When the state Senate and Assembly release their budget proposals, we naturally scour the bills to determine their impact on the charter school movement in New York.
This year there were 11 pages full of policy ideas in the Assembly’s budget bill that would be devastating to the state’s charter sector. It wasn’t a fun read.
Here’s what makes the legislation so harmful.
There are damaging components, from mandating more district laws on charters to limiting the ability to hire talented but uncertified teaching staff. But the worst, and the focus here, is on the enrollment and retention of high-need students. What is clever about the tactic is that it is shrouded in a worthy-sounding goal: charters should serve more high need students to better reflect the public school community.
In reality, the provisions around enrollment and retention of high need students would unequivocally close schools for failing to meet standards that traditional district schools typically cannot meet. Let us say that again. Charter schools would be forced to meet goals that district schools themselves would not be able to meet – and charters would be shuttered if these goals are not met. Not exactly what you’d expect from a policy that supposedly is calling for charters and districts to serve similar populations of students.
The proposed modifications to current law, which already require that charters must strive to enroll and retain high-need students in rates comparable to their district, would force closures two ways. First, by financially starving the schools if they fall short on any of the targets; and, second, by closing schools at renewal and preventing growth anytime if a school falls short on any one of the categories.
It is also important to point out that the bill is based on underlying assumptions that few are talking about right now, but that should be challenged. These assumptions deserve thought and attention, and should not be ignored even in the frenzy of a fast-paced budget cycle.
A few of these important questions:
- Should charters be held to enrollment standards that other schools cannot meet, while districts continue to practice questionable policies such as the warehousing of special need students in select placements (while often failing to follow-though on their obligations for services, we might add)?
- Is it smart policy to force schools, district or charter, to mimic the current enrollment patterns of highly segregated urban districts?
- Is it ethical to force the closure of successful schools outright for not serving enough high-need students, when it would undoubtedly be better for families and children to keep those good schools open but work with them to improve their outreach and enrollment practices?
- Do lawmakers want to close the door on any attempt to run socio-economically diverse charter schools, which research has shown to be beneficial for all students, including those who are poor?
Now let’s look beyond the assumptions and consider the mechanics. The bill expands the number and range of demographic categories for enrollment and retention compliance, and increases the number of compliance check points, while evidence from the current system proves that the idea of requiring schools to meet thresholds based on averages doesn’t work.
Here’s how that works.
Current law requires that charter schools must meet or exceed enrollment and retention targets for students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, English language learners, and those with special education needs. Back in August, NECSN analyzed what happens in key districts with both charters and district schools using the current methodology in place for determining compliance, and the numbers showed that district schools themselves struggle to meet these same standards (you can read those memos to the state here and here).
When the current Assembly proposal was released in this year’s budget cycle we updated that exercise, using updated enrollment data, and guess what we found.
Fewer than 20 percent of traditional district schools in the districts we analyzed can meet all three targets under the current approach.
That’s right -- in Buffalo, Rochester, Albany, and all the NYC CSDs where there are charters, fewer than 20 percent of district schools are able to comply with the enrollment targets using the current methodology for FRPL, ELL and Special Education.
This is what we found:
- More than half of district schools in NYC charter host districts fail to meet both the ED and ELL targets.
- About 1/3 of three charter-heavy upstate districts do not meet the ED or SWD target, and about 2/3 do not meet the ELL target.
- Less than 20% of schools examined in NYC and upstate meet all three targets.
- Nearly half of district schools in NYC only meet zero or one of the three targets. About 40% of upstate district schools in the three upstate districts only meet zero or one of the three targets.
- Not one NYC charter host district can meet all three targets when the calculator runs for the district at the aggregated level, and only a third can meet two.
- Interestingly, at the district level there is widespread failure to meet the targets, which seriously calls into question the sanity of the current methodology.
In many cases, the charter community does reflect lower percentages of enrollment for these high need students than the traditional district schools on an aggregated level. But overwhelmingly the numbers also show just how impossible it is for most district schools to meet the current standards for all three targets as well. This happens because within districts there are wide fluctuations in enrollment patterns. Schools aren’t being compared to those in their immediate neighborhoods; they’re being compared to a broader target threshold that hides the massive differences in who goes to school where. Don’t forget that in many urban areas there are clusters of affluent families able to access high performing schools, while others’ student bodies include concentrations of the poorest families, for example.
New York City has been in the news quite a bit lately on this issue in fact. There also are serious concerns about many urban districts clustering special education students and over-classifying young men of color inappropriately, all of which call into question what kinds of targets are appropriate to set for any school to meet.
Lawmakers and policymakers also should keep in mind that charter schools operate with mandated lotteries, mandated enrollment preferences for siblings of already attending students, and other factors that make it very difficult to increase their enrollment in certain categories. For example, many charter schools face stonewalling techniques when they request the local Committee on Special Education come and evaluate students who may be in need of an IEP. And let’s not forget that charter schools are still schools of choice. Parents need to opt their children in.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that WNYC recently did its own dive into the data to find out if charters or districts are better at retaining their students – and they found that in NYC, across all grades, a smaller percentage of charter students transferred out of their schools than did students at district schools. (10.6 percent of charter kids vs. 13 percent of district kids in 2013-14). NYC charters are doing a better job at keeping their students. If you missed the news, this article may explain why.
Finally, studies published by both the Manhattan Institute and the NYC IBO show that charter schools are indeed better at retaining high-need students than the district, another factor that should work in the charters’ favor, but seems to be ignored.
It also might surprise some to learn that in NYC right now there are:
- 69 charters that specifically preference English language learners for enrollment.
- More than 60 that preference students eligible for FRPL or receiving assistance such as TANF.
- More than a dozen that target students in temporary housing.
- Almost two dozen specifically give preference to special education students.
After carefully considering all of these components, here is our conclusion.
The current policy is failing, and now is not the time to double down on it and make it worse. (For another look at what happens if the proposed changes were applied to districts, check out the work from our friends at the NYC Charter Center.)
By pointing out all of these flaws the intention is not to make excuses and suggest that charters shouldn’t work in good faith to increase enrollments for the highest need students. The intention is to remember that we’re talking about complicated issues, and that children are the ones either helped or hurt when adults make either wise or poor policy choices.
Allowing the Assembly’s proposal to advance would go beyond poor, though – it would be devastating to children and families because it would shut down the many great schools threatened by this bill all because of an anti-charter agenda that fails to factor in what is best for kids.