charter authority figures

City’s charter-school oversight again questioned by Regents, who raise eyebrows themselves

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Regents members on Monday voted to approve a new round of city charter schools for renewal.

Updated — After a month-long battle over charter-school oversight, the state found common ground with the city’s education department this January.

The consensus didn’t last long.

A Board of Regents subcommittee on Monday voted to approve renewals for 10 charter schools, including seven from New York City. But for a third straight month, the meeting also featured a larger debate over the enrollment, discipline policies, and academic achievement of schools under the city’s supervision.

Long Island’s Roger Tilles voted against renewing the charters because some had produced test score averages below their districts’. The Bronx’s Betty Rosa voted for the renewals, but said too many of the charter schools seemed to be out of compliance with a state law that requires them to make efforts to serve high-needs students.

The Regents’ skepticism offers an example of the heightened scrutiny charter schools are facing this year as supporters lobby the legislature to allow more schools to open, citing high demand from parents and superior results on state tests. Critics, including some within the charter sector, say increases should be paired with tighter regulations to push schools to serve a larger share of needy students.

But criticism of the city education department under Chancellor Carmen Fariña has centered on its untraditional approach charter school authorizing. In line with her strategy for struggling district schools, Fariña has asked to give low-performing charter schools more time to improve before considering closure. (That approach earned a rebuke from the Regents last December.)

Tension among the 17-member board over how best to deal with struggling schools was evident Monday. At one point, Brooklyn’s Kathleen Cashin told the board that Fariña deserved a chance to execute her strategy.

“When the chancellor of the New York City schools, which is one-third of the state, requests that this is the methodology she wants to apply, I think we should honor her request,” Cashin said.

“For how long?” replied Charles Bendit, who represents Manhattan.

“I’m not saying forever, but I think we should honor her request,” Cashin said.

The academic records of the six city-authorized schools up for renewal vary. While two schools received full-term renewals, three received probationary renewals that last only until 2017, including Staten Island Community Charter School, one of the schools that Regents refused to vote on in December because of low test scores.

The city also took fire over issues it’s begun to address.

The city has made a point of highlighting in its renewal reports which of its charter schools do not have clear student discipline policies, a federal compliance issue. But Chancellor Merryl Tisch said on Monday that she wanted to “send a very strong letter to the city” to let officials know that discipline policies will be considered in future renewal decisions.

Meanwhile, the Regents’ own actions raised questions about their authorizing power.

Buffalo-based Regent Robert Bennett, who preceded Tisch as chancellor, pushed his colleagues to overturn short-term renewals the State Education Department had recommended for three Buffalo charter schools. Bennett said he vouched for the schools, which deserved full, five-year renewals, and the board went along with his request — an unusual move that the Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner and some Regents advised against.

James Tallon, a Regent who voted against the extensions, said he was “very wary of us overriding a nuanced” decision made by one of the state’s charter authorizers.

The renewals still must be approved by the full Board of Regents, which is set to vote on Tuesday.

A list of the schools and the length of their renewals is below and all changes proposed by the department are here.

  • Staten Island Community Charter School: 1.5 years
  • Cultural Arts Academy Charter School at Spring Creek: 2.5 years
  • New Heights Academy Charter School: 2.5 years
  • Achievement First Crown Heights Charter School: 3.5 years
  • Achievement First East New York Charter School: 4.5 years
  • Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy II Charter School: 4.5 years

Correction: A previous version incorrectly said that Rosa voted against the New York City renewals. 

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