after the appeals

City set to begin paying millions for charter-school rent under new law

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

The city is getting ready to cut its first checks to charter schools that are paying for their own space—an outlay that could stretch to nearly $10 million for this school year, based on charter school enrollment figures.

By the end of May, the Department of Education will have sent money to dozens of expanding charter schools to cover this year’s facility costs, according to a letter sent to school leaders this month. The schools are the first to reap the significant financial benefits of a state law passed just over a year ago that is sure to grow more costly for the city in the coming years.

“It’s huge,” said Great Oaks Charter School founder Michael Duffy, who became the first school leader to test the nascent law’s limits this summer. Duffy estimates his Lower Manhattan school stands to receive about $300,000 to cover rent for about 109 students in seventh grade this year.

Great Oaks is one of 46 city charter schools in private space that added grades, according to the New York City Charter School Center, and more than 3,600 students from those schools were enrolled in new grades. Most of those schools successfully appealed to the State Education Department for rental assistance over the last several months.

Under the law, eligible schools can receive up to 20 percent of their total school funding for those students — which this year rounds to $2,755 per student. (The actual amount paid to each school could be less, depending on how much the school pays in rent. The department is reviewing leases to calculate what to pay each school.)

Not all eligible schools have applied for the funding, a department spokesman said, though the charter center said most are expected to have applied or to apply in the future. If they do, the city would be on the hook for as much as $10 million for this school year, although that sum will likely be lower because some school leaders said they paid less than $2,755 per student in rent.

The spokesman said that a precise tally of costs would not be available until city reviews all of the appeals.

But the city’s costs are certain to continue to add up, as more schools open and enrollment increases at expanding schools. Next school year, the charter center’s enrollment projections would put the maximum tab just for expanding schools at $17.8 million.

One of those new schools, South Bronx Early College Academy Charter School, will be due more than $300,000 for 110 six graders next year, according to the founding principal.

“It’s a heck of a gift,” said the founder, Ric Campbell.

The city is obligated to spend $40 million to cover rent costs of eligible charter schools if they are not given space inside of a city-owned building, according to the law. Once the bills hit the $40 million ceiling, costs will be split with the state.

The law was passed in April 2014 as a rebuke to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who during his early months in office signaled that he would end the city’s practice of giving charter schools space inside of city-owned buildings for free. Charter schools do not automatically receive any funding for space, and de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg used the controversial space-sharing policy to help grow the city’s charter sector.

“The challenge since the dawn of the charter school sector in New York City has been facilities,” said Duffy, who headed the education department’s charter school office from 2007 to 2010. The new facilities funding law, he added, “is the next chapter.”

Many of the schools set to receive the funding didn’t expect the financial boost when the law was passed last April. Lawmakers and members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own staff indicated then that only brand-new schools would be covered.

But a conference call last May between charter school leaders and New York City Charter School CEO James Merriman kicked off what would become a broader campaign. Merriman, a lawyer, said his reading of the law suggested that existing schools could also take advantage of the funding as long as they were adding grades.

Duffy was the first leader of an existing school to request space from the city and, once denied, appealed to then-State Education Commissioner John King. On his last day in office, King upheld Great Oaks’ appeal, a decision that opened the floodgates for other schools to submit their own requests.

Not all the private rent bills will cost as much as the $300,000 that Duffy is expecting for Great Oaks, which next year will move into a school building that will be vacant after the charter school there now closes at the end of the school year.

For instance, there are just 13 students in 11th grade this year at John W. Lavelle Preparatory, according to President Ken Byalin. The most the school could receive for this year is about $36,000, but Byalin said it would be lower because its costs to operate inside corporate offices come out to less than $2,755 per student.

Byalin said that since the school’s rent is already paid for the year, the money might go toward providing summer school classes, more Saturday school days, or maybe to fund a trip for the school’s inaugural senior class next year.

Not all charter schools in private space are eligible for city money. Twenty-three are done adding grades, and are therefore ineligible, a funding discrepancy that has prompted a lawsuit from charter school parents and advocates.

And not all of the expanding schools in private space will receive it. New Dawn Charter High School in Brooklyn is a transfer school for students who had previously left other high schools and are behind in their academic credits. But because students enter the school at different ages and different levels of high school completion, the school doesn’t technically have any grades. So even though it is adding students, it is not technically “adding grades,” which disqualified the school, according to its principal.

“We argued that the wording in the law was not meant to be a barrier to a new school like us,” New Dawn principal Sara Asmussen said of her school’s rejected appeal. “But it’s fine. The law’s the law. That’s what it says.”

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.