charter calls

Amid debate to raise cap, a charter school authorizer rejects all applicants

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

Cynthia McCallister, an education professor whose teaching models have become a fixture in some district schools, was looking for new ways to put her ideas to work.

So last November, she decided to apply to open Education for Tomorrow Bronx Charter High School, a process she described as taking 50 hours a week for the next several weeks to complete.

“You basically open up your vein and spill out all this blood, sweat, and tears,” McCallister said.

The 60-page plan she produced wasn’t enough for the State Education Department, which denied McCallister’s application, citing shortcomings of the school’s staffing plan, assessment system, and budget.

McCallister wasn’t the only applicant disappointed. In fact, the department told all 15 groups that submitted plans to open new charter schools that they did not meet the state’s standards, marking the first time since at least 2010 that an open application period will end without an approval for a New York City applicant.

State education officials said the decisions were a reflection of the department’s high standards. But the applicants also found themselves caught up in a moment when the implications of granting charters are greater than ever, as advocates push legislators to raise the state’s charter cap by June and opposing lawmakers point at the remaining charters as evidence that the cap is fine where it is.

The timing has raised eyebrows among the prospective charter school leaders, many of whom said the feedback they received in their denial letters didn’t add up.

“I’m not sure really what’s going on,” McCallister said.

Senate Republicans and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have both proposed lifting the cap by as many as 100 schools statewide. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, meanwhile, has called attention to the 157 charters the state still has left to distribute — including 25 for New York City.

“There’s still a few charters to go under the cap,” Heastie said Tuesday. “We don’t necessarily see a need to take any action.”

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who has been a booster of charter schools during her six-year tenure as Regents head, made a version of the same argument in an interview this week.

“My feeling is, what difference does it make if you raise the charter cap if, the truth is, you make it harder to get through the process?” Tisch said. “I believe in opening good schools.”

Tisch said the Regents have grown increasingly concerned about the number of struggling charter schools that they have renewed this year. The Regents also came under heavy scrutiny last year after they were forced to rescind a new charter that the department had granted to a Rochester school whose founding member lied about his credentials.

Charter authorizers must make the process “very stringent,” Tisch said. “Don’t just grant a charter because someone has a nice idea. Grant a charter because they have proven to you beyond any question that they can manage a very complicated situation and that they’re going to bring all their capacity-building resources to bear.”

Of the 15 groups angling to open charters this year, 12 were for New York City: three in Brooklyn, three in the Bronx, three in Manhattan, two in Queens, and one in Staten Island.

Three of the applicants already operated schools and wanted to replicate their models. One of them, Growing Up Green Charter School II, even received an endorsement from Assembly education committee chair Catherine Nolan, whose staunch ally, the teachers union, opposes the growth of charter schools.

Bill Clarke, the director of the state’s charter-school office, said he and his staff decided not to advance any plans based on its standard criteria. That process has gotten stricter in recent years: 15 percent of applicants that submitted a letter of intent received charters in 2012, whereas just 8 percent have in the subsequent two years.

“It’s not a numbers game,” Clarke said. “It’s a quality game.”

With the exception of a special application round set up specifically for Buffalo, the department has never before accepted applications and then not invited any groups to the next round, which involves interviews with the proposed school’s leaders and department staff.

The 15 rejected applicants will be allowed to reapply when a second round of the application process starts on June 23, less than a week after the legislative session ends.

For now, other issues facing the legislature in its final 12 working days have taken up more of the spotlight than the charter-school cap. Cuomo has spent the past week campaigning for a tax credit bill that would boost enrollment in private schools, leaving charter advocates to try to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio to support lifting the cap.

Show me the money

Colorado Senate Republicans push charter school funding in annual school spending bill

Students at University Prep, a Denver Public Schools charter school, worked on classwork last winter. (Photo by Marc Piscoty)

An ongoing dispute over charter school funding in Colorado stole the spotlight Thursday as the Senate Education Committee deliberated a routine bill that divides state money among public schools.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, backed by his GOP colleagues, amended this year’s school finance legislation to include language that would require school districts to share revenue from locally-approved tax increases with charter schools.

