unchartered territory

Charter applicants could offer test of new for-profit operator ban

Four prospective charter schools could force the state to define precisely how involved for-profit companies can be in the operations of charter schools.

When the legislature lifted the cap on charter schools in May, it also banned for-profit companies from managing or operating charters. But four of the schools applying to open next year are partnering with Arrow Academy, a Texas-based for-profit management organization.

Arrow’s ability to open the schools will come down to how close a for-profit company can work with a school before the state considers it to be managed by them.

The four are applying for charters from the state Board of Regents, and their applications are also currently being vetted by the city Department of Education. A city spokesman said today that Arrow’s relationship with the school would be like any other charter or district school that contracts with a for-profit company to provide school services.

Arrow Academy had originally intended to apply to manage the schools itself, the company’s head, Jim Christensen, said today. But when the law changed, the company altered its application so that instead, it will contract with the school’s board to provide curriculum and teacher training.

The four schools — two in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan and one in the Bronx — are still in the process of applying for their charters and it’s not guaranteed they will be approved. But if they are, they could signal one way that for-profit management companies could remain for-profit and continue to work with New York charter schools.

For a consulting fee, Arrow Academy will contract with the four schools’ boards, which will be comprised mainly of people affiliated with local community groups. The schools won’t need to find public space, as community organizations have already volunteered to house them.

In the city charter office’s executive summary of the applications, Arrow’s role is described in broad terms: the schools will partner with Arrow, the summaries say, “for education and operational services under the [schools’] chartering board.”

Christensen described a more limited potential role, with Arrow involved mainly in how students are taught.  “We would like to be involved with the decisions that have to do with student development,” Christensen said. “That’s Arrow’s interest.”

Arrow also plans to advise the boards of the prospective charters against spending more than 15 percent of their per-pupil funding on any single contractor, including itself, Christensen said.

“It’s a unique model that we think we can incorporate with the new law,” he said.

Arrow is a new company, formed in October 2009 by Christensen in partnership with Flip Flippen, the head of the teacher professional development and business coaching company Flippen Group.

The company’s model is to establish “learning centers,” which Christensen described as analogous to New York City’s small schools, located in community centers or other facilities run by non-profit organizations. (That includes church space, though none of the charters the group is working with in New York would be located at a church.)

Flippen was contacted by Chancellor Joel Klein, Christensen said, after Klein noticed that Flippen’s professional development was used in a number of schools that had shown rapid improvement on their report card grades. That connection was part of the reason why the company chose the city, along with its home base of Texas, as one of the first locations to open new schools.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.