who rules the schools

Despite differences, Buery seeks support from charter schools on mayoral control

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

The de Blasio administration is making nice with some of the city’s charter school leaders just in time to seek their support for a legislative priority that has so far eluded them: renewing mayoral control.

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery was the featured speaker at a Tuesday event hosted by the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, a group of independent charter schools whose relationship with the de Blasio administration had recently soured. In his speech, Buery praised the coalition’s advocacy work and encouraged a renewed partnership with the city, then asked the audience to take a long-term view of the city’s needs.

“Whatever you believe about Mayor de Blasio’s views on education, whatever you believe about Chancellor Fariña, one thing I think we can all agree on is that we don’t want to go back in time,” Buery said, referring to the period before the mayor was granted control of the city’s schools in 2002. “That whoever is in charge, having a system where the mayor is clearly in charge, where the mayor is clearly accountable for results, is the best system for transparency and accountability and therefore can drive results.”

Charter leaders on Tuesday said they largely agreed with Buery. “There’s just no point in going back,” said Steve Zimmerman, who heads the coalition. “It shouldn’t be contingent on whoever’s in office.”

“I believe this is bigger than just who the mayor is now,” said Jeff Ginsburg, executive director of East Harlem Tutorial Program, which operates the East Harlem Scholars Academies network, whose schools are not coalition members.

When mayoral control was last due to expire in 2009, supporters of charter schools played a starring role in helping then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg get the law renewed. The Robin Hood Foundation, which provides charter school start-up funding, supported a lobbying campaign headed by then-Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, who pointed to Bloomberg’s encouragement of charter schools as a reason for his support.

The shift is a symptom of the de Blasio administration’s fractious relationship with the charter sector. Last year, charter advocates helped derail de Blasio’s plans to charge rent to co-located charter schools, and as recently as a month ago, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and James Merriman of the New York City Charter Center were saying the mayor’s policy ideas should cause state lawmakers to think twice about extending his power.

Merriman said in a statement that his support for mayoral control has not wavered with the new administration, but that passage remains closely linked to allowing more charter schools to open in New York City. The state’s current cap on charter schools allows for another 25 to be authorized to open in the city, and charter leaders say it’s important to lift the cap now to allow for the sector to continue to grow.

“We supported mayoral control under Mayor Bloomberg and we support it under Mayor de Blasio but are mystified why the mayor won’t support eliminating the charter cap, and in so doing, make the path to mayoral control renewal much easier and outcomes for kids better,” Merriman said.

Buery did not mention the cap in his remarks on Tuesday, and reiterated the mayor’s opposition to lifting the cap in a brief interview.

“We think there’s lots of great work to do, lots of great opportunities for the sector to continue to flourish and grow, but we’re not in a position where we need to raise the cap to do that,” Buery said.

Most of the charter schools at the event are independent without plans to replicate and expand, unlike the city’s charter management organizations, the largest of which, Success Academy, has 32 schools. But speakers said they supported lifting the cap for political reasons.

“Whether we get it this time or not, I think we need to continue to push for it because a movement that’s capped is a movement that eventually dies,” said Stacey Gauthier, principal of the Renaissance Charter School in Queens.

Buery did note one area that the de Blasio administration is making an effort to give charter schools what they ask for. After leaders of the coalition helped him understand how important it is for charter schools in private space to have access to facilities funding, Buery said, the city has not sought to impede a state law that requires the city to provide that funding to new and expanding charters — even though it will cost over $30 million over the next two years alone.

“We’ve been going out of our way to make sure the process has not been contentious,” Buery said, referring to legal appeals that schools must file to receive the funding. “That it’s speedy and collaborative, and it really feels like, as much as possible, we can get money out to schools that need it.”

His request for charter leaders’ support is the latest case of the Blasio administration has reaching beyond its political base to portray mayoral control as an issue with wide-ranging support. De Blasio has also cited the endorsements of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and dozens of prominent business leaders. (De Blasio’s reliable ally, the United Federation of Teachers, officially opposes the current mayoral control setup but has stayed quiet during the lobbying effort.)

Buery’s appearance came a day after the heads of several nonprofit organizations that run or support charter schools — Harlem Children’s Zone, Harlem RBI, New Visions for Public Schools, and Civic Builders — signed onto a letter meant to “strongly urge” state lawmakers to make mayoral control permanent. At minimum, they wrote, mayoral control should be renewed for three years, as the Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have proposed. (The Republican-controlled Senate has proposed a one-year extension that would weaken mayoral control and be paired with a law that raising the charter cap.) Forty-five organizations signed onto the letter in all.

“We have seen that mayoral control makes possible the coordination and focus that is necessary to achieve ambitious large-scale reform: expanding pre-k to serve every child who needs it by September; launching Community Schools that meet students’ social, emotional, and health and mental health needs; and focusing resources and accountability on the city’s most struggling schools,” the letter reads.

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.