war of attrition

The quieter charter school divide: what you need to know about 'backfill'

As rancorous charter school space debates continue to dominate the headlines, another lower-profile round of discussion about who attends the schools is just beginning.

Charter leaders strategizing about how to work with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and avoid paying rent say that they believe committing to particular enrollment policies could be one way to assuage de Blasio’s and Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s concerns about charter schools “doing their part.”

One main issue is backfill, or what happens to space vacated by students who leave charter schools. Some schools, seeking to fulfill a larger mission and bolster their finances, fill those spots by calling students off of their waiting lists. Other schools focus on teaching the students who remain, avoiding a potential drop in test scores and the social and academic disruption of adding new students.

The debate over which policy is best has long divided the charter sector, as critics have charged that schools that do not backfill are not serving their share of high-needs students.

Now, the issue is growing in prominence as school leaders try to anticipate how the mayor will deal with charter schools in the years ahead, and especially how the city might charge charter schools rent to operate in public space. Meanwhile, financial pressures on schools already paying rent have made backfilling a necessity for a growing number of schools.

De Blasio’s meeting with a coalition of 34 charter school leaders on Monday — city officials’ second sit-down with them in two weeks — didn’t get into detailed policy discussions, though attendees said the conversation touched on how to use enrollment policy to promote equity. But the charter leaders are now planning regular meetings with city officials and say they expect the backfill issue to resurface.

“I think facilities is probably the bigger one,” Future Is Now founder and coalition member Steve Barr said of the issues on the table. “But they might say, these are some things that we need assurances on.”

Some charter leaders outside the coalition agreed. “It’s definitely more of a public policy issue than it has been in the past,” said Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School.

One of de Blasio’s few points of leverage over charter schools

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately managed, sit outside the mayor’s authority. De Blasio does have the power to set the conditions by which charter schools can operate in public space, though. Governor Andrew Cuomo said as much last week when he asked, “The question becomes, what should the criteria for co-location be?”

The city has laid out some criteria for next year’s co-locations, but they were logistical considerations like the ages of the students who would be sharing a building and the proposed school’s size. The mayor has yet to say how he will make decisions about charging charter schools rent, a key campaign promise.

Requiring certain enrollment practices like backfill could make sense, given Fariña’s criticism of charter schools that she says don’t serve similar populations as district schools. Last week, she criticized Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz for implying that there are certain high-needs students “she cannot help, necessarily, because she doesn’t have the resources for them.”

One charter leader described the potential trade-off this way: The city provides space rent-free if the schools commit to more inclusive enrollment tactics. Then the choice becomes the operator’s: do we want to go along, or stick to our model and pay a penalty for it?

For Stacey Gauthier, principal at Renaissance Charter School, the decision to backfill in every grade wasn’t really a decision at all. Like other charter schools, her school has waiting list of students, which many schools cite as evidence of their success and demand.

“It was just natural, just organic,” Gauthier said. “You have a space, there are 2,500 kids on a wait list—why would you not fill the space? It never crossed my mind—’Wow, don’t backfill because you might have to work harder to make that kid a Renaissance kid.'”

“My charter colleagues should really look closely if their enrollment practices don’t look equitable,” she said.

Backfill comes at a cost to schools

Others, including some coalition members, argue that the choice is more complicated. In 2012, the New York City Charter School Center put that ideological divide mildly. “NYC charter school leaders have mixed opinions about backfill enrollment,” its State of the Sector report said.

Backfilling seats that open up can pose steep challenges for schools. Students who enter the school midyear or at one of a school’s higher grade levels can have trouble adjusting to a new school and be academically behind. Midyear entries especially are more likely to have unstable home lives, leading to them leaving the school—meaning that one “backfilled” seat might actually be filled by two or three students over the course of a year.

Research has shown that students who leave charter schools tend to be lower-performing academically, so not replacing them can boost scores overall — a move that benefits charter schools that are eager to prove their value.

“On one hand, why should they?” said Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. “It’s a real disruption for the classroom teacher. Traditional public schools are plagued with this problem, especially in high-poverty areas where there is lots of student attrition.”

An understanding of those challenges and a desire to maintain a particular school’s culture has led some charter school networks to reject backfilling, especially in the higher grades. Success Academies only backfill through the third grade, and students in all subsequent grades up to high school must have started by that grade.

Success Academy has said that their longer school days and years help students jump so far ahead academically that placing older students in without that background would be unfair to them. Last year, 58 percent of its students were deemed proficient in reading and 80 percent in math on state exams.

“We want all children to feel and be successful. We wouldn’t want the newer children to be at a disadvantage,” a Success spokeswoman said last year.

Actually getting seats filled can also be no easy feat.

Charter schools face the question of whether to hold back incoming students who are behind academically or insert them into the grade they were expecting to attend, knowing that families might not accept a spot for their child if it means he or she is held back a grade.

And since state law requires charter schools to admit students by lottery, a school must start at the top of its waiting list and contact families until one accepts to fill a seat that becomes vacant. That process can take time if families have gotten comfortable at the school their child attends, making the choice to fill seats a costly one logistically. In contrast, the city assigns students to district schools, which do not have to use their own resources to fill seats.

