City’s charter-school oversight again questioned by Regents, who raise eyebrows themselves

Updated — After a month-long battle over charter-school oversight, the state found common ground with the city’s education department this January.

The consensus didn’t last long.

A Board of Regents subcommittee on Monday voted to approve renewals for 10 charter schools, including seven from New York City. But for a third straight month, the meeting also featured a larger debate over the enrollment, discipline policies, and academic achievement of schools under the city’s supervision.

Long Island’s Roger Tilles voted against renewing the charters because some had produced test score averages below their districts’. The Bronx’s Betty Rosa voted for the renewals, but said too many of the charter schools seemed to be out of compliance with a state law that requires them to make efforts to serve high-needs students.

The Regents’ skepticism offers an example of the heightened scrutiny charter schools are facing this year as supporters lobby the legislature to allow more schools to open, citing high demand from parents and superior results on state tests. Critics, including some within the charter sector, say increases should be paired with tighter regulations to push schools to serve a larger share of needy students.

But criticism of the city education department under Chancellor Carmen Fariña has centered on its untraditional approach charter school authorizing. In line with her strategy for struggling district schools, Fariña has asked to give low-performing charter schools more time to improve before considering closure. (That approach earned a rebuke from the Regents last December.)

Tension among the 17-member board over how best to deal with struggling schools was evident Monday. At one point, Brooklyn’s Kathleen Cashin told the board that Fariña deserved a chance to execute her strategy.

“When the chancellor of the New York City schools, which is one-third of the state, requests that this is the methodology she wants to apply, I think we should honor her request,” Cashin said.

“For how long?” replied Charles Bendit, who represents Manhattan.

“I’m not saying forever, but I think we should honor her request,” Cashin said.

The academic records of the six city-authorized schools up for renewal vary. While two schools received full-term renewals, three received probationary renewals that last only until 2017, including Staten Island Community Charter School, one of the schools that Regents refused to vote on in December because of low test scores.

The city also took fire over issues it’s begun to address.

The city has made a point of highlighting in its renewal reports which of its charter schools do not have clear student discipline policies, a federal compliance issue. But Chancellor Merryl Tisch said on Monday that she wanted to “send a very strong letter to the city” to let officials know that discipline policies will be considered in future renewal decisions.

Meanwhile, the Regents’ own actions raised questions about their authorizing power.

Buffalo-based Regent Robert Bennett, who preceded Tisch as chancellor, pushed his colleagues to overturn short-term renewals the State Education Department had recommended for three Buffalo charter schools. Bennett said he vouched for the schools, which deserved full, five-year renewals, and the board went along with his request — an unusual move that the Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner and some Regents advised against.

James Tallon, a Regent who voted against the extensions, said he was “very wary of us overriding a nuanced” decision made by one of the state’s charter authorizers.

The renewals still must be approved by the full Board of Regents, which is set to vote on Tuesday.

A list of the schools and the length of their renewals is below and all changes proposed by the department are here.

  • Staten Island Community Charter School: 1.5 years
  • Cultural Arts Academy Charter School at Spring Creek: 2.5 years
  • New Heights Academy Charter School: 2.5 years
  • Achievement First Crown Heights Charter School: 3.5 years
  • Achievement First East New York Charter School: 4.5 years
  • Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy II Charter School: 4.5 years

Correction: A previous version incorrectly said that Rosa voted against the New York City renewals.