on the offensive

Eva Moskowitz picks new fight with city over late payments

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

Eva Moskowitz is going after the de Blasio administration again — this time over timely payments to her charter schools.

The Success Academy CEO published a letter on the charter network’s website chastising the de Blasio administration for late payments to two of its schools. The public rebuke is the latest in a string of fights Moskowitz has picked with the de Blasio administration and one that, while relatively low-stakes on its own, draws attention to the network as it ramps up a legislative fight to raise the state’s cap on charter schools.

In the letter, Moskowitz wrote that nearly $2 million was due to Success Academy Harlem 3 on May 1 and has not yet been paid, and a $1.3 million payment to Success Academy Harlem 5 came days late. The money is the $13,777 per-student allocation funneled from the state to the city’s education department to charter schools, and spokeswoman for Success Academy said delayed payments were rare.

“The lack of explanation or even the courtesy of a response from DOE staff is baffling,” Moskowitz wrote. “Is this deliberate negligence or just dysfunction?”

Department officials said it was neither. Spokeswoman Devora Kaye said that payments are forthcoming and the city is “meeting all necessary protocols,” adding that an invoice for Success Academy Harlem 3 was submitted the Monday after the Friday it was due in April.

The letter’s sharp tone is typical of Moskowitz, who has been Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most prominent critic on education policy. The strategy has worked well for Success Academy, most notably after de Blasio nixed plans for three of her schools to operate in public school buildings last year. Moskowitz’s protest campaign resulted in a deal for free private space worth more than $5 million last year and, at the state level, legislation forcing the city to pay other charter schools’ rent bills in the future.

Last December, the city agreed to co-locate 10 new Success schools in public space. And Moskowitz was confident enough to taunt the mayor at an event Monday night, where Capital New York reported that she joked about possibly taking “a victory lap around Central Park in a horse-drawn carriage,” which de Blasio promised to ban during his mayoral campaign.

“Perhaps we should have a cap on the district schools,” she said.

The letter also comes as the city’s charter schools’ finances are under increasing scrutiny, and as Success continues to bring in millions in private fundraising at flashy fundraising events. Comptroller Scott Stringer is currently auditing the Success network, and City Council education committee chair Daniel Dromm sent a letter to charter-school operators in February asking them to send in audit documents.

The letter serves as a vehicle for Moskowitz — who has said she would like to run for mayor — to portray herself as unwilling to compromise on efficiency. She has cultivated that image for years, stretching back to her time leading marathon meetings of the City Council’s education committee about union contracts.

“Our opponents, who are ceaseless in their quest to find fault in our operations, would like nothing more than for us to be delinquent in our own financial obligations,” Moskowitz wrote.

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.