charter wars

As war over charter schools rages on, what power does the city actually have?

PHOTO: Annie Ma
Sharita Moore-Willis, whose daughter will start first grade at Girls Prep Lower East Side this fall, speaks at a rally on the City Hall steps demanding an apology from Mayor Bill DeBlasio for his earlier comments on charter school test scores.

New York City’s charter school battle lines are as clear as ever. Last week, the mayor fired the latest shot by dismissing some charter schools’ test score gains as a product of test prep rather than “actually teaching kids.”

Charter school advocates, who called his comments “insulting” and “mean-spirited,” took to the op-ed page and are planning another massive rally this September to call on the city to “stand with public charter schools”

But while the debate rages on, the city’s power to stop the charter sector from expanding has slowly waned. The Department of Education can no longer authorize new schools, the state doubled the city’s charter school cap, and legislation requires the city to provide rent money for charter schools using private space.

That leaves little practical recourse for de Blasio to hamper charter schools, some argue, regardless of how he feels about them.

“It seems completely like rhetoric to me,” said Dirk Tillotson, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great School Choices, which helps launch community-based charter schools. “I don’t think the education department has any credibility, and he particularly doesn’t have any credibility on charters.”

Others say that rhetoric itself has power, and that the mayor can complicate the process for charter schools trying to find public space. Here’s a look at what the city can — and can’t — do when it comes to charter schools.

Can the mayor stop charter schools from expanding? (No, that’s not him.)

The city’s Department of Education used to be able to approve or “authorize” charters, but it lost that power in a series of state legislative changes passed during the Race to the Top era. Now, charter approval and oversight is left to the New York State Board of Regents and SUNY.

Roughly 50 charter schools still remain under the control of the Department of Education, holdovers from when the city used to authorize charters. In February, the city moved to close three low-performing charter schools under its control. Even the New York City Charter School Center did not protest those closures.

“Nobody wants to see a school closed, but it’s important that authorizers maintain high standards and hold charters accountable,” said James Merriman, CEO of the Charter School Center, at the time.

Charter schools currently serve 95,000 students, roughly 8.6 percent of the student population, and a state cap controls their growth. Last year the state doubled limit on the number of new charter schools that can start in New York City from 25 to 50.

Can he deny charter schools space? (Not technically, but advocates argue he can make it difficult.)

School space has been a key flash point between de Blasio and advocates.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz led the charge against de Blasio in 2014 with a crusade to secure charter school space — and it’s a battle she won. The state passed a law requiring the city to provide new charter schools with space inside city buildings or fund private rent for schools.

Despite that law, some charter advocates argue de Blasio could do a better job finding public space for charter schools. Public space is often preferable to private space, they say, since those buildings are already designed to accommodate students.

In June, the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools released a report claiming there are 67 schools in the city with more than 500 seats available for students. City officials called that claim “misleading,” since many factors determine whether a given space is appropriate for a school, including projected enrollment and the type of seats available.

Still, leaders of the city’s largest charter school networks said the city could provide more space to schools with fewer strings attached.

“The process was often marred by unnecessary hurdles, difficulties and delays,” wrote a group of charter school leaders in an open letter to de Blasio. “Sadly, in other cases, public charter schools were not provided with public facilities, leaving thousands of families stranded without a high-­quality option or building.”

Can he control charters’ ability to provide pre-K? (Not exactly)

This fall, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz refused to sign the city’s pre-K contract, arguing that being asked to do so is illegal since Success is overseen by SUNY, not the Department of Education.

“One of the primary reasons Success scholars and teachers have been able to achieve so much is their ability to learn and work without the shackles of bureaucracy exemplified by this 241-page contract,” said Success spokesman Stefan Friedman in February.

City officials fired back, insisting that they have a responsibility to ensure pre-K standards remain high in every school, including charter schools. Moskowitz appealed to State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who denied her request. In response, she cancelled her pre-K classes this year.

State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan appeared to throw his weight behind Moskowitz when he sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, arguing that the state should help ease the regulatory burdens on charter schools. It is still unclear how the law will be interpreted, but Assembly Speaker Heastie sent a dueling letter to the governor, disagreeing with Flanagan’s interpretation.

