Charter Schools

New York policymakers express doubts about charter sector — and approve another expansion

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse.

The Board of Regents’ ambivalence about charter schools was again on display Monday as state policymakers voiced concerns about whether the sector is a drain on district coffers even as officials cast an initial vote to approve a new list of charter school applications.

The Board of Regents — whose members were on the committee that approved the list — will take a final vote Tuesday.

The approvals leave just eight spots under the state cap in New York City, and 78 elsewhere in the state, for new charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded.

The Board of Regents is one of two charter authorizers in New York, and the go-ahead for seven new charter schools, six of them in New York City, was not unexpected. All plan to open next fall, according to their applications.

But despite this green light, discussion on Monday revolved around concerns and criticism: how community school districts are being affected financially when charter schools compete for students.

Specifically, some board members wanted a breakdown of how community school districts would be impacted by lower student enrollment, driven by children who leave for charters.

“If students leave the district, then the district is going to have less money,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin, whose jurisdiction includes Brooklyn, repeating a claim made by many charter opponents but disputed by charter advocates. “So we’re losing money to our public schools.”

Each charter’s application provides a breakdown of the expected fiscal impact on an overall school district — in this case, New York City as a whole — but nothing more specific.

For example, the New York City Charter High School for Computer Engineering and Innovation — aimed at replicating the college- and career-focused New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries — is projected to require $2.2 million from the city next school year, according to its proposal documents. That’s less than 1 percent of the the city education department’s overall budget.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the state department doesn’t have this specific community schools data on hand, but it could request a breakdown from the city.

Some regents who raised concerns abstained from voting on the charter applications. Regents Cashin, Susan W. Mittler, Beverly L. Ouderkirk and Catherine Collins declined to vote on all seven proposals.

In the past, the Regents have delivered a mixed message on charter schools. They’ve approved large batches of applications, rejected others and have also raised questions about whether these schools are educating their fair-share of students with high needs.

Regent Judith Johnson raised that fairness question again on Monday. David Frank, executive director of the education department’s charter school office, said the office will continue to ensure the schools are serving a “comparable” number of English language learners and other high-needs students.

With control of the state legislature up for grabs in Tuesday’s election, the fate of charters will also be affected by whether the sector’s advocates or opponents gain the upper hand.

Here’s the list of approved charter schools in New York City:

-AECI II: NYC Charter High School for Computer Engineering and Innovation (Bronx)

-Bronx Arts and Science Charter School (Bronx)

-Brooklyn RISE Charter School (Brooklyn)

-Education Unlimited Lyceum Charter School (Manhattan)

-LEEP Dual Language Academy Charter School (Brooklyn)

-Staten Island Hebrew Public Charter School (Staten Island)

Charter unions

Teachers at 4 Chicago International Charter Schools threaten Feb. 5 strike

Charter teachers announce a strike date outside of outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

Unless they reach a compromise with their network bosses, teachers at four Chicago International Charter Schools will strike on Feb. 5. The teachers announced the strike date Thursday morning in response to a months-long stalemate over bargaining.

The union is demanding increased pay and benefits for both teachers and paraprofessionals, smaller class sizes, more resources for classrooms and more counseling and social work staff. Last fall, 96 percent of Chicago International’s 138 unionized educators voted to authorize a strike.

“We need to reduce staff turnover and increase stability of our schools because it creates an environment in which students can thrive and learn,” said Jen Conant, a math teacher at CICS Northtown and a union chair for negotiating members. “Compensation and benefits are key elements to reducing staff turnover.”

Chicago International is the umbrella organization for 14 schools run by a handful of management companies. Educators and some paraprofessionals at four of those schools are unionized — one run by Chicago Quest and another three by Civitas Education Partners. The four schools are ChicagoQuest, Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison and Wrightwood.

In a statement to Chalkbeat, a spokesperson with Chicago International Charter Schools said the organization valued and respected the work of the schools’ teachers and staff but would do their best to prevent a strike.

“We know that we all come to work for the same reason – our students – and no matter the position, we are driven by the same goal of helping our students to succeed,” the statement said. But, “CICS is disappointed that the CTU has chosen to announce this strike and we will do everything we can to minimize the harm to our students and their families.”  

