes to the way decisions are made about dramatic school-space changes.

“If Bill de Blasio has a better policy on co-location, which he seems to have, he needs to say what it is,” Viteritti said.

The panelists agreed that charter schools had come up short in acting as laboratories for new ideas that could be spread to other schools, as former union chief Albert Shanker first imagined charter schools. (De Blasio has spoken frequently of that vision for charter schools, too.)

But they disagreed on whether that was a bad thing. Bachofer, who reviewed hundreds of charter applications as head of the State Education Department’s charter schools office, said she was never impressed when school leaders said they prioritized intraschool partnership.

“I’d rather have a great school than a school that collaborates” but whose students aren’t being well-served, Bachofer said.

Viteritti said public schools haven’t proven to be much better at learning from one another, but he hoped that de Blasio could change that. Kahlenberg said one way they could work together is to do a better job of diversifying the city’s charter school student population, which is mostly made up of low-income black and Hispanic students. The ability to set aside seats for certain student populations in admissions lotteries, Kahlenberg said, offers “great opportunity.”

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.