going big

Citing costs, councilman calls for moratorium on charter schools

City Councilman Stephen Levin rallied to support day care centers that faced losing space to a charter school in 2011.

A day after he berated education officials for underestimating the costs of operating the city’s charter schools, Councilman Stephen Levin took his activism a step further by calling for a moratorium on the opening of any charter schools.

The teachers union and several Democratic candidates for mayor have called for a moratorium on charter school co-locations, and legislation pending in Albany, sponsored by State Sen. Tony Avella, would do something similar.

But Levin’s announcement to block all charter schools from opening goes above and beyond their call. Instead of blocking charter schools from opening inside public school buildings, he would stop the schools from opening in the city at all. He said he intended to introduce a council resolution to impose a moratorium, a measure that is symbolic only.

Levin said the growth in the city’s spending on charter schools, estimated to increase 25 percent to more than $1 billion this year, is ”out of control” and would be better used to plug budget gaps in other social programs. He said the spending growth projected by the city in just a few months, which rose by 200 percent from $70 million to $210 million, ”shows that the cost to taxpayers in order to finance charter schools is only going to continue to increase.”

Charter school advocates dismissed Levin’s call for a moratorium and challenged his understanding of the way charter schools are funded. When a city student enrolls in a charter school rather than a district school, state law requires the the city to turn over its planned per-pupil expenditure for that student.

“Per pupil math is very simple. The charter portion of the budget went up because more children are being educated in charter schools,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, in a statement.

Two dozen new charter schools are opening this fall, and most city charter schools are also still in the process of adding grades. Together, those changes will expand charter school enrollment by nearly 19,000 students next year. Department of Education officials said today that enrollment growth — which the Independent Budget Office predicted — accounted for the entire projected increase in payments to charter schools.

The department joined a chorus of charter school advocates in accusing Levin of trying to curb parents’ right to enroll their children in schools that they choose.

“I find it totally outrageous and unacceptable that you could be so far off,” Levin said at Tuesday’s education budget hearing with department officials.

“We believe in empowering families with options. Charter schools are one of those options, and with over 50,000 students on wait lists, parents have clamored for them,” said Devon Puglia, a spokesman. “We can’t roll back the reforms that have triggered such a remarkable transformation in city schools.”

Glen Weiner, the acting executive director of StudentsFirstNY, accused Levin of pandering to the teachers union in the hopes of winning its endorsement in his reelection campaign this year. Levin is considered likely to win reelection has come under fire recently for his close relationship with Vito Lopez, the former state Assemblyman who resigned last month after being censured for sexually harassing his employees.

But UFT officials said Levin’s call for a moratorium is more aggressive than the union’s own position. The union opposes charter school co-locations unless elected parent councils in each district sign off on them. It does not oppose the creation of new charter schools.

Weiner said, “This extreme proposal is an insult to the 50,000 families who are on wait lists to get into the charter schools across the city.

“Councilmember Levin should ask the 750 parents whose children wound up on waitlists this year for charters in his district or the over 50,000 parents citywide if they want a moratorium to limit school choices for their children,” Merriman said. “We would be happy to introduce the councilman to some residents of his district that make less noise than the fringe opposition groups, but are just as deserving of his consideration.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede