one on one

In interview, Eva Moskowitz addresses backfill and test prep critiques

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Eva Moskowitz at a parent rally in Albany in 2015.

After staying behind the scenes for months as a statewide debate over education and charter schools heated up, Eva Moskowitz waded into the fray on Tuesday.

In a lengthy interview on the Brian Lehrer Show, her first since 2011, the Success Academy charter-network founder defended the authenticity of her schools’ lofty test scores, distanced herself from a recent political campaign that has matched the teachers union’s might, and gave her most extensive public comments yet on the “backfill” debate that has divided the charter sector.

Moskowitz also offered a measured take on the role her 32-school network should in play in the larger school system. An expansion to 100 or 200 top-quality schools was possible, but “unknowable,” she said, though she has previously set a goal of getting to 100 schools in the next decade.

“We need lots of different solutions and I think Success has one potential solution to offer,” Moskowitz said. The entire interview can be heard here.

The comments came one day after her top ally in state government, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, indicated that increasing the charter school cap was no longer an immediate priority as state budget negotiations enter their final days. Raising the cap to allow more charter schools to open in the city would enable Success to continue expanding in New York City and has been a top priority for charter school advocates.

Moskowitz didn’t talk about that in the interview, and she also deferred to the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, which organizes rallies for Success parents, when asked about recent political fights that’s been waged in recent months. The former city council member, who has expressed interest in running for mayor in the past, also didn’t give a direct answer when asked whether she had ruled out a run.

“I am focused on schools right now and that’s the only thing I am focused on,” she said. “It takes all of the energy I have, other than of course motherhood and my family.”

She did respond to many of the most common criticisms of Success Academy. She denied that her schools focus on test preparation, she said, emphasizing the 13 weeks of training that principals and teachers get every year and on efforts to “design an entire school around creative thinking.” (Chalkbeat has chronicled Success’ extensive test-prep strategies in the past.)

She also defended the network’s commitment to serving high-needs students, while noting that traditional district schools also sometimes move students with the most severe learning needs to other settings, like District 75 programs.

Success schools are among the most sought-after charter schools in the city. The network said Monday that it had received more than 19,000 applications for 2,688 open seats this fall. When ranked by performance on state tests, its schools also rank highly — in the top 1 percent of all schools in the state in math and the top 3 percent in English.

That metric has come under increasing scrutiny, including from other charter-school leaders, because Success Academy has historically stopped accepting new students after early elementary grades. District schools and many other charter schools “backfill” seats that open after students leave the school, allowing them to serve more students who might be needier or be further behind their peers.

Moskowitz described backfill as a “long, complicated debate,” and noted that Success schools now accepts new students through fourth grade. If they backfilled older grades, she said, the incoming students’ lower relative academic preparation would adversely affect the schools’ other students.

“We have an obligation to the parents in middle and high school, and the kids in middle and high school, that until the district schools are able to do a better job, it’s not really fair for the seventh grader or high school student to have to be educated with a child who’s reading at a second or third grade level,” Moskowitz said.

The interview included an unusually critical line of questioning for Moskowitz, whose influence in public education has grown rapidly in recent years. Her schools will serve over 11,500 students next year, more than any other charter network, and she has been a driving force behind a larger political movement, to reform the city’s public school system.

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.