charter wars

As war over charter schools rages on, what power does the city actually have?

PHOTO: Annie Ma
Sharita Moore-Willis, whose daughter will start first grade at Girls Prep Lower East Side this fall, speaks at a rally on the City Hall steps demanding an apology from Mayor Bill DeBlasio for his earlier comments on charter school test scores.

New York City’s charter school battle lines are as clear as ever. Last week, the mayor fired the latest shot by dismissing some charter schools’ test score gains as a product of test prep rather than “actually teaching kids.”

Charter school advocates, who called his comments “insulting” and “mean-spirited,” took to the op-ed page and are planning another massive rally this September to call on the city to “stand with public charter schools”

But while the debate rages on, the city’s power to stop the charter sector from expanding has slowly waned. The Department of Education can no longer authorize new schools, the state doubled the city’s charter school cap, and legislation requires the city to provide rent money for charter schools using private space.

That leaves little practical recourse for de Blasio to hamper charter schools, some argue, regardless of how he feels about them.

“It seems completely like rhetoric to me,” said Dirk Tillotson, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great School Choices, which helps launch community-based charter schools. “I don’t think the education department has any credibility, and he particularly doesn’t have any credibility on charters.”

Others say that rhetoric itself has power, and that the mayor can complicate the process for charter schools trying to find public space. Here’s a look at what the city can — and can’t — do when it comes to charter schools.

Can the mayor stop charter schools from expanding? (No, that’s not him.)

The city’s Department of Education used to be able to approve or “authorize” charters, but it lost that power in a series of state legislative changes passed during the Race to the Top era. Now, charter approval and oversight is left to the New York State Board of Regents and SUNY.

Roughly 50 charter schools still remain under the control of the Department of Education, holdovers from when the city used to authorize charters. In February, the city moved to close three low-performing charter schools under its control. Even the New York City Charter School Center did not protest those closures.

“Nobody wants to see a school closed, but it’s important that authorizers maintain high standards and hold charters accountable,” said James Merriman, CEO of the Charter School Center, at the time.

Charter schools currently serve 95,000 students, roughly 8.6 percent of the student population, and a state cap controls their growth. Last year the state doubled limit on the number of new charter schools that can start in New York City from 25 to 50.

Can he deny charter schools space? (Not technically, but advocates argue he can make it difficult.)

School space has been a key flash point between de Blasio and advocates.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz led the charge against de Blasio in 2014 with a crusade to secure charter school space — and it’s a battle she won. The state passed a law requiring the city to provide new charter schools with space inside city buildings or fund private rent for schools.

Despite that law, some charter advocates argue de Blasio could do a better job finding public space for charter schools. Public space is often preferable to private space, they say, since those buildings are already designed to accommodate students.

In June, the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools released a report claiming there are 67 schools in the city with more than 500 seats available for students. City officials called that claim “misleading,” since many factors determine whether a given space is appropriate for a school, including projected enrollment and the type of seats available.

Still, leaders of the city’s largest charter school networks said the city could provide more space to schools with fewer strings attached.

“The process was often marred by unnecessary hurdles, difficulties and delays,” wrote a group of charter school leaders in an open letter to de Blasio. “Sadly, in other cases, public charter schools were not provided with public facilities, leaving thousands of families stranded without a high-­quality option or building.”

Can he control charters’ ability to provide pre-K? (Not exactly)

This fall, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz refused to sign the city’s pre-K contract, arguing that being asked to do so is illegal since Success is overseen by SUNY, not the Department of Education.

“One of the primary reasons Success scholars and teachers have been able to achieve so much is their ability to learn and work without the shackles of bureaucracy exemplified by this 241-page contract,” said Success spokesman Stefan Friedman in February.

City officials fired back, insisting that they have a responsibility to ensure pre-K standards remain high in every school, including charter schools. Moskowitz appealed to State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who denied her request. In response, she cancelled her pre-K classes this year.

State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan appeared to throw his weight behind Moskowitz when he sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, arguing that the state should help ease the regulatory burdens on charter schools. It is still unclear how the law will be interpreted, but Assembly Speaker Heastie sent a dueling letter to the governor, disagreeing with Flanagan’s interpretation.

Does the rhetoric itself have power? (Possibly, but only if people listen)

Even if he has little practical power over charter schools, some say his words themselves are deflating.

“I think it does hurt charter schools when he casts aspersions and basically says their hard work to help [students] meet Common Core standards is really just a glorified parlor trick,” Merriman said.

Some, like Tillotson, are skeptical that the mayor has enough allies to make a dent at the state level. “He can politically lobby, but he’s got no political juice,” Tillotson said.

But others, like Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with some charter schools, say the mayor’s words matter.

“What he does have is the bully pulpit. He’s the mayor, he has significant following in the city,” Bellafiore said. “He has a bullhorn and that has an impact.”

Try again

State education officials question another batch of Success Academy charter renewals

PHOTO: Success Academy
A "Slam the Exam" rally for Success Academy students

This July, New York’s top education policymakers are gearing up for next year — with a little charter school drama brewing on the side.

Reigniting a debate that flared in April, the board is poised to send a set of Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, the network’s authorizer, rather than approving them.

The state also plans to release a revised draft of its plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act on Monday, according to state officials. The Regents are not planning to vote on the state’s revised learning standards, though they are scheduled to discuss them.

The majority of July’s meeting will be devoted to a public “retreat,” which includes discussions about school integration, graduation requirements and principal standards. These conversations will likely provide insights into what policymakers are interested in tackling next school year.

Success Academy renewals (again)

In April, the state’s Board of Regents sent a slate of Success Academy charter renewals back to SUNY, arguing the authorizer had renewed them too soon.

