Devil in the details

Regulating charter school demographics proves challenging

One of the most heralded parts of the new charter law forced charter schools to enroll more students with disabilities, learning English, and living in poverty.

But that will be trickier than it sounds.

The most immediate problem is access to data. The state’s two main charter school authorizers, the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute and the state education department, are tasked with setting enrollment targets that its charter schools must meet.

The crucial piece of information that SUNY needs to set its targets is how many needy students currently attend charter schools and neighborhing district schools. The law mandates that charter schools aim to enroll and retain needy students at “comparable” rates to other public schools in the district.

In order to make accurate comparisons between charter and district enrollments, SUNY needs to be able to see the current rates at both its charter schools and neighboring district schools all over the state. (The state education department collects that information from all school districts and charter schools in the state.)

The institute already has access to demographic information about the charter schools it oversees. But it doesn’t have access to crucial pieces of information about the district schools nearby. And to date, the state education department has not shared that information with SUNY, according to the draft guidelines for new charter schools SUNY issued yesterday.

A spokesman for the state education department did not respond to requests for comment today on why it had not yet sent SUNY the data it requested. But after a query from GothamSchools, education department officials contacted SUNY to say that the data would be forthcoming.

Some comparisons of how charters compare to nearby schools have already been made — by the city and state teachers unions. The unions found large gaps between the numbers of needy students served at charter schools and at other schools in their districts.

But SUNY wants to do a more granular analysis of how both charter schools and district schools enroll and retain needy students, the institute’s Vice President for Accountability Ron Miller said.

For example, schools could try to meet their special education targets by diagnosing more of their current students rather than admitting more students already diagnosed. To avoid that, Miller said he’d like to be able to see how many students already designated as needing special education services or English instruction are entering the schools and leaving them.

The institute also wants to make sure that charter school demographics compare to traditional public schools not just in the community school districts where the charter opens, but also in the specific neighborhood. “Geography makes a difference,” Miller said.

For example, several city school districts, including those in Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, have relatively few non-English speaking students overall. But pockets of those neighborhoods have large numbers of English learners, and Miller said that it was important that charters that open in those neighborhoods reflect that composition.

Rates of special education enrollment are similarly variable within traditional public school districts. Because of variables such as size or staffing issues, some district schools serve far more special education students than other nearby district schools. Being able to see those school-by-school variations is crucial to being able to set reasonable targets for charter school enrollments, Miller said.

Figuring out exactly how charter schools should be compared to district schools also raises a host of technical questions. For example, SUNY must figure out whether charters will be required to meet or surpass the enrollment rates of needy students, or whether it would be acceptable to enroll slightly fewer. The head of the New York City Charter School Center, James Merriman, raised many of these questions in a memo to SUNY’s Executive Director Jonas Chartock and State Deputy Education Commissioner John King earlier this month.

Finally, in addition to setting targets, SUNY also needs to be able to evaluate the schools’ plans for hitting the targets. The gap between enrollments in charter and district schools is large in many cases, and so some schools likely will not be able to hit the targets this year.

“There’s no way that instantaneously the schools are going to be able to get there,” Miller said. “So then it becomes about their plans and the credibility of their plans.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.