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Regulating charter school demographics proves challenging

One of the most heralded parts of the new charter law forced charter schools to enroll more students with disabilities, learning English, and living in poverty.

But that will be trickier than it sounds.

The most immediate problem is access to data. The state’s two main charter school authorizers, the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute and the state education department, are tasked with setting enrollment targets that its charter schools must meet.

The crucial piece of information that SUNY needs to set its targets is how many needy students currently attend charter schools and neighborhing district schools. The law mandates that charter schools aim to enroll and retain needy students at “comparable” rates to other public schools in the district.

In order to make accurate comparisons between charter and district enrollments, SUNY needs to be able to see the current rates at both its charter schools and neighboring district schools all over the state. (The state education department collects that information from all school districts and charter schools in the state.)

The institute already has access to demographic information about the charter schools it oversees. But it doesn’t have access to crucial pieces of information about the district schools nearby. And to date, the state education department has not shared that information with SUNY, according to the draft guidelines for new charter schools SUNY issued yesterday.