race to the race to the top

Five questions the new charter school law leaves unanswered

New York State Capitol, photo via Flickr.
New York State Capitol, photo via ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/stgermh/394233893/##Flickr##.

One consequence of the charter cap legislation passed in Albany today is clear: it’s now possible for 114 new charter schools to open in New York City over the next four years, more than doubling the number of charters and students in them. Statewide, the door is open for 260 new charter schools to open by 2014.

But the new law also includes a slew of changes to the way the schools are opened and run, leaving advocates, officials and observers with at least five big unanswered questions.

1. What’s the deal with the new Request for Proposals process?

Under the old charter school law, educators could ask to open charter schools simply by applying to do so. Now, prospective school leaders will have to formulate their applications as responses to Request for Proposals. These will be issued by both the Board of Regents and the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute.

Advocates and union officials today disagreed on exactly how the RFP’s will be used. One school of thought is that the RFP will be a tool for limiting charter school leaders’ freedom to open in a location of their choosing. Indeed, the law declares that operators that receive an endorsement of their school district will have a leg up in the RFP process. That could make it harder for operators to open schools in some upstate districts whose school boards strongly oppose charter schools. (Or imagine a less charter-happy mayor in New York. Mayor de Blasio?)

In an interview today, city teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said that the union plans to “advocate through the RFP.” He meant, he explained, that the UFT will lobby authorizers not to issue RFPs for schools in neighborhoods deemed overwhelmed with charter schools.

But charter school advocates said they aren’t concerned about the RFP process. Beyond creating more bureaucratic hurdles for authorizers and new charter schools, they said, the process will not significantly change how authorizers determine which schools should open. “The difference may appear larger than it actually is,” said James Merriman, head of the New York City Charter School Center.

2. Can the New York City schools chancellor continue to authorize charter schools?

Until today, the city Department of Education’s charter school office played a similar role to SUNY: It accepted applications for new charter schools, reviewed and approved them, and then passed the applications on to the Board of Regents for final approval. The city acted as the main authorizer for those schools, monitoring the schools and shutting them down for poor performance.

Under the new law, the schools chancellor can still recommend charter school applications to the Regents — and now can also recommend schools to SUNY for approval. And that recommendation matters to some degree: The rubric authorizers must use to evaluate applications gives preference for schools with a district endorsement. But it’s unclear whether the city will retain the power to oversee and shut down failing charters.

John White, a deputy chancellor for the city, noted that the law still names the chancellor as one of the state’s three “charter entities” who legally have power to oversee schools.

But Jonas Chartock, the head of SUNY’s Charter School Institute, said that his reading of the law suggests that his center will retain the ultimate oversight over schools it authorizes.

“To me, it’s not exactly clear,” said Merriman. “A reading of the bill would allow either interpretation at this point. It’s something that I think we have to see how counsel for the various parties…view that.”

3. How does the law force charter schools to accept more English language learners and special education students?

The law requires that charter schools maintain a certain number of English language learners and special education students over time. Schools are supposed to hit targets for both student enrollment and student retention that match neighborhood schools. Here’s what the law says authorizers have to make sure of:

THAT SUCH
   37  ENROLLMENT TARGETS ARE COMPARABLE TO  THE  ENROLLMENT  FIGURES  OF  SUCH
   38  CATEGORIES  OF  STUDENTS  ATTENDING THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS WITHIN THE SCHOOL
   39  DISTRICT, OR IN A CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT IN A CITY HAVING A POPULATION  OF
   40  ONE MILLION OR MORE INHABITANTS, THE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, IN WHICH
   41  THE  PROPOSED  CHARTER  SCHOOL  WOULD  BE  LOCATED;  AND  (2)  THAT SUCH
   42  RETENTION TARGETS ARE COMPARABLE TO THE RATE OF RETENTION OF SUCH  CATE-
   43  GORIES  OF  STUDENTS  ATTENDING  THE  PUBLIC  SCHOOLS  WITHIN THE SCHOOL
   44  DISTRICT, OR IN A CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT IN A CITY HAVING A POPULATION  OF
   45  ONE MILLION OR MORE INHABITANTS, THE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, IN WHICH
   46  THE PROPOSED CHARTER SCHOOL WOULD BE LOCATED; AND

But it’s not clear how that requirement will be enforced. Among other implementation problems is data-keeping. “SUNY’s going to need access to data we’ve never been able to obtain,” Chartock said.

4. Does the law change relationships between charter schools and district schools that share space?

The new law creates a “building council” to coordinate collaboration between schools housed together. Right now, co-located schools have building councils that include only principals from each school. The new councils will include principals, teachers and parents from each school in a building.

The council does not have the power to veto the city’s co-location plans. But it will be able to draw public attention to the plans. And public attention isn’t without its own kind of power: The new mayoral control law created public hearings when schools were recommended for closure. The hearings created quite a firestorm and arguably played a role in the recent court decision overturning city-enforced school closures.

5. Where does the money come from?

The increased bureaucracy and oversight required by the new law will require resources. Given the state’s doomsday fiscal climate, it’s unclear where that money will come from. Already SUNY’s Charter School Institute, which will see the number of charters it oversees double, is facing a proposed 70 percent funding reduction under budgets proposed by both the Senate and the Assembly.

The law also includes a provision requiring that any improvements to a charter school facility worth more than $5,000 must be matched in the district schools that share its building. The measure was widely praised on all sides as a way to assure equity between charter and district school students.

“But I want to be very, very clear,” Merriman said. “We do expect that the mayor and the chancellor step up and meet their commitment to provide such funding so that charters and district school students attend school in equal and high quality facilities.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”