New York

Nearly 70 city charter schools covered by suit seeking facility funds

Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx, one of nearly 70 schools in private space that could be impacted by a new statewide charter school funding lawsuit.

A new school funding lawsuit filed upstate could be a boon for nearly 70 charter schools in the five boroughs.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by four families from Buffalo and one family from Rochester, claims that the state shortchanges students in charter schools by not providing money for space. And while the complaint focuses on funding disparities in upstate cities, their claims would also apply to dozens of New York City charter schools that still aren’t guaranteed facilities funding.

The legal attack represents the latest front in a lengthy battle over charter school facilities funding, which has its roots in the 1998 law that first allowed charter schools to open in New York. Charter schools do receive some state funding, but they weren’t given access to the state’s building aid program, which subsidizes district school construction projects. When schools opened in private facilities, they had to set aside a chunk of their operating budget—meant for teachers and school supplies—toward expenses like rent, security, maintenance, and renovations.

In New York City, those costs can add up. Brooklyn Prospect Charter School Executive Director Daniel Rubenstein told Chalkbeat earlier this year that he had to set aside a little less than 20 percent of his $13 million budget to replace fire alarms, upgrade bathrooms and install a new science lab in addition to paying rent and other facilities expenses.

Most of the nearly 200 charter schools that opened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg received free space in city-owned buildings. But 68 charter schools, serving 25,000 students, operate in private buildings and spend, according to one tally, an extra $2,300 for every student on facilities.

This year’s state budget deal included a law that guarantees access to facilities for new and expanding charter schools in New York City. The deal was hailed as a big win for charter schools, but it did little for schools already open in private space. (More recently, some city charter schools, including the one Rubenstein runs, have said the law does apply to them and have applied for space.)

The law also did not address more than 50 charter schools outside of the city that operate in private space, where facilities costs are lower but still a heavy burden. Charter schools in western and central New York, for instance, spend up to $1,600 on facilities for every student, according to a report by the Northeast Charter School Network, an advocacy group that is part of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also cites a study of funding disparities between charter schools and district schools that showed big gaps for charters in upstates cities. In Buffalo, for instance, charters receive $9,811 less for its students on average than district schools, a gap of more than 40 percent, the lawsuit states.

By filing a lawsuit, the parents and the charter advocacy group are following a strategy increasingly being employed by groups seeking to challenge state laws supported by teachers unions, like teacher job protection laws.

“We were really hopeful last session that they’d put a fix in to help charters statewide,” said Andrea Rogers, policy director of NECSN, referring to the lobbying campaign waged around access to facilities. “It did do a lot to protect the charter movement in New York City, but not all schools got the relief. So we need to take another approach.”

But increasing funds to charter schools could mean diverting money from district schools that are still struggling to recover from years of budget cuts. Opponents say that is unnecessary because charter schools can also tap private donors for a wide range of support.

Alliance for Quality Education advocacy director Zakiyah Ansari, an ally of teachers unions and Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that lawmakers should focus first on fulfilling the terms of a 2006 lawsuit settlement that was supposed to provide more funds for schools in poor districts.

“We are $5.9 billion behind on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity commitment, and this proposal will only divert more money away from public schools, at the expense of our children,” Ansari said.

 

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.