The annual school finance bill takes how much money the state’s budget dedicates to education and sets an average amount per student. That money is then bundled for each of the state’s 178 school districts and state-authorized charter schools based on student enrollment and other factors.

Thursday’s charter school funding amendment is a carbon copy of Senate Bill 61, one of the most controversial education bills this session. The Senate previously approved the bill with bipartisan support. But House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, has not assigned the bill to a committee yet.

“I do want to continue to pressure and keep the narrative up,” Hill said as he introduced amendment.

Democrats on the committee, who also vigorously opposed the charter school bill, objected.

“I consider it a hijacking move,” said Colorado Springs state Sen. Mike Merrifield.

A bipartisan group of senators last year attempted a similar tactic. While requiring that charters get a cut of local tax increase revenue did not go through, smaller items on the charter school community’s wish list were incorporated into the overall funding bill.

House Democrats this year will likely strip away the language when they debate the bill.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, was not immediately available for comment. She’s the House sponsor of this year’s school finance bill. Pettersen voted to kill similar charter school funding legislation last year at the sponsors’ request. But this year she has been working on a compromise that Republicans have said they’re open to discussing.

Senate Republicans on Thursday also approved an amendment that would prevent the state’s education funding shortfall from growing this year.

The amendment takes $9.6 million from a school health professionals grant program, $16.3 million from an affordable housing program and about $22.8 million from the state education fund and gives it to schools.

Democrats on the Senate committee opposed the changes. They said the money, especially for school health professionals was important.

“Counseling, health programs, are all essentials,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat. “It’s not icing on the cake.”

The governor’s office also is likely to push back on that amendment. The governor’s office lobbied heavily during the budget debate for the $16.3 million for affordable housing.

Hill said that he tried to identify sources of revenue that were increases to current programs or new programs so that no department would face cuts.

No one will be fired with these changes, he said.

“I want to send a message that we’ll do everything in our power to prioritize school funding and not increase the negative factor,” he said referring to the state’s school funding shortfall.

Hill’s amendment means schools will receive an additional $57 per student, according to a legislative analyst.

While Thursday’s hearing was a crucial step in finalizing funding for schools, the conversation is far from over. Some observers don’t expect resolution until the last days of the session.

The state’s budget is not yet complete, although budget writers took a critical final step as the education committee was meeting. The death of a transportation bill died would allow lawmakers to some money away from schools and spend it on roads, but that is unlikely. Negotiations on a compromise on a bill to save rural hospitals, which also includes money for roads and schools, are ongoing.

And late Thursday, the state budget committee approved a technical change to the budget that could free up even more money for schools after learning cuts to personal property taxes that help pay for schools were not as severe.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that Rep. Brittany Pettersen voted against a bill to equalize charter school funding. She has not voted on the bill yet. She voted against a similar measure last year. 

charter law 2.0

Sweeping charter school bill passes Tennessee legislature

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

Tennessee is close to overhauling the way it oversees charter schools.

The state Senate voted 25-1 on Wednesday to approve the so-called High Quality Charter Act, which now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. The proposal overwhelmingly passed the House last week.

The bill would replace Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law.

“This law will ensure Tennessee authorizes high-quality charter schools for years to come,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, one of the sponsors.

The measure was developed by the State Department of Education in an effort to address the often rocky relationships between Tennessee’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The overhaul clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure.

Local districts will be able to charge an authorizer fee to cover the cost of charter oversight — something that school systems have sought since the first charter schools opened in the state in 2003.

The bill also establishes a fund of up to $6 million for facilities. That’s a boon to charter organizations that are too cash-strapped to pay rent and maintain their school buildings, said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

“It’s really an equity issue,” Bugg said of the facilities issue. “You have charter schools serving a majority of students of color, low-income, and for them to have this gap in funding, it takes dollars away from those students.”

The proposal had widespread support from the charter sector and from officials with Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest authorizer of charter schools, which has been sorting out many of the issues addressed in the revisions.

“Future school board decisions on whether to authorize a charter school will be based on best practices, and charter schools that fail to meet performance standards will be shut down,” said Kelsey, a Germantown Republican. “I am glad that the governor reached agreement between local school districts and charter school operators over how much charter schools should pay for an administration fee.”