second chances

Second look at charter law could leave city with unexpected rent bill

Hyde Leadership Charter School, a K-12 school that moved into a private facility in 2012. Hyde is one of more than 60 New York City charter schools that operate in private space.

When Michael Duffy opened Great Oaks Charter School in a shuttered Catholic school building last year, he assumed he’d continue to pay rent as Great Oaks expanded, year by year, to eventually serve grades 6 through 12.

Starting this year, however, he’s hoping the city will pick up the tab.

Duffy’s newfound optimism comes months after the passage of a new state law that seemed to offer little to schools like his. The legislation grants some charter schools a right to publicly-funded space, but lawmakers said then that it would only help brand-new schools or schools that decided to apply for a new charter to add grades.

“The initial conclusion that I had was that it wouldn’t apply to Great Oaks because it would only apply to new schools,” said Duffy, who is the president of the Great Oaks Foundation. “I kind of put the issue aside.”

That changed in June, when the New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman told charter leaders that he interpreted the law differently. And if the city accepts that reading of the law — or if the interpretation holds up in a legal dispute — the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars more in rent than it expected.

Merriman told school leaders that the law could also be read to include charter schools in private space that are adding grades under their current plans, like Great Oaks. The Center’s guidance on the law has encouraged schools to request that assistance from the city beginning this year, triggering a process that could mean big savings for the 45 charter schools that the Center says are still growing in private space.

Because charter schools don’t receive facilities funding, schools in private space receive about 20 percent less funding than district schools and charter schools that are co-located in city-owned buildings. The gap means school leaders often use their operating budgets or fundraise to pay for rent and utilities.

Covering those costs would have far-reaching financial implications for the city, which is already facing a squeeze from the unambiguous part of the law, which states the city must provide space or funding to brand-new charter schools. The city could have to pay out more than $5 million in rent for private space for the 5,000 students who will attend charter schools opening in 2015-16.

For Great Oaks,the rent subsidy would amount to $2,755.40 for each of the 110 seventh-grade students who are being added to the school in the fall, according to the Charter Center. The subsidy would increase yearly with each new grade, excluding the original sixth-grade class.

To avoid those costs, the city could provide its own public space to schools, although that would bring about its own set of space-sharing issues.

The dilemma could set the stage for another unwanted showdown for the de Blasio administration, which has sought to downplay its differences with the charter school sector, especially the smaller schools that tend to operate in private space. Earlier this year, de Blasio’s decision to roll back three space-sharing plans for Success Academy charter schools resulted in weeks of negative advertising from advocacy groups that were closely aligned with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

“De Blasio doesn’t want to get back into denying charter schools of public space,” said Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield.

A spokeswoman for the department said the city has received about two dozen requests from charter schools for access to facilities, but that includes schools slated to open for the 2015-16 school year. No requests have been ruled out yet, she said.

The city now has five months to respond to the requests. Duffy submitted a request for space in late June, meaning he might not get a response until nearly three months into the school year.

Daniel Rubenstein, executive director of Brooklyn Prospect, whose expanding elementary and high schools plan to add seven grades between the two schools over the next several years, also said he requested access to facilities.

“This relief will allow us to put every dollar possible from our budget in what matters the most: our classrooms,” Rubenstein said in a statement.

The process begins with a request for public space, but the department could respond with a proposal to cover rent in a school’s private facility. Under the law, schools can appeal any decision if they feel it is not “reasonable, appropriate, and comparable.”

Not all schools adding grades next year are planning to start that process, though. Some school leaders said they weren’t aware that the option existed. Phyllis Siwiec, who runs Global Community Charter School in Harlem, which will add two grades before it reaches capacity, said she had been under the impression that the law “did not apply to current charters.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Joshua Morales, who misrepresented his position with Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School. That quote has been removed.

 

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.