Does the rhetoric itself have power? (Possibly, but only if people listen)

Even if he has little practical power over charter schools, some say his words themselves are deflating.

“I think it does hurt charter schools when he casts aspersions and basically says their hard work to help [students] meet Common Core standards is really just a glorified parlor trick,” Merriman said.

Some, like Tillotson, are skeptical that the mayor has enough allies to make a dent at the state level. “He can politically lobby, but he’s got no political juice,” Tillotson said.

But others, like Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with some charter schools, say the mayor’s words matter.

“What he does have is the bully pulpit. He’s the mayor, he has significant following in the city,” Bellafiore said. “He has a bullhorn and that has an impact.”

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.

unions in charters

When charter schools unionize, students learn more, study finds

A UFT organizer hands out a pro-union flier to Emily Samuels, one of Opportunity Charter School's administrators. To the left, Ana Patejdl, a teacher at the school.

When charter school teachers push to unionize, charter leaders often fight back.

That’s happened in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Unionizing, they argue, would limit the schools’ ability to innovate, ultimately hurting kids.

But a new study of California schools finds that, far from harming student achievement, unionization of charter schools actually boosts test scores.

“In contrast to the predominant public opinion about school unionizations, we find that unionization has a positive … impact on student math performance,” write researchers Jordan Matsudaira of Cornell and Richard Patterson of the U.S. Military Academy.

The analysis is hardly the last word on the question, but it highlights the limited evidence for the idea that not having unionized teachers helps charter schools succeed — even though that is a major aspect of the charter-school movement, as most charters are not unionized.

“Contrary to the anti-worker and anti-union ideologues, the teacher unions in charter schools don’t impede teaching and learning or hurt kids,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in more than 240 charter schools. “And the findings — that schools with teachers who have an independent voice through its unions have a positive effects on student performance — are consistent with common sense and other studies.”

The study, just published in the peer-reviewed Economics of Education Review, finds that about a quarter of all charters in California — 277 of 1,127 — were unionized as of 2013. Together, they taught nearly a third of the state’s students in charter schools.

Forty-four of those schools unionized between 2003 and 2013. To understand the effects of that change, the researchers compared trends in test scores of schools after they unionized to similar schools that didn’t unionize during that time.

The researchers find that unionization increased students’ annual math test scores, and those gains persisted for least three years. The students who started at the lowest achievement levels seemed to benefit the most.

Those gains were fairly substantial: In math, they were about three times the size of the total advantage conferred by urban charter schools nationwide, according to research frequently cited by charter school advocates.

The estimated impact on English scores was positive, but small and not statistically significant.

The paper was not able to explain why unionization seemed to improve student learning, though the authors say it could relate to improved teacher morale or better relationships between teachers and school leadership. Oddly, unionization seemed to lead to a decline in teachers’ years of experience; it did not have any effect on class size.

The study comes with some significant caveats. Although the researchers make extensive efforts to make apples-to-apples comparisons among schools, it’s difficult to be sure that unionization is what caused the test-score gains. If schools that were already more likely to improve were also more likely to unionize, that could explain the results.

David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate at the Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said the study was well done but noted its inability to explain the results.

Griffith, who released an analysis last week showing that unionized charter schools have relatively high rates of teacher absenteeism, also pointed out that many charters without unions are successful.

“Even if this study is true for these particular schools, we have examples of really high-performing non-unionized charter schools,” he said. “It’s difficult to leap from this study to say that [for example] KIPP, which gets these fantastic results, should unionize.”

Previous research has shown middling performance for one of the most high-profile unionized charters in the state, Green Dot, while other non-unionized schools, like the Alliance charter network in Los Angeles, posted better scores.

In contrast to the latest research, a previous study of California’s charter schools found that unionization had no significant effect on test scores.

Since the findings are focused on just a fraction of California’s unionized charter schools, they might not apply to other charter schools in the state or country — or say anything about the effects of unions in traditional public schools.