calling out

Chancellor Fariña implies some charter schools boosting scores by pushing out students

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

Chancellor Carmen Fariña implied Thursday that some city charter schools prop up their state test scores by encouraging students to enroll elsewhere late in the school year.

“There shouldn’t be a whole movement out of charters the month before the test,” Fariña told reporters on Thursday morning. The well-timed attrition is not happening at all schools, she said, adding, “It happens in some places.”

Though she has expressed concerns about charter schools in the past, Fariña’s comments were perhaps the most provocative she has lobbed at the charter sector since taking over the school system. Her comments echo longstanding critiques of charter schools — which serve a smaller percentage of students with disabilities and English language learners than district schools do, and aren’t required to take new students mid-year — though higher-than-average student attrition from charter schools hasn’t been borne out by recent research.

[Update: Charter Center CEO says Fariña has ‘obligation’ to release enrollment data after push-out claims]

Fariña made the comments after speaking to Partnership for New York City President and CEO Kathryn Wylde at a conference on Thursday. In her conversation with Wylde, Fariña ticked off ways she supports charter schools, including school visits, inviting them into her Learning Partners Program, and inviting them to the city’s professional development sessions.

“Where we need to do more work is better transparency,” Fariña said.

Asked to elaborate after the talk, she said she was concerned that charter schools look to replace students who leave with only students with top test scores.

She said she wants “to ensure that, as there are openings in upper grades, that the kids that are accepted in are not just kids who get postcards because they’re level 3s or 4s to come to the school.”

Fariña doesn’t oversee most of the city’s charter schools, which are independent from the Department of Education and enroll students through lotteries. But she serves on the board of the New York City Charter School Center and, as the city’s top education official, her public statements on the issue are closely monitored.

Fariña isn’t the only high-ranking education leader to say that more attention should be paid to charter schools’ enrollment practices. Last year, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch urged state education officials to create a “stability index” that would flag suspicious trends like high student discharge rates right before state testing. (A spokesman for the State Education Department could not immediately say whether that metric had been developed.) Earlier this month, Tisch agreed with Fariña’s calls for more transparency on a panel with State Education Commissioner John King.

When students leave charter schools in the middle of the year, many end up in district schools, which can put a new burden on the school charged with getting the student adjusted. Whether charter schools lose students at a higher rate than district schools has been the subject of a number of recent analyses.

A 2012 SchoolBook analysis looked at three years’ worth of student discharge data and found that average student mobility rates were lower for charter schools than they were for traditional public schools, though turnover was higher in some charter-heavy districts. Last year, the Independent Budget Office looked at attrition in lower grades for all city schools and released similar findings.

Another study, released in 2013 by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, looked at 25 charter elementary schools and concluded that the special-ed gap was caused by parents’ enrollment choices, not students being pushed out.

None of those studies looked at when during the year students exited a school.

If Fariña is serious about probing charter schools’ enrollment data more deeply, she could make it happen as the city schools chancellor, said Ray Domanico, the director of education research at the IBO. The department tracks student discharges from district and charter schools by date, he said.

The debate over charter schools will be amplified in the coming months with the state legislature expected to consider lifting a cap on the number of schools allowed to open in the city. As in 2010, when the cap was last lifted, the conversation is likely to include calls for schools to enroll more high-needs students.

On Thursday, Fariña said she wants to see more attention on those issues.

“We need to make sure that, when you say that these are the kids that are enrolled through the lottery,” Fariña said, “that these are the kids you graduate.”

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.