By the numbers

Charter school demographics coming under fresh scrutiny

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014.

When Success Academy Upper West comes up for review this year, officials will likely note that its test scores are among the best in New York state. But it might fall short by another metric: its demographics.

About one in three students qualified as low-income last year, and 3 percent were English language learners. But the school’s share of low-income students should be closer to 50 percent and its English learner population closer to 7 percent, according to state calculations devised to nudge charter schools to serve more high-need students.

Such disparities have been flash points in debates about New York City’s charter schools for years. Lawmakers stepped in five years ago, requiring schools to have targets for enrolling students with disabilities, English language learners, and students from low-income families. The idea was that not making efforts to hit those targets would jeopardize a school’s ability to stay open.

This year, for the first time, schools’ progress toward those goals are being scrutinized. But it appears that state regulators plan to treat the targets as guidelines, not requirements.

“We’re not exactly sure how rigidly we’re going to interpret the targets because there may be some challenges that the schools face,” Joseph Belluck, who chairs the committee that governs SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, said last week. If a school can’t show it has tried to meet its targets, SUNY will be stricter, he added.

“We hope that they will not say that they’ve done nothing to meet them,” Belluck said. “That would be a problem.”

The Board of Regents, the state’s other authorizer, is taking only a slightly more aggressive tack. In June, Regent Kathy Cashin challenged a recommendation to allow Community Roots, a charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to remain open for another five years because it enrolled relatively few low-income students.

“They weren’t in compliance with the law,” Cashin said. “They have great math scores and great reading scores, which is wonderful, but the number of children in poverty are not there.”

Ultimately, Community Roots was given the go-ahead to stay open for a full five years.

The attention to student demographics has added a new dimension to the renewal process, which New York’s charter schools must go through every few years to stay open. In the past, SUNY and the state have focused almost exclusively on a school’s academic outcomes, finances, and factors like whether its board of trustees is functional during that evaluation process.

Regulators aren’t likely to abandon their focus on test scores and other academic data points in evaluating a school’s performance. But the scrutiny comes as debates over whether the city’s charter schools serve their “fair share” of high-needs students have been amplified by top education department officials, including Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and the city’s teachers union, who say that many schools do not.

The latest data show that the city’s charter schools lag significantly behind district schools in serving English language learners and slightly behind when it comes to students with disabilities. And while the vast majority of charter school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 80 percent of charter schools have fewer poor students than their district average, according to a 2012 analysis by the New York City Charter Center.

Community Roots, for example, served fewer than half as many low-income students (40 percent) as its target (86 percent), and also fell below its target for English language learners, though it served twice as many students with disabilities as its target.

Those numbers matter because in New York, charter schools were designed specifically to offer new options for students who would otherwise be required to attend low-performing neighborhood schools. But some charter schools say those targets don’t account for schools with varying missions, and could even offer perverse incentives not to help students shed their classification as an English learners.

When the State Education Department mulled renewing Community Roots for only three years, board chairs Tracey Strauss and Scott Strasser told officials that the school’s relative diversity was intentional.

“This mission to create an integrated Public School is supported by a body of research that demonstrates the many benefits to students and families attending diverse schools,” they wrote, attaching a two-page summary of the research.

Success Academy Upper West is one of three of Success Academy schools whose enrollment and retention numbers will be examined by SUNY when they are considered for renewal. The network has been expanding into higher-income neighborhoods, and founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz has been an outspoken critic of the law.

In 2012, Moskowitz wrote to state education officials that she was worried that her schools’ ability to more quickly test students out of the English language learner program could end up hurting her chances at renewal.

Meanwhile, Success Academy Bedford-Stuyvesant I will likely fall short of some of its targets this year.

According to the state’s calculator, a charter elementary school with a profile similar to the Bed-Stuy school — serving about 550 students in Brooklyn’s District 14 — would have targets of 18 percent students with disabilities, and 14 percent English learners. At Success, 10 percent of students had disabilities and 2 percent were English learners, according to InsideSchools.

“It’s still a one-size-fits-all, rough-and-ready way to do it,” said James Merriman, the head of the Charter Center. “But it is the law, and I think charter leaders are committed to meeting those targets and certainly making good-faith efforts to meet them.”

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.