humbling harbinger

Squeezed by ballooning pension costs, charters cut programs

A Queens charter school that pays for pension costs directly out of its budget is cutting programs to afford pensions.
A Queens charter school that pays for pension costs directly out of its budget is cutting programs to afford pensions.

Stacey Gauthier at the Renaissance Charter School is worrying a lot these days — about money. This year she’s had to increase class sizes, cut the summer school program, and forgo hiring experienced teachers when an older teacher retires. Yet she still hasn’t cut enough to be able to afford the school’s rising pension costs, which have grown from $12,000 per teacher in 2004 to $21,000 per teacher this year.

Pension costs for city teachers have been rising steadily over the past decade, but for the most part the expenses have been hidden from individual schools, which rely on the city to cover all pension costs. Yet for a small number of charters schools like Renaissance that participate in the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) out of their own budgets, the ballooning price of a comfortable retirement has been acutely felt.

“We have another year to live,” Gauthier said. “We’re dipping into our savings now, which is okay, but if things don’t rebound, we won’t be financially viable.”

Although TRS costs have always been high relative to the private sector, their impact on charter school budgets has become especially burdensome since state lawmakers froze planned increases in charter school funding two years ago. (A breakdown of several charter schools’ pension and 401(k) payments is below the jump.)

The freeze made it harder for schools to pay their TRS contributions, which have increased by 10 percent since 2008. At a loss, schools said their pension payments are often coming at the expense of other school programs — a situation that the district schools could see themselves in if promised budget cuts are approved for next year.

“Our costs are growing astronomically,” said Vicki Zubovic, the managing director of development at the KIPP charter schools. “It’s becoming harder and harder to meet these needs.”

The TRS pension squeeze affects at least 12 charter schools in New York City. The rest offer some sort of 401(k) or 403(b) defined contribution plan in which employees contribute a portion of their salary to a fund and employers agree to match that amount up to a certain percentage.

The difference in cost between the two options is enormous.

This chart says XYZ.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
The more generous public pension plan costs much more per student than a slimmer 401k retirement option.

According to an analysis using the fiscal audits from 2008-2009, on average, non-TRS schools contributed about 2 percent of all payroll expenses to their pension funds. TRS schools contributed around 14 percent of all payroll expenses to the TRS. This comes down to a difference of over $1,400 per student that TRS schools must spend on pensions that other charters are free to direct elsewhere.

Citywide, pensions cost on average $2,000 per pupil — a higher figure than charter schools face because district teachers are generally older and because of the way the TRS accounts for charter school pension costs. Overall, pensions make up $2.1 billion, or 10 percent, of the DOE’s total budget of $21 billion.

Most charter schools in the TRS joined because they are “conversion” schools that transformed into charters from traditional public schools — and as a result were required by the state to keep the same union benefits afforded district school teachers. But a handful of charter schools that belong to TRS opted into the plan on their own.

School leaders said they wanted to offer their employees the same benefits offered by district schools. There is simply no way that a 401(k) plan can offer the benefits that the TRS promises, such as free retiree health care and a guaranteed yearly pension that gets paid whether the market is down or not.

“We knew going in we were going to offer the TRS,” said Leonard Goldberg, the principal of Opportunity Charter School. “It’s hard for a teacher who has five, ten years in a system to try working in a charter school if the charter school doesn’t offer the same benefit.”

Goldberg said that TRS membership has helped Opportunity meet its goal of attracting and retaining experienced teachers. The plan is expensive, he said. But he added, “We believe at the moment it’s worth the investment.”

To compete, some charter schools that don’t participate with TRS have tried to make their 401(k) plans as lucrative as possible.

Take the plan at KIPP S.T.A.R., the only one of the four New York City KIPP schools that is not in the TRS. KIPP S.T.A.R. matches 50 percent of employee contributions up to the federal limit of $16,500 per year. In addition, the school offers employees a partially subsidized health care plan.

Despite all this, KIPP officials conceded that this plan, which is generous by most standards, still can’t compete with the TRS.

Not all unionized charter schools participate in TRS; two that offer 401(k) plans are Amber Charter School in Manhattan and Merrick Academy in Queens.

Even if the TRS schools stop thinking the plan is worth the investment, there’s nothing they can do: According to state law, once a school is in the TRS, it can never leave.

But that hasn’t stopped the schools from asking for relief. Several schools in the plan are pushing to get an increase in state funding to cover the costs. The UFT has proposed pension relief for charter schools that would require the Department Of Education to pay for the schools’ TRS costs. How that would work in practice has yet to be worked out.

But most schools in the plan agree that the simplest option — letting the charter schools opt out of the TRS — would not be a fair resolution.

“I think that there are some ridiculous parts of the pension, but we didn’t set that up,” said Gauthier of Renaissance. “The politicians, traditional public schools, they all have this benefit. Why are charter schools expected to be the sacrificial lambs?”

Here is a breakdown of charter schools’ pension plans and payments, as reported in their 2008-2009 audited financial statements. One note before reading: A small contribution to a school’s pension fund does not necessarily indicate poor policy on the part of the school. Because 401k/403b plans state that an employer must contribute to the plan only if an employee contributes, some schools contribute little to no money to their pension plans due to their employees’ decisions.

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”