war of attrition

A council bill and a looming report thrust ‘backfill’ into charter-school debate

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
City Councilman Mark Levine, who is sponsoring a charter-school enrollment transparency bill.

A Teach for America alum on the City Council is packing the legislative punch behind a new campaign aimed at pressuring charter schools to serve more high-needs students.

Councilman Mark Levine introduced a transparency bill in January that would shed light on how often charter schools and some district schools “backfill” vacant seats with new students. Meanwhile, a parent group backed by a prominent former charter-school CEO is planning to release an analysis of enrollment data that could lend new urgency to a debate that has long divided the charter sector.

Levine’s bill would also require the city to release data on how many students leave and are replaced in gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools. Together, a bigger set of public information about how students enter and leave schools would help parents and the public better evaluate city schools and their test scores, he said.

“If all you know about the schools are the test scores, and you don’t have any information about their backfill and attrition rates, then you don’t have the complete picture of school performance,” Levine, who represents Harlem and Morningside Heights, said in an interview.

Filling the seats of students who leave a school isn’t required, but some charter school operators believe backfilling is essential to fulfill the sector’s mission of serving at-risk students. And not filling seats means schools receive less public money to operate, making a no-backfill policy impossible for many schools.

Christina Reyes, founder and executive director of Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said she backfills for financial and ideological reasons. Not doing so is unfair to district schools that are usually obligated to accept students throughout the year, she said.

“If a district school doesn’t have a choice, why is it OK that we have a choice?” Reyes said.

The argument against backfill is that it can disrupt a carefully cultivated school culture and make it difficult for new students to catch up. Schools belonging to some charter management organizations, such as Uncommon Schools and Success Academy, have rejected backfilling in many grades — although both networks say they have begun filling more seats in recent years.

Levine’s bill represents a middle-of-road approach to regulating the city’s charter-school sector, whose growth is roundly opposed by many of Levine’s colleagues on the council. Education committee chair Daniel Dromm, who last week sent letters to charter schools seeking financial information about their operations, wants to pass a symbolic resolution to call on the state legislature to “reject any attempt to raise the cap on the number of charter schools.”

Last month, the parent group Democracy Builders, founded by former Democracy Prep CEO Seth Andrew, started an online petition to support Levine’s bill and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argued that all charter schools should backfill. Democracy Builders wants to require charter schools to backfill students, which would likely require changes to the state charter law.

That’s a step too far for Levine, who was a member of Teach for America’s second-ever cohort in 1991 and taught for two years at P.S. 146 (He also served a brief stint as executive director of Teach for America’s New York office in 2002). Levine said at this point he’s just looking for more data about the scope of the issue.

“I’m not prescribing a remedy here,” Levine said. “I think we need to get the data first. We can’t even have a reasonable conversation on the policy without it.”

Democracy Builders does have some data at its disposal. The organization is finishing an analysis of enrollment data from 2006 to 2014, and sources who have reviewed it say it could have a significant effect on the way state test scores are used to compare charter schools, particularly those belonging to some charter management organizations that don’t backfill.

That analysis has not yet been made public, but Democracy Builders Executive Director Princess Lyles said it will show how well schools hold onto students, or replace the ones who leave, and what effect that has on state proficiency rates, Lyles said.

“Generally speaking, we see that proficiency rates are going up as student enrollment is going down,” said Lyles, who added that she expected the analysis to be available later this month.

That context that is absent when the state releases its test scores each year, and schools with the highest proficiency rates routinely cite their performance on those tests as evidence that their model is working.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said he supported the initiative, though he said Levine’s bill is flawed because it doesn’t require the same data for all city public schools. (Levine says he’s revising the bill to include them.) Merriman said the data should also show when students when students enter and leave schools, to rebut criticism of schools pushing students out before state tests, and show where students go when they leave charter schools.

“We are supportive of increased transparency and welcome additional data in regards to student enrollment that further helps put student achievement into perspective,” Merriman said in a statement.

 

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.