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.”

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 Brian Kelsey, the Germantown Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

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 and includes measures that charter and local district leaders have fought for — and against.

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 $6 million for facilities. That’s a boon to charter organizations that say they are too cash-strapped to pay rent and maintain their school buildings.

Maya Bugg, the CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center, said she was most excited about the facilities fund.

“It’s really an equity issue,” she said. “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,” Kelsey said. “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.”

Doing the math

As lawmakers scrutinize the price tag of school vouchers in Memphis, here’s a cost breakdown

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown has been a passionate supporter of vouchers his entire legislative career. He says that concerns about cost are overblown.

If the legislature votes to pilot school vouchers in Memphis, the state will have to spend about $45,000 on envelopes and stamps to get the word out to eligible families.

But the vast majority of the cost for the five-year pilot would fall on districts that operate in Memphis — and that could be more than double the $18 million that’s been cited.

The House Finance Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the bill, and the Senate finance panel is to weigh in next week. Their role is to consider the cost of the program to taxpayers.

They’ll pick up questions that state lawmakers have been hashing out for six years, all with money at the center. Would vouchers drain too much money from public schools? Would taxpayer dollars be well spent on private schools?

What follows is the full text of the “fiscal note,” which outlines the price as estimated by the Tennessee General Assembly Fiscal Review Committee. It itemizes highly debated costs such as the $7,000-per-student voucher for up to 5,000 students, but also details unexpected costs, such as thousands of dollars for postage to inform Memphis families about the option of using public money to pay for private school tuition beginning in the fall of 2018.

We’ve annotated the fiscal note to include links to our past coverage and context. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.


ESTIMATED FISCAL IMPACT: Increase State Expenditures – Exceeds $330,400/FY17-18 $230,400/FY18-19 and Subsequent Years

Other Fiscal Impact – For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $8,867,500 in FY17-18; $13,633,100 in FY18- 19; $18,632,500 in FY19-20; and an amount exceeding $18,632,500 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Assumptions relative to state expenditures:

 The DOE will require two new positions to administer the program beginning in FY17-18. One position will require a salary of $80,124 with benefits of $20,219; a total of $100,343. One position will require a salary of $67,008 with benefits of $18,043; a total of $85,051.

 The total recurring increase in state expenditures for personnel is estimated to be $185,394 ($100,343 + $85,051).

 Pursuant to § 49-1-1205 of the proposed bill, the DOE shall notify parents of student eligibility and participating schools. Though the exact number of eligible students is unknown; based on information from the DOE, it is estimated that the Department will notify at least 65,000 students annually of the pilot program.

 Based on information from DOE, the recurring increase in state expenditures to notify eligible students and participating schools through mailings and brochures is estimated to be $45,000.

Other Fiscal Impact – For local education agencies that have schools in the bottom five percent of achievement and are mandated to participate in the statewide scholarship program, the shift of state and required local BEP funding from these local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $8,867,500 in FY17-18; $13,633,100 in FY18- 19; $18,632,500 in FY19-20; and an amount exceeding $18,632,500 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Assumptions relative to state expenditures:

 Based on information from the DOE, the Department will require a new online portal system for receiving and processing student applications. The Department confirms a thirdparty contract vendor will be required to develop the new portal system. Though the exact cost for developing such system is unknown; the one-time increase in state expenditures for software development is estimated to exceed $100,000. Such expenses will be incurred in FY17-18.

 The total increase in state expenditures in FY17-18 is estimated to exceed $330,394 ($185,394 + $45,000 + $100,000).

 The total recurring increase in state expenditures beginning in FY18-19 is estimated to be $230,394 ($185,394 + $45,000).

Assumptions relative to enrollment, scholarship amounts, and program estimates:

 The scholarship pilot program will begin in the fall of 2017.

 Based on information from DOE, Shelby County Schools will be the sole location of the pilot program based on the achievement scores of all LEAs in FY15-16. 3 SB 161 – HB 126

 Though the exact number of annually participating students is unknown, it is reasonably estimated that a minimum of 25 percent of the cap for the pilot program will be filled each year beginning in FY17-18.

 For the purposes of this fiscal note, the required state and local BEP expenditures are utilized as the scholarship amount with an estimated scholarship growth of 2.5 percent annually.

 Statewide Program Student Enrollment Estimates:

 In FY17-18, an estimated 1,250 students will participate.

 In FY18-19, an estimated 1,875 students will participate.

 In FY19-20, an estimated 2,500 students will participate.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, over 2,500 students will participate.

 Statewide Program Scholarship Estimates:

 In FY17-18, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,094 (the average 2016-2017 per pupil expenditure).

 In FY18-19, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,271 ($7,094 x 1.025%) per pupil.

 In FY19-20, the scholarship is estimated to be $7,453 ($7,271 x 1.025%) per pupil.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, the scholarship is estimated to exceed $7,453 per pupil.

 Total Statewide Program Estimates:

 In FY17-18, an estimated $8,867,500 ($7,094 x 1,250 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY18-19, an estimated $13,633,125 ($7,271 x 1,875 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY19-20, an estimated $18,632,500 ($7,453 x 2,500 students) will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

 In FY20-21 and subsequent years, an amount estimated to exceed $18,632,500 will shift from LEAs to participating schools.

Assumptions relative to LEA fund retention:

 The BEP maintenance of effort requires that local government continue to fund their LEA at the same level year-to-year unless there is a decrease in enrollment.

 Participating students will continue to be counted in LEA enrollment numbers, and LEAs will be required to continue providing funding based on the enrollment numbers that include participating students.

 A majority of LEAs are currently funding their students above and beyond the BEP local match requirement. This amount varies widely by LEA, but according to DOE, the average amount that LEAs will retain in FY17-18 is $1,279 per pupil. This amount is estimated to increase at an average growth rate of 2.5 percent annually in each subsequent year.

 Each year, students leave and enter LEAs. As a result, LEAs adjust expenditures, teachers, facilities, and other items to meet the change in student population.

 LEAs will be able to use retained funding to offset any increase in local government expenditures or to use at their discretion for some other purpose.

CERTIFICATION: The information contained herein is true and correct to the best of my knowledge. Krista M. Lee, Executive Director