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As state budget debate rages on, Board of Regents set to push back on Success Academy renewals

Lawmakers in New York’s Capitol have been consumed with a heated fight over the budget, which will determine the future of education spending, fate of charter schools and whether the state will pick up students’ tab for college tuition.

The drama continued into Sunday night, when Governor Andrew Cuomo, around midnight, said he would introduce an “extender” of the current budget to keep the government functioning until May 31 — and that legislative leaders have agreed to approve the measure by Monday afternoon.

But across the street at the State Education Department building, policymakers are also meeting, though the agenda is likely to spark fewer fireworks.

The Board of Regents appears poised to send a series of Success Academy charter school renewals back to their authorizer with comments, rather than approve them, saying that SUNY jumped the gun and has proposed renewing them too early.

It would be a largely symbolic gesture, since the Regents do not have final say over the controversial charter network, according to SUNY officials, but they say the move is a break from precedent.

The Regents will also talk about creating standards for the arts — which has some bearing on the Regents’ goal of revamping graduation requirements. And they will discuss how to reshape education policy under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Here’s more on the meeting items:

Success Academy

The Board of Regents plans to vote on whether to kick 10 proposed Success Academy charter school renewals back to SUNY, saying they were renewed too early.

Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter school network, is authorized by SUNY, but the Regents have the power to suggest changes and send the renewals back to SUNY for further consideration.

State officials say SUNY is giving Success schools full-term renewals, even though they are not technically up for renewal until either 2018 or 2020. The Regents materials indicate this is a departure from normal practice. Officials argued that it’s important to renew charters at the appropriate date, in order to review the most recent data in areas including student enrollment.

SUNY officials said it is normal practice for SUNY to give early renewals in some cases. Susie Miller Carello, executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, said the institute has done so several times in the past. But the last time the Regents sent any decision back to SUNY with comments was seven years ago, she said.

The State Education Department sees the renewal situation differently. “According to our records, there is no precedence for a charter to be submitted to the Board of Regents other than in the last academic year of the charter, which we believe is good practice and is in line with the intent of the law,” wrote a spokesperson via email.

In the end, SUNY will make the final decision, so tomorrow’s vote wouldn’t derail the renewals, said Joseph Belluck, the charter school committee chair on the SUNY board of trustees. He said he does not see any reason the board would modify its original request, but said he disagrees with state officials’ interpretation.

“I am extremely troubled by the Regents rejection of these schools,” Belluck said. “It seems to me that there isn’t a single substantive basis for the rejection.”

Several Regents and Chancellor Betty Rosa have raised concerns about charter schools in the past — specifically that they do not always enroll enough high-needs students. Success Academy is at the epicenter of this debate. The networks’ schools have produced very high test scores, but critics have long held they do so by kicking out students who are hardest to serve.

Arts standards

The Regents will vote to adopt a “strategic plan for the arts,” which includes a vow to revise arts education standards, discussions about how to use the arts as an alternative graduation pathway, and a plan to improve mentorship and research opportunities. Policymakers will also vote to adopt a timeline for the new arts standards, which, if all goes as scheduled, would be fully implemented in the 2018-19 school year.

ESSA

On Tuesday, the Regents will recap their March meeting, where they had a day-long retreat to discuss how the state will reshape education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act. There are no items posted for this meeting yet, but the material says they will “provide direction to department staff.”

Computer science teachers

The Regents will hear a presentation about establishing a computer science teaching certificate. That may be particularly consequential for New York City schools, since Mayor Bill de Blasio has made providing computer science education in every school a major priority. One of the biggest hurdles to expanding computer science education is finding qualified teachers.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.