Challenging charters

Regents signal toughness on charter schools and send Success Academy renewals back to SUNY

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

Members of the Board of Regents are striking a firm tone when it comes to charter school oversight — but they have yet to make any dramatic moves that would close a school or deny its expansion request without warning.

That was the takeaway from an hour-and-a-half long discussion the state’s policymaking body had on Monday. Charter school business that could have been routine — including renewals, mergers, and revisions — dissolved into a wide-ranging discussion about how to ensure the schools are enrolling enough high-needs students and what hurdles a charter school should clear to remain open.

Despite the lengthy discussion, the Regents ultimately did not pull the plug on any of the recommendations made by the State Education Department. But several Regents, in some cases, either voted against the proposals or abstained.

The board also sent 10 proposed Success Academy renewals back to SUNY for review, saying the authorizer jumped the gun and gave preliminary approval for the renewals years too soon. State education officials say this is a break from precedent; SUNY officials disagree with that assessment. The move was largely symbolic since SUNY still has final say over the renewals.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Success proposals had been discussed at length before the meeting. “We have taken a great deal of time and effort to have extensive discussions around this issue,” she said. But at the meeting, the Regents did not dwell on Success Academy. They did, however, discuss some of the other charters at length.

One school that garnered much attention was Cultural Arts Academy Charter School at Spring Creek, a Brooklyn charter authorized by the city’s Department of Education, which was up for a short, three-year renewal and a one-year expansion of 45 students for technical reasons.

The school has decent test scores, but enrolls relatively few economically disadvantaged students. Only 32 percent of the school’s students were low-income in the 2015-16 school year in a district where 79 percent are poor.

Several Regents expressed concern about the school’s enrollment and one even suggested these types of practices contribute to school segregation.

“It seems to me that there is something out of sync,” said Regent Lester Young. “How do you have a framework that allows this to happen?”

Regent Judith Johnson made a similar point. “I’m concerned that what we are doing here is continuing to support the segregation of schools,” she said. “I sometimes get emotional about this because I don’t understand why we continue to support programs like this that violate the principles that we stand for in public education.”

Summit Academy, another New York City charter school, was singled out for its relatively poor academic performance. Only about 26 percent of students pass the English exam at the school, while 49 percent do in its district. That school received approval for a two-year renewal.

rebuffed

Charter school proposals rejected by Memphis officials — for now

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Shelby County’s school board sent 13 groups back to the drawing board Tuesday after denying their initial bid to open or expand charter schools in Memphis in 2018.

The unanimous vote followed the recommendations of district staff, who raised concerns about the applications ranging from unclear academic plans to missing budget documents to a lack of research-based evidence backing up their work.

Applicants now have 30 days to amend and re-submit their plans for a final board vote during a special meeting August 22. Memphis Academy of Health Sciences rescinded its application to expand grades last week.

Since 2003, Shelby County Schools has grown its charter sector to 45 schools, making the district Tennessee’s largest charter authorizer.

Nationally, the rate of charter school growth is at a four-year low, in part because of a shrinking applicant pool, according to a recent report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But Memphis is bucking the trend with a slight increase in applicants this year.

District leaders frequently deny charter applications initially, but it’s unusual to turn down all of them at once.

New to this year’s application process was five consultants from NACSA, which has worked closely with Shelby County Schools to bolster its oversight of the sector.

back to the future

Colorado Supreme Court ordered to reconsider Douglas County school voucher case

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

The Colorado Supreme Court must reconsider its ruling against a private school voucher system created by the Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Tuesday.

The edict comes a day after the nation’s highest court issued a ruling on a case that touched on similar issues.

At issue is whether Douglas County parents can use tax dollars to send their students to private schools, including religious schools. The Colorado Supreme Court said in 2015 the program violated the state’s constitution.

What connects the Douglas County voucher debate to the just-decided Trinity Lutheran v. Comer case from Missouri is that both states have so-called Blaine Amendments. Such provisions prohibit state tax dollars from aiding religious practices. Nearly 40 states have similar language.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution by prohibiting Trinity Lutheran’s church-run preschool from participating in a state program that repaved playgrounds. The court found that the state must allow churches to participate in state programs when the benefit meets a secular need.

That distinction likely will be the question the Colorado Supreme Court wrestles with when it takes up the issue again.

“The Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran expressly noted that its opinion does not address religious uses of government funding,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. The ACLU was one of the organizations challenging the voucher program.

“Using public money to teach religious doctrine to primary and secondary students is substantially different than using public money to resurface a playground,” Silverstein said.

The school district said it was encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

“We look forward to the Colorado Supreme Court’s second review and decision on this important matter,” William Trachman, the district’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “As always, the Douglas County School District is dedicated to empowering parents to find the best educational options for their children.”

It’s unclear when the Colorado Supreme Court will take up the Douglas County case. The court has three options: It may revise its earlier opinion, request new arguments from both sides or ask a lower court to reconsider the case.

Given the national implications, it’s unlikely the Colorado justices will have the final say — especially if they again conclude the voucher program violates the state’s constitution. The question could end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Douglas County School District launched its voucher program in 2011 after a conservative majority took control of the school board. The district was prepared to hand out more than 300 vouchers to families before a Denver District Court judge blocked the program from starting.