Chicago International also announced contingency plans at their four buildings in case of a strike: all campuses would be staffed by principals and non-union staff and remain open during usual school hours. Breakfast and lunch, along with online learning and recreational activities, would be available to students who came to school.

The announcement follows other high-profile teacher union actions. The nation’s first charter school teacher strike took place in Chicago in December, when some 500 union members at Acero charter schools walked off for a week. And Los Angeles teachers who are out on their first strike in 30 years this week were joined on the picket lines by charter educators on Tuesday.

The vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union connected the demands of teachers from Chicago International Charter Schools to the wave of teachers strikes that took place across the country in 2018.  

“Oklahoma. North Carolina. Arizona. West Virginia. Kentucky. Chicago. Los Angeles. It is very clear that in 2019 teachers are going to have to stay on the picket line to ensure smaller class sizes, to ensure that resources are really coming into our classrooms,” Stacy Davis Gates said at a press conference outside CICS Wrightwood Elementary School in the Ashburn neighborhood.

The Charter union Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), which originally represented charter teachers, joined the Chicago Teachers Union last summer.

This week, the Chicago Teachers Union also delivered a 75-point set of contract demands to the city addressing a wide range of issues, including a push for a 5 percent pay raise, as well as a request for district action on overcrowded classrooms and the loss of veteran black female teachers.  

ONLINE SCHOOLS

A new proposal aims to ratchet up oversight of Indiana’s most troubled virtual charter schools

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Indiana Virtual School is located in the Parkwood office park at 96th St. and College Ave near the northern edge of Marion County.

Indiana lawmakers quietly took an initial step Wednesday that could eventually lead to the closures of the state’s most troubled virtual charter schools, Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy.

A provision to stop school districts from overseeing statewide virtual charter schools was tucked into a widely supported proposal to require students and their families to take an annual orientation before they can enroll in an online school. The bill passed the House Education Committee by an 8-0 vote and will be sent to the full House for consideration.

The move would prevent Daleville Community Schools, the oversight agency for Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, from renewing those charters. Indiana Virtual School’s charter agreement runs through the 2020 school year. Daleville has not publicly posted the charter for Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, which opened in 2017, so it is unclear when it expires.

If the two virtual charter schools were to remain open after their charters expire, the bill would require them to seek what education leaders hope would be a stronger oversight agency — a statewide charter authority such as the Indiana Charter School Board or Ball State University.

Bill author Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he was “trying to do more than engagement, and improve the performance of our virtual charter schools.” He has previously told Chalkbeat that he does not think school districts should oversee large, statewide virtual charter schools.

Read more: Why Indiana education officials want to stop this school district from overseeing online schools

Daleville schools superintendent Paul Garrison attended the committee hearing and testified in favor of the orientation requirement — his suggestion to make the onboarding process an annual requirement was added to the proposal — but he did not address the authorizing provision. Chalkbeat was unable to reach Garrison or Indiana Virtual School Superintendent Percy Clark for further comment.

Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy have in recent years had some of the lowest graduation rates in the state. In 2018, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy graduated just 2 percent of its 1,009 seniors, and it also failed to test enough of its students to receive an A-F letter grade from the state, Chalkbeat found.

A 2017 Chalkbeat investigation showed that as Indiana Virtual School ballooned in size and posted dismal academic results, it had business ties that stood to financially benefit its founder.

Despite receiving $1 million in fees last year to oversee Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, education officials have raised concerns that Daleville is not holding the schools accountable.

“They’ve done a terrible job, and it would be my strong preference that they not be protected any further for their atrocious performance,” Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry has said.

Chalkbeat’s investigations and the continual low performance of virtual charter schools prompted the state board to recommend stricter regulations, including strengthening the oversight of online schools and improving engagement efforts with students.

Read more: Indiana education officials call for a crackdown on ‘too big to fail’ virtual schools

The authorizing provision also seeks to stop other school districts from following in Daleville’s footsteps, closing what some see as a loophole in Indiana law. School districts are only allowed to authorize charter schools within their boundaries, but they are not expressly prohibited from overseeing virtual charter schools.

Last summer, a Chalkbeat investigation examined an agricultural school that sought to open as a full-time virtual charter school overseen by the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school district. But state officials warned the district that they believed it did not have the authority to oversee a statewide virtual charter school, and Indiana Agriculture and Technology School backed off its plans, opening instead as a blended school offering half of its instruction online and half in-person.