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.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.