The same appears poised to happen at July’s meeting. There are eight Success Academy schools tentatively approved for full, five-year renewals by SUNY along with one other city charter, the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning. State officials recommend sending the renewals back to SUNY with comments.

The move is largely symbolic, since SUNY has the final word, but it caused some debate last spring. After the Regents meeting in April, the decision to send the renewals back to SUNY gave rise to dueling op-eds written by Robert Pondiscio and New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa.

The board is not scheduled to discuss SUNY’s recent proposal to allow some of its charter schools to certify their own teachers, though that announcement drew criticism from State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa earlier this month.

A whole new law

New York state education officials are also in the final stages of completing their plan to evaluate and improve schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal law.

The state released its draft plan in May and state officials said they will present revisions at Monday’s meeting. The final vote is expected in September and state officials said they will submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education later that month.

The revisions are not yet public, but questions have already been raised about how the state will assess transfer schools, which are geared toward students who have fallen behind in high school, and how it will display information about schools to the public.

“We’re going to be looking at the dashboard and what represents a [good] set of indicators,” said Regent Judith Johnson. “What indicators do we need as measures of professionalism, measures of assessment, measures of success?”

The board could also discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s comments on other states’ plans that have already been submitted. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s team surprised states by taking a hard line in initial feedback.

New learning standards?

There is no vote scheduled on new learning standards at this meeting, but the board will hear an update on the process.

The state has received 238 comments on the Next Generation math standards and 252 responses about English, according to a Regents document. The document suggests they are still working on early-grade reading standards and clarifying how they will apply to students with disabilities and to English learners.

This work is part of the lengthy process of revising the Common Core learning standards and unveiling them as the Next Generation Learning Standards. So far, state officials have released a draft set of revised standards, revised them again and given them a new name.

When they unveiled the revisions (to the earlier proposals) in May, state officials said they expected to officially approve new standards in June. But they have yet to come to a consensus and now expect the final version to go before the board in September.

Integration

At the Regents’ last meeting, state officials planted a stake in the ground on the topic of integration, calling New York schools the most segregated in the country and kicking off a preliminary discussion on how to integrate schools. The conversation came soon after the city unveiled its own diversity plan, which some critics found disappointing.

But the state’s discussion left many questions unanswered. During Monday’s discussion, it’s possible some of the Regents’ positions will become clearer.

Graduation

The Regents have been working to reform graduation requirements for years. Last year, the board took some steps in that direction when it allowed students to earn a work-readiness credential in place of a final Regents exam and made it easier for students with disabilities to graduate.

At July’s meeting, the topic is slated for a broader discussion, prompting the question: Could a more substantial rethinking of what it means to earn a New York state diploma be on the way?

Regent Roger Tilles, who has been active in discussions of changes to graduation requirements, suggested that anything could be on the table, including an end to using Regents exams as graduation requirements.

“I’m not sure I know exactly where we’ll end up,” Tilles said. “I know where I don’t want to end up: where we are now.”

new chapter

Frosty relationship thaws between parents group Memphis Lift and Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Leaders of Memphis Lift take literally Superintendent Dorsey Hopson's call to "lock arms and work together" following Hopson's presentation to the parent advocacy group on Monday evening.

When Memphis Lift launched two years ago, leaders of Shelby County Schools questioned the motives and methods behind the group’s parent advocacy, including its early paid work to canvass neighborhoods about the district’s low-performing schools.

But this week, the two entities appeared to turn a page in their often contentious relationship. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson paid a visit on Monday night as part of the group’s monthly speaker series, and the organization welcomed him warmly.

“When you have the challenges we have here in Memphis, we have to lock arms and work together,” Hopson told about 100 people in attendance. “At the end of day, there’s an undeniable correlation between parental involvement and achievement.” 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hopson talks about the need for equitable funding and parental involvement.

Hopson’s decision to engage Memphis Lifters stands in stark contrast to late 2015 when he questioned whether the parent group was truly independent — or just a mouthpiece for the state-run Achievement School District, a turnaround program that takes control of struggling schools and usually converts them to charter schools. Those suspicions prompted Shelby County Schools to deny the ASD’s request for student information out of concern that the material would be given to Memphis Lift, whose orange-shirted members were going door-to-door to talk with families about local schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

But things have changed a lot. Tennessee’s Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings this year while adding new tools for turnaround work. Memphis Lift, which launched in mid-2015 amid questions about its legitimacy, has demonstrated staying power by developing its grassroots base and leadership. And the need to increase parental involvement was cited as a priority at community meetings held last fall across the district.

“When we first started, (SCS leaders) were saying we worked for the ASD, then charters,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director for Memphis Lift. “Now, I think they get we’re here for all children. … Dorsey coming to speak is a very exciting moment for us.”

Carpenter said a turning point came this spring when Hopson visited their offices in north Memphis, where the group hosts programs to educate parents about policy and how to get involved in their children’s schools.

“I think Dorsey was surprised by what we were doing here,” Carpenter said. “He asked what he needed to do to reach more parents, and I told him he needed to be more accessible. We only saw him at school board meetings.” 

Hopson made himself available Monday night by speaking about Destination 2025, the district’s strategic plan to raise reading levels and graduation rates and develop career readiness for students. During the two-hour exchange, he also took questions from the crowd.

The superintendent emphasized the need for more pre-K seats and for third-graders to read on grade level. He said the district can’t do its job without parental involvement and encouraged Memphis Lift to advocate for more dollars for Memphis schools and for high-needs students.

“All parents and advocacy groups should be aligned on a few things — number one being equitable funding for kids,” Hopson said. “This is a powerful group, if you show up and say here’s what we want, (elected leaders are) not going to ignore it.”