It also has ideological and material benefits

Despite the challenges, charter schools have good reasons to fill seats that become vacant.

District schools take students after their entry grades and many accept students mid-year, and not doing so raises questions about whether charter schools are doing enough to educate a fair share of high-needs students. In addition, it complicates performance comparisons between charter and district schools — which the charter sector cites as a justification for growing – if the schools follow different enrollment rules.

Two weeks ago, the chair of Harlem Link Charter School’s board of trustees asked a question of the room during a board meeting: Who thinks it’s in the best interest of the community to continue the school’s backfilling policy?

It was a loaded question. Evangelista, the school’s co-founder, has spoken openly about his school’s policy of accepting new students at every grade and its connection to the school’s relatively lower test scores. Last year, 17 percent of its students cleared the state’s proficiency bar in reading, below the city average, and 29 percent did in math, which is at the city average.

“What is the community? Is it just the school community, when it’s very clear that bringing kids in that don’t know our school and its culture is very clearly detrimental?” Evangelista asked.

He has answered that question with a no, for now, and Harlem Link is choosing to define “community” as the broader neighborhood and school system.

There are financial as well as ideological considerations. A district school that loses a student after Oct. 31 keeps its funding for that student, but a charter school loses funding for a student as soon as the student leaves. Allowing more seats to remain unfilled each year exacts a steeper toll on school budgets.

For many charter schools, especially those in private space that have to pay rent, budgets are so tight that operating at anything but their highest capacity makes the school unsustainable. With prospective charter operators not counting on generous offers of public space from the de Blasio administration, backfilling may become more common.

Judi Kende, who works with prospective charter school operators through the Low Income Investment Fund, an organization that finances charter school facilities, has seen that trend firsthand. When LIIF is assessing a charter school’s financial viability, backfill policy gets special attention, Kende said.

“People are doing more backfilling. They kind of have to if they have real estate space,” Kende said.

For now, a mix of policies

Charter schools must spell out their enrollment policies when they ask for permission to operate. But authorizers have been loath to require charters to adopt one backfill policy or another, seeing it as one way in which the schools exercise the autonomy that defines them as a charter school, and so schools frequently include vague language in their charters.

“In terms of just replacing students, we leave that up to schools,” said Susan Miller Barker, the head of SUNY’s Charter School Institute. (The institute does plan to require more explicit descriptions of enrollment policy from new applicants, it announced in January.)

That leaves the city’s charter schools with a patchwork of policies, and some have changed over time. Democracy Prep and Explore Schools both accept students in all grades, for example, as do Beginning with Children II and Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School, while Harlem Village Academy doesn’t backfill upper grades.

In a Nov. 2009 report in Education Sector, Achievement First CFO Max Polaner said “the dream was to bring in kindergartners only,” given the difficulties of backfilling. The network’s application for the K-8 Achievement First Central Brooklyn, set to open next fall, notes that it will backfill up to the eighth grade.

For now, the coalition of charter schools sitting down with city officials is thinking about a number of policy issues to tackle down the line, with facilities and enrollment at the top of the list, Gauthier said.

“They’ve said, ‘We want this to be two-way, we know these are items that need to be addressed. We hope you can be our thought partners in this,’” she said.

De Blasio could draw inspiration from Massachusetts, which required all charter schools to backfill in some grades beginning in 2010, or from Denver and New Orleans, which use universal enrollment systems to ensure that charter and district schools follow the same policies. But De Blasio has so far not prioritized enrollment policy when discussing charter equity issues, and Evangelista cautioned that there are many possible policy priorities for City Hall.

“The policy debate right now is a sprawling octopus, and his office has the potential to drive attention to one or two things,” Evangelista said. “It could be testing, English Language learners, special ed, recruitment—these are all hot buttons.”

We’ve created a survey to collect information about backfill policies. Have firsthand experiences or knowledge of the process? Fill that out here

This story has been updated to clarify the difference between district and charter school funding over time. 

Future of Schools

5 ways ‘Janus’ Supreme Court ruling could affect Illinois schools

The Chicago Teachers Union picketing in 2012. (Photo: Raiselle Resnick for GothamSchools)

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide a historic case that could shift the political landscape and dampen union power – including in local school districts.

The plaintiff in the case, Janus vs. AFSCME, is Illinois state employee Mark Janus. Janus complained that he should not have to pay fees to a government union he refuses to join and whose politics and policies he rejects, and that being compelled to pay violates his First Amendment right to free speech. Illinois is one of 22 states that allow unions to automatically deduct what’s known as an “agency fee” from workers’ checks even if they opt not to join the labor organizations.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the defendant in the case, argues that it is legally obligated to negotiate wages and work conditions via contracts that benefit union-eligible workers like Janus who opt out of membership, and that the fee ensures nonunion workers pay their fair share.

The court is expected to issue a ruling in the case as early as Monday morning. While surprises do happen, most legal experts forecast an adverse ruling for unions. That’s an outcome the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor groups already have been bracing for.

Here’s how Illinois school districts could feel the impact if their predictions come true:

  1. Teacher unions could lose clout

Experts say the Janus case isn’t just a labor issue or a freedom of speech issue — it’s very much connected to the broader clash between the unions, which are typically seen as major cogs in the Democratic Party, and conservative organizations like the Illinois Policy Institute and the National Right To Work Committee. The plaintiff is represented in court by groups tied to the institute and the committee, respectively.  The case was first sparked by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, although he was dropped as a plaintiff when a judge ruled the governor’s office wasn’t directly harmed by the fee policy and lacked standing to sue.

“This is a part of a larger effort to break public employee unions, to limit their power, and to limit what they can do,” said San Francisco-based education consultant Julia Koppich.

With less money to fund their activities, experts said some unions could experience a decline in political clout and find that some school districts feel less pressure to meet their demands. Anti-union organizations or school districts might try to entice members to abandon the groups or discourage former fee payers from joining in an attempt to reduce the relevance of unions.

“I don’t think that means unions are going to go away,” said Martin H. Malin, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace. “A lot is going to depend on an individual school district.”

  1. Teacher pipelines could suffer

While this isn’t being forecast as an acute issue, experts said classrooms could eventually feel the impact of the Janus verdict when it comes to the quality and quantity of teachers.

“It’s not a good thing for what’s happening in class if it over time erodes union power, work conditions, and makes it harder to retain teachers,” Malin said.

If unions in certain school districts are unable to secure regular salary increases, professional development, supplies and materials, Koppich said, “then people will stop signing up to teach in those districts.”   

Kayne said it’s possible that if Janus weakens union advocacy, teacher shortages could be exacerbated.

“There is a shortage of teachers in Illinois, and I think it’s because the profession and teachers have been blamed and disparaged and they haven’t been funded,” she said. “If we undermine the unions that advocate on their behalf, it’s going to result in maybe a greater teacher shortage or conditions that are even worse for teachers. I think that definitely impacts teachers being hired, teachers being retained, teachers feeling supported to do the important work they’re doing.”

  1. Teacher unions will lose money and members, and tighten belts

A ruling against unions essentially means that teachers’ unions have to work on behalf of non-union teachers but can’t charge them for those services via agency fees.

“I think there’s a fair number of people who probably will choose not to pay a fee, and won’t join the union—not for philosophical reasons, but because people like free stuff,” said Koppich, who said unions will seek ways to reduce their budgets.

Malin said that he expects the Chicago Teachers Union to lose funds and members, but that the union is well-equipped to rebound.

“They do a great job, though, of internal organizing,” Malin said.

CTU spokesperson Christine Geovanis said the CTU plans to realign and reduce the union staff this year by at least 10 percent via retirements, voluntary separations, and layoffs, with a goal of maintaining strength in organizing and direct member support.  

  1. Teachers might pay more in dues

As mentioned, teacher unions could be facing some hard decisions about how to account for the loss of funds from fee payers, and, potentially, the loss of members. One way teacher unions could try to make up for the lost revenues is by asking members to pay more.

“They may raise dues, which requires a vote of members,” Koppich said.

CTU teachers pay about $1,100 in annual dues, while non-union teachers pay the same amount in fees. Paraprofessionals and school-related personnel pay 60 percent of teacher dues or agency fees, which come to $655. The CTU counts just under 24,000 active members. Less than 2 percent of union-eligible school workers pay agency fees in lieu of joining the CTU, according to union spokesperson Christine Geovanis. That might not sound like much, but it comes to about 400 employees who collectively contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  1. Teachers will hear more union recruitment pitches

In June 2017, about 900 CPS employees were agency fee payers. The union has ramped up its recruiting efforts since then, and now the number stands at about 400. In the fall, CTU launched a districtwide campaign encouraging agency fee payers to sign union cards, and this spring has continued the effort  CTU’s Christine Geovanis said. Teacher unions will have to redouble efforts to get non-members to join them, and to keep current members in the organization, experts said. Unions must stress what people gain by joining, Koppich said.

“Unions essentially have to return to the old days when they had to organize people, when there was no agency fee and they had to give people a reason to pay out of their hard-earned paycheck,” Koppich said.

In school systems where teachers generally have a good relationship with the district, experts said union membership might not seem as attractive or necessary. But in places like Chicago, where the district-union relationship is more adversarial, unions might have an easier time articulating their importance, according to Andrea Kayne, an associate professor at DePaul University’s College of Education and director of its educational leadership doctoral program. Kayne doesn’t expect the CTU to crumble after Janus. She pointed to the union’s resilience in the face of a 2011 state law that raised the threshold for authorizing a teachers union strike so that 75 percent of membership had to vote in favor of it. (Ultimately, 90 percent of teachers supported the strike, which lasted seven days.)

“If you go back to the last strike with the CTU, you had the mayor and others going to Springfield and lobbying to make it harder for teachers to strike, but it actually resulted in the union being even stronger and more emboldened, and they got a strike vote very easily in 2012,” Kayne said. “I do feel that when teachers unions are attacked and they perceive it as a governor or state trying to undermine them, it creates more cohesion and galvanizes action.”

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.