frozen

New York’s latest charter-school funding debate, explained

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

If Suyin So had more funding, she would increase small group instruction, provide more music classes, and offer a language at her charter school in Queens. But first, she’d deal with the pipe that burst in a special education classroom this year.

“We’re contending with, is the boiler going to blow and who’s going to fix that?” said So, the founder and executive director of Central Queens Academy. Recently, she added, “I’ve learned way more about construction than about instruction.”

So is one of many hoping for increased charter school funding in the state budget this year. While district school per-student funding has increased by $2,113 since 2010 in New York City, charter schools have seen a $350 per-student increase, according to Families for Excellent Schools, the pro-charter group that organized a rally around the issue on Wednesday in Albany.

That doesn’t necessarily mean all charter schools have had less to spend on students than district schools. But the bulk of public funding for charter schools has been held nearly constant for five years. Advocates hope that will change this year, since the governor proposed lifting the freeze in New York City in his executive budget.

But why was the funding freeze there to begin with? Why change it now? And how has it affected charter schools?

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the funding freeze?

Under state law, as district school funding increases or decreases, so should charter school funding. (The charter figure lags by two years.) But the governor and legislature froze the number for charter schools at the end of the recession for 2009-10 and then again in 2010-11. The level of funding has held at the 2010-11 level ever since.

In the first years of the freeze, funding increases did not differ dramatically between district schools and charter schools. Some charter advocates were grateful that their funding remained constant during tough budgetary times.

But as the economy improved, district schools began receiving more funds, including from a new city teacher contract that upped teacher salaries. Charter schools got funding boosts in lump sums from the state, but overall, district school funding in New York City increased at six times the rate of charter school funding, according to FES.

Now, charter school advocates want to return to a formula that allows charter funding to increase as district school funds do.

So, have charter schools had less to spend on students?

It depends. Last summer, the city’s Independent Budget Office said although the city has increased funding for district schools more than for charter schools, the funding they receive is nearly identical — at least for the charter schools that operate in district buildings.

When those services, including maintenance and security costs, are taken into account, co-located charter schools received only $29 per student less than district schools in 2014-2015, according to the IBO.

“We say it’s essentially the same,” said Ray Domanico, the IBO’s research director.“Twenty-nine dollars is really a pretty meaningless difference.”

Charter schools that pay for their own space, though, received almost $3,000 less per student in funding than district schools, according to the IBO. All told, the city’s traditional public schools received an average of $17,928 per student in 2014-15, while co-located charter schools received $17,899 and charter schools in private space received $15,014.

(Advocacy groups, including FES and the Northeast Charter Schools Network, have disputed the IBO’s findings and questioned its methodology.)

As the city’s teachers union is quick to point out, charter schools can also raise money through private fundraising. New or expanding charter schools can now also apply for money to help pay for private space — further reducing that gap for schools that qualify. Central Queens Academy, which rents its own space and opened in 2012, gets that funding for some, but not all, of its students.

Why do charter advocates care about this now?

Charter advocates have been pushing to unfreeze the per-student funding formula for years, but it didn’t make it into Gov. Cuomo’s proposal or the final budget deal last year.

The funding boost would also provide an immediate benefit to all city charter schools, unlike the rent assistance, and would come as education spending continues to rise at a fast clip. From 2009 to 2014, district schools increased general education spending by $1,376 per student, according to the IBO.

What is the governor proposing?

The governor proposed both a lump sum of $27 million for charter schools and for charter school funding to parallel district school funding in New York City.

The funding formula is already set to unfreeze for the entire state next year, which means the governor’s proposal would “jumpstart” the process for New York City, said Andrea Rogers, a senior policy director at Northeast Charter Schools Network.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: