No Parent Left Behind

City slow to ensure compliance with PTA law for charter schools

Nearly nine months after Albany passed legislation requiring all charter schools in New York City to form parent groups, the city does not yet know exactly how many city charters are in compliance with the law.

Speaking to a meeting of the New York Charter Parents Association on January 20, the director of the Department of Education’s charter school office, Recy Dunn, told parents that the city was just beginning to monitor schools’ compliance.

“I don’t have the answer on how many charters currently have PTAs,” Dunn said. “Would I like to find out? Absolutely.”

In September, the DOE directed all city charter schools to launch parent groups by October to comply with the law, and report back to the city with their progress by that time. City officials said today that many of the schools did not respond to that directive and that they had not since followed up with many of the schools.

Officials said that going forward they would check if schools have parent groups when they make their annual site visits to each school they authorized. They’re also including the question on a survey that it sends to each school in the city.

“We’ve informed charters of the legal requirement and asked them to confirm that they have a parents association,” said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld. “We’re now in the process of following up with them, and expect that they’ll all make the necessary arrangements.”

The slow response time in ensuring compliance can partly be explained by a personnel shortage in the city’s charter office. The city’s charter school office has experienced high turnover in the past year and is currently working with almost half the staff the office had last year. Dunn told the charter parent group that one of his first priorities is staffing up the charter office.

Dunn is the third person to lead the charter office since the law was passed last May. The former director of the city’s charter office, Michael Duffy, left the DOE in July. Aaron Listhaus, the charter office’s former Chief Academic Officer, stepped in as interim director, before Dunn took over the office in the middle of the school year. Listhaus has also since left the office to lead the Hebrew Charter Center.

The effort to confirm that all schools are in compliance is also hindered by some disagreement over which schools are subject to the parent association provision in the law, which was hastily written during late-night negotiations over the bill to double the number of charter schools allowed to open in the state.

While the provision explicitly requires all charters located in the city district to establish parent associations, it was inserted into the school governance law, which does not govern charter schools. When the city told all charters to start parent groups, the SUNY Charter School Institute told the 49 city schools it oversees independently of the DOE that the provision did not apply to them.

Out of the 125 charter schools currently operating in New York City, 69 were authorized by the DOE. Many of the rest operate in public building space, which gives the city leverage to require that they adhere to the parent association mandate.

City officials still interpret the law as applicable to all charter schools in New York City, regardless of authorizer, but it is more difficult for city officials to check compliance at schools it does not directly oversee, officials said.

There is little clarity about how many charter schools in the city already have parent associations. City officials and charter advocates say that anecdotally they believe most schools have parent groups in place now. But Mona Davids, the parent advocate who founded the New York Charter Parents Association, believes that the number is much lower than city officials expect.

The issue of whether charter schools should be required to have parent associations has been a sticky one for nearly a year. Parent advocates like Davids argue that mandating parent groups preserves parents’ rights and prevents schools from shutting parents out of school decision-making. Some charter advocates, on the other hand, contend that the presence of parent associations does not always automatically lead to strong parental involvement and that requiring them erodes the bureaucratic autonomy charters were originally intended to have.

choice history

The rise of tax credits: How Arizona created an alternative to school vouchers — and why they’re spreading

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education

With its recent adoption of a tax credit scholarship program, Illinois became the 18th state to adopt an innocuously named — but highly controversial — policy that critics have described as a “backdoor voucher.”

In some sense, the description is apt. But by injecting a middle layer into the government’s support of private school tuition, tax credits help avoid some of the legal and political obstacles that have dogged efforts by advocates, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to promote school choice through vouchers.

Perhaps as a result, more students now use tax incentive programs than vouchers to attend private schools in the U.S. A federal tax credit is also seen as the Trump administration’s favored approach for promoting school choice at the federal level, though its immediate progress looks increasingly unlikely.

The 20-year history of this approach offers insights into why it has taken hold: resistance to legal challenge; limited government oversight, appealing to among free-market advocates of school choice; and a more politically palatable branding than vouchers.

This is far better than vouchers — it is easier to pass and easier to uphold,” Trent Franks, a conservative activist and now a U.S. congressman, said in 1999 after Arizona’s state supreme court upheld its tuition tax credit program. “I think this is the direction the country will go in.”

He proved largely right.

The number of students participating in private school choice programs over time, including tax credits (green) and vouchers (orange). (EdChoice)

Arizona’s pioneering approach

The first tax credit program was passed in Arizona in 1997. Arizona’s constitution, like most other states’, bars public dollars from going to religiously affiliated schools. Proponents knew any plan to promote private school choice would likely end up in court.

So they landed upon an ingenious approach that would make the initiative more likely to survive legal challenge. Instead of issuing vouchers for private school tuition — like Milwaukee had done since 1990 — the state would outsource that role to nonprofits. Those groups would get their money from donations, encouraged by generous tax credits.

It worked like this: An individual could donate up to $500 to a nonprofit, then get a tax cut for the exact amount they donated. The nonprofit would take the donated money and use it to offer tuition stipends — essentially vouchers — to families who met certain conditions. That system allows the state to promote the tuition subsidy, losing $500 in revenue for each maxed out donation, without paying for it directly.

Arizona’s program has since grown, and the state has created a number of other tax credit programs. (This approach is distinct from programs that give individual families tax breaks for educational spending on their own children; Illinois has had such an initiative since 2000, while Minnesota has had one since 1955.)

Arizona’s and of Milwaukee’s policies look similar. In both places, students can receive a subsidy to attend a private school, and it comes at the expense of state revenue. But crucially, in Arizona, the government never had the money to begin with.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” Lisa Graham Keegan, who was Arizona’s school superintendent when the tax credit program passed, told Chalkbeat. “Those scholarships are completely separate, both for legal reasons and for philosophical reasons.”

Tax credits: the legal survivors

Private school choice across the country have been inundated with legal challenges, but tax credits have proven remarkably resilient.

Although voucher programs have continued to grow and were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, they have also faced legal challenges in state courts. Colorado’s top court, for example, struck down a voucher program in 2015. (The case is currently being reconsidered in light of a recent Supreme Court decision.)

But tax credits have never ultimately lost in state or federal court, prevailing in Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tax credits “grew up as a result of saying we need a different vehicle than vouchers in states that have legal issues,” said Robert Enlow, the president of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs both vouchers and tax credits. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Often, cases have been thrown out before substantive arguments can be made, amounting to a win for the programs: Some courts have ruled that private organizations or individuals do not have legal standing to challenge tax credits, since they aren’t government expenditures.

That was the decision in the 2010 Supreme Court case Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, in which the majority said equating government spending and tax credits was “incorrect.”

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizations], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Light regulatory touch proves a blessing and a downside

To Arizona conservatives skeptical of both regulation and the education establishment, the system had an additional benefit.

“The point was in part to ensure that these were not government-run programs,” said Graham Keegan, and additionally that “these don’t become government dollars.”

Nationwide, tax credit scholarship programs appear less regulated than voucher programs, some of which require private school students to take state tests or for schools to undergo financial audits.

Free-market oriented supporters “see ‘neovouchers’ as much less likely to be regulated and have restrictions — the government strings attached — than a traditional voucher law,” said Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor who wrote a book on the rise of tax credit programs and is generally critical of them.

A 1998 essay published by the Mackinac Institute, a conservative Michigan think tank, made this case explicitly: “Tuition tax credits also create very different effects than vouchers. … Vouchers are more likely to be viewed as a rationale for regulating the entity that receives the subsidy.”

This has played out in practice. One analysis compared several voucher programs to a number of tax credit programs and found that, in almost all cases, vouchers were more regulated. Most tax credit systems had few, if any, financial reporting or disclosure requirements. (Notably, Florida’s program, the largest in the country, was the most regulated tax credit initiative.)

Many tax credit programs do not require participating students to take state exams, and if they do, the tests are rarely comparable to the assessments taken in public school. This means that while voucher programs have been widely studied, there is little research on the effect of receiving a tax credit scholarship.

Supporters of this approach argue that such requirements discourage private schools from participating.

Limited oversight, however, has proven something of a political liability, insofar as it has allowed for financial malfeasance. National media have drawn attention to how one prominent politician and advocate for Arizona’s program was also able to profit personally from it, for example.

“I think [limited regulation] is a feature that has some bugs,” said Enlow of EdChoice. “We need to have transparency. The programs, like Florida, which are very transparent and very open to data collection, I think are very important.” He declined to name any tax credit programs that, in his view, lacked sufficient transparency.

The use of the tax code has also raised another concern: Under some tax credit systems, “donors” can actually earn a profit by taking advantage of both state and federal tax breaks.

Selling tax credits

How exactly to brand tax credit programs has been the subject of fierce debates. Opponents have called them “neovouchers” and “voucher schemes,” while supporters sometimes portray them as entirely distinct from vouchers.

Tax credits tend to poll better than vouchers, and Welner thinks that may be because it’s less clear to most people what they are.

“People’s eyes get bleary and they tune out when people start talking about tax credits,” he said. “That helps to avoid a situation where they respond to it the same way they respond to a voucher proposal.”

Tax credits are essentially a tax cut, which can be a selling point for some, especially conservatives. Advocates sometimes also downplay the costs of tax credits to the government.

“Is it foregone revenue? Sure, but it doesn’t mean it’s the state’s revenue,” said Enlow.

The distinctions between vouchers and tax credits, though, may ultimately matter less to lawmakers in states where they are being debated. In Illinois, critics connected tax credits to vouchers, and Democrats were largely opposed to the tax credit initiative that ultimately passed.

“In my experience the arguments have been the same whether it’s a tax credit bill or a voucher bill when you’re talking with legislators,” Enlow said. “There’s some nuances, but it’s still the same.”

space wars

Success Academy ratchets up pressure on city to give it space

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students in a Success Academy class.

In a rally outside City Hall and in a private email to reporters, Success Academy’s CEO Eva Moskowitz is ramping up pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to provide space for several new middle schools she plans to open next year.

The city missed a September deadline set by the charter-school network to approve a request for shared space inside public-school buildings for up to seven new middle schools. Now, the earliest the city can approve those requests is at a public meeting in November, according to Moskowitz, who spoke at last week’s rally.

In the meantime, families of more than 730 children preparing to start middle school next fall are stuck in limbo without assurance that they will have school buildings or the opportunity to attend open houses and tour the schools in advance, Success Academy officials argue.

“Because the city delays in providing space, families don’t know what their options are, whether their middle school will be down the block or across the borough,” Moskowitz said in an email to reporters Thursday morning. “While district parents across NYC are actively contemplating their school choice for next year, the mayor is keeping Success parents on hold.”

City officials said they are working to fulfill the requests, but suggested they are still gathering public input.

“Any time we are siting a school in a building, whether district or charter, we believe there must be a lot of public engagement,” said education department spokesman Michael Aciman. “We follow the State Law and work closely with charter organizations to address space requests in a timely manner.”

The bitter battle over public space for charter schools has been raging for years: The city argues that finding suitable shared space for charters is tricky, while Success Academy argues that plenty of space is available and the de Blasio administration is dragging its feet. Parents and educators in district schools often resist losing building space to charter schools.

This latest fight comes after Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed earlier this summer to make it easier for charter schools to receive public funding to pay for private space — part of a deal with state lawmakers in exchange for an extension of de Blasio’s control of the city’s schools. State law requires the city to help charter schools pay rent for private facilities if it doesn’t given them room inside public buildings.

After the deal in June, charter-school advocates called on the mayor to fulfill charters’ space requests by September. Now that the deadline has passed, Success and charter advocates appear to be resuming their campaign to wrestle public space from the city.

Success Academy and the de Blasio administration might be headed for a more dramatic clash if the city misses the October 13 deadline to put the building requests on the agenda for the November meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, which must approve them.