chartering territory

SUNY green-lights 17 more city charter schools, 14 for Success Academy

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Families for Excellent Schools organized a rally in Foley Square in Manhattan that drew thousands of charter school students and parents last week.

The city’s charter school sector, and its largest charter-school network, got a big boost Wednesday.

A State University of New York committee unanimously approved 17 additional charter schools to open over the next two years, with 14 of the charters going to Success Academy, the city’s largest and most controversial network. The other three charters went to Achievement First, a Brooklyn-based network of schools.

Together, the schools are projected to serve more than 11,700 students, according to proposals for both networks — growth that will have major implications for the de Blasio administration, which is facing new budget and space pressures. Under a new state law, the city is required to find the new schools space inside its own buildings or pay the schools a rent subsidy.

The city hasn’t yet decided where it will place any of the planned schools, and the administration has its own plans that will require space in city schools: pre-kindergarten programs and its community schools initiative, which will add health and career services to some struggling schools. Denying the new charter schools public space would mean spending millions on private space under the new law, which was partially spurred by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision in March to block three Success Academy schools from moving into public buildings.

There are hundreds of district school buildings where existing vacancies would make co-location a cost-effective option for siting new schools,” a Success spokesperson said in a statement.

The 17 newly-approved charter schools come after SUNY and the state’s Board of Regents, the state’s other charter authorizer, approved 13 additional charter schools earlier this year. That means just one more charter school can be authorized by SUNY to open in the city under state law. The Board of Regents still has 27 city charters left to approve.

While mostly effusive in their brief remarks about the charter proposals, SUNY officials expressed some concern about the size and oversight of charter management organizations, which now serve similar numbers of students as small school districts. Success Academy’s 14 new schools will add to the 32 that Success currently operates to bring the network to 50 schools—roughly the size of the Savannah, Ga. school district, for example.

SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi as the authorizer approved 17 city charter schools on Wednesday.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi as the authorizer approved 17 city charter schools on Wednesday.

“We need to start thinking about how we authorize and monitor and review networks that are this large,” said Joseph Belluck, chair of SUNY’s charter schools committee.

Belluck directed Susan Miller Barker, the director of SUNY’s Charter School Institute, to look into ways SUNY could monitor how charter networks were serving their high-needs students, work more collaboratively with nearby district schools, and replacing students who leave the school—a contested policy known as “backfilling.”

Belluck also took some credit for Success Academy’s recent offer to host a professional development day for district-school principals. Another idea Belluck floated was for networks to share special-education teachers and resources across schools in the same way that districts do. Such a change would require revisions to the state’s charter school law and had encountered opposition from teachers unions in the past.

Miller Barker said that some changes were already underway. She said Success Academy officials told her that they planned to begin replacing students who leave the school at all grades, which would be a dramatic shift from the network’s current policy of only replacing students who leave through third grade.

Critics of Success often cite the network’s backfilling policy as a contributor to its impressive state test scores, since the policy means its elementary schools serve fewer students as they reach tested grades—and many of the students who leave for various reasons might have struggled.

Noah Gotbaum, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council, speaks to press outside Tweed Courthouse, protesting SUNY's decision to approve more charter schools.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Noah Gotbaum, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council, speaks to press outside Tweed Courthouse, protesting SUNY’s decision to approve more charter schools.

A Success spokesperson confirmed the network was changing its enrollment policies, but would only say that it would be filling empty seats up to fourth grade, up from its current cutoff of third grade, in the 2015-16 year. (A spokesman for SUNY later clarified that Miller Barker misspoke about Success backilling in every grade).

Meanwhile, in an illustration of how divisive charter schools remain in the city, and how divisive Success Academy is in particular, parents and City Councilmembers stood outside the Department of Education headquarters on Wednesday to protest SUNY’s approvals. There is too little oversight of how charter schools spend their money, they said, and traditional public schools that are co-located with charter schools remain underfunded, with arts programs cut, occupational therapy sessions held in hallways, and science labs scaled down. They also pointed to enrollment data from SUNY showing that 13 existing Success Academy schools were under-enrolled last October, including three by more than 27 percent. (The Brooklyn parents group, WAGPOPS, compared charter enrollment targets obtained from SUNY via a FOIA request with enrollment figures from education department space-sharing documents.)

“We have a right to say what happens with taxpayer dollars,” said Tesa Wilson, a parent who heads District 14’s Community Education Council.

“This is about oversight. This is about accountability,” said Daniel Dromm, chair of the City Council’s education committee. “This is about creating better public schools in New York City.”

Jessica Glazer contributed reporting. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the approvals will bring Success Academy to 50 schools. 

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.