one more round

Regents refuse to approve city’s latest charter school renewals

Teaching Firms of America co-founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, with parents and staff of the school, speak with Regents Kathleen Cashin in Albany after a meeting about charter school authorization. In a rare move, Regents said they would not approve a spate of charter school renewal recommendations submitted to them by the city's Department of Education because they lacked consistency.

Updated, 6:54 p.m — The city’s charter-school oversight came under harsh scrutiny Monday after it submitted a slew of school renewal recommendations that state education officials said were too lenient.

“I wouldn’t vote to keep most of these schools open, quite honestly,” Chancellor Merryl Tisch said at a Board of Regents meeting. “None of them have a track record worth writing home about.”

City officials had recommended allowing seven of its charter schools to stay open for another two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years, according to a report posted to the Board of Regents website on Friday (and since revised). But in a rare move, the Regents agreed to delay voting on six of the renewals, citing the city’s own reports that said several were out of compliance with federal disciplinary laws and produced lower-than-average test scores. A seventh school was abruptly taken off the agenda after a last-minute lobbying spree from the school’s founder and parents.

The renewals are typically considered rubber-stamp votes by the time they make it to the Regents agenda. This time, state officials said they wouldn’t approve the extensions until representatives from the city’s charter-school office came to Albany and explained their reasoning.

The strong rebuke comes just a month after the Board of Regents faced a barrage of criticism for signing off on a new school in Rochester whose 22-year-old founder lied about his credentials. (Only after the founder’s lies came to light was the application withdrawn.) It also puts the spotlight on the city’s charter-school office, which has shrunk and merged with another office under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has only selectively embraced the charter sector.

While discussing the potential renewals issue on Monday, officials pointed to the city’s own reports, which showed that five of the seven schools have been out of compliance with federal disciplinary laws. The disciplinary policy at one of the schools, Hyde Leadership Charter School – Brooklyn, said that students could be expelled for minor infractions.

“I’m sitting here wondering, well, why would they recommend renewal if there’s evidence that was strong enough to include it in the renewal [report]?” said Lester Young, a Regent from Brooklyn.

Advocates of Children of New York says the charter school sector’s compliance problems go well beyond a handful of schools. The nonprofit says it reviewed more than 150 charter school discipline policies and is “alarmed by the number of policies that fail to comport” with the state’s charter school act, according to a letter sent to Tisch last week.

The schools up for review this week struggled in other ways, according to the city’s reports.

Staten Island Community Charter School went without a principal for five months during the last school year and experienced a 68 percent turnover of its instructional staff. Another school appeared to be in dire financial straits. Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings was deemed to be in a “weak position” to meet its near-term financial obligations because it had just $304,257 in cash to cover more than $1 million in current liabilities.

Academically, several of the schools underperformed district averages, although they fared better when compared to district schools that served similar populations of students.

“The DOE reviews every school’s application for renewal and possible grade expansion carefully, and bases decisions on the proposal’s educational merit,” department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

All seven schools that were part of the city’s renewal reports this month were approved in 2009 as part of the last cohort of charter schools created by the Department of Education. The city lost its power to authorize new schools soon after, but it still has responsibility to oversee the charters of the 70 charter schools it had already approved. (The state’s other authorizers, the State Education Department of the State University of New York, can still approve new charters.)

It’s not the first time that the city has faced scrutiny for its charter school authorizing. Michael Duffy, who headed the city’s charter-school office for nearly three years before it lost its power to authorize new charter schools, said in 2012 that it was difficult to convince officials at the Department of Education to close schools because it the Bloomberg administration had been working hard to expand the charter school sector. And a judge once ripped the department’s authorizing standards as being “riddled with inconsistencies.”

Despite Regents’ concerns that the city went too easy in their recommendations, none of the schools earned a full, five-year renewal recommendation. Three of the schools were denied requests to add grades, and leaders of one of those schools felt that the city had been far too harsh.

Teachers and staff from Teaching Firms of America Charter School in front of Tweed on Monday.
PHOTO: Brian Charles
Teachers and staff from Teaching Firms of America Charter School in front of Tweed on Monday.

In a last-minute lobbying spree that seemed to pay off, Teaching Firms of America founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din traveled to Albany on Monday morning along with parents and staff to protest the city’s decision to deny the school’s request to add middle school grades. In New York City, more than a dozen parents and teachers waited in the lobby of the Department of Education’s headquarters demanding a meeting with Fariña.

In an interview, Kalam Id-Din said he believed the decision was “political” because an expansion would have meant the city would have had to find space for the school’s new grades. He also disputed some details in the city’s report for his school, including the suggestion that he had hired four TFOA staff members without bachelor’s degrees. Kalam Id-Din suggested that the city’s recommendation might have be racially motivated.

“Why is this happening to the only black-led charter school in Brooklyn?” he said

State Education Department officials said that Fariña asked them to take down the city’s renewal recommendation for TFOA on Sunday. They said the reason was that Kalam Id-Din had not signed the charter school agreement, though Kalam Id-Din said he wasn’t informed of Fariña’s letter until Monday afternoon.

“Someone said something to someone and the city is now negotiating,” said Assembly Member Walter Mosley, Jr., whose district includes the Bedford-Stuyvesant charter school. “I think something positive will take place.”

The other schools facing a delayed vote are Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School and Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School. The Regents have 90 days to take action on any proposal before it is automatically approved.

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.