firing back

Charter CEO: Fariña has 'obligation' to release data after push-out claims

Some charter school leaders are taking a quieter approach to lobbying the de Blasio administration. Here, posters from a charter schools rally in October.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman is challenging Chancellor Carmen Fariña to prove that some charter schools have illicit enrollment practices, after she claimed schools were bending the rules on Thursday.

After Fariña suggested that some charter schools were pushing kids out ahead of state tests and selectively recruiting high-performing students, Merriman fired back with a 400-word statement that called on the chancellor to use her authority to investigate her suspicions. Merriman said that the center had “no evidence” that charters counseled out students before testing.

“The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well,” he said. “I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.”

“To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city,” he said, adding that corrective action should be taken in schools where there is evidence of improper discharging of students.

The response was unusually forceful, given that Fariña has cultivated a cordial relationship with many charter schools even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has more frequently clashed with the charter sector.

A spokeswoman for Fariña emailed Thursday night to temper the chancellor’s remarks, which came during a brief talk with reporters.

“The Chancellor believes schools should share best practices, serve English Language Learners and students with disabilities—and together, we will move our City forward,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “As she stated in her remarks, Chancellor Fariña sits on the NYC Charter School Center Board and is committed to working closely with all stakeholders who are invested in improving student outcomes.”

Kaye did not say if Fariña would authorize the release of student discharge data that Merriman called for.

Fariña, a voting board member of Merriman’s organization, has visited many charter schools — focusing on those serving large shares of high-needs students — and brought a few into her signature initiative, the Learning Partners Program.

Merriman called her a “valued member of the board for whose services I and the other board members are very grateful.”

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible,” he added. “This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

In his response, Merriman also took issue with Fariña’s suggestion that some charter schools recruit students based on academic achievement, a practice that would be against state charter law. Fariña said charters should fill open seats with more than “just kids who get postcards because they’re level 3s or 4s to come to the school.”

“If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken,” Merriman said.

Merriman acknowledged that charter schools should enroll more students with disabilities and English language learners, a disparity that Fariña also highlighted. But he said the chancellor should also call attention to “far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees,” referring to screened district schools that select students based on factors like test scores and attendance.

Merriman’s full statement is below:

“This morning, Chancellor Fariña made some very serious allegations about the charter school sector and  they require a detailed response.

“First, we have seen no evidence that charter schools are counseling children out prior to test time as she has suggested is a not uncommon practice. The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well. I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.  To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city.  Where the data shows such a pattern for any school, corrective action should be instituted immediately.

“Second, the Chancellor also seems to have alleged that at least some charter schools, all of which enroll their students via random lottery, are selecting students based on test scores. We have seen no evidence of this, either at the beginning of the year or anytime thereafter. While selecting students based on their academic achievement is a wide-spread practice throughout the district, charter schools cannot do so.  If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken.

“Third, Chancellor Fariña rightly called on charter schools to enroll more students receiving special education services and English Language Learners.  The NYC Charter School Center, together with many charter school leaders, has made access to charter schools for these children a priority; and there is more work for us to do.  However, in calling out charter schools, Chancellor Fariña inexplicably ignores far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees.  We and many others have documented the startling differences among district schools that are in close geographic proximity, not only in the numbers of students receiving special education services and who are English Language Learners, but also even more perniciously by race and class.

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible.  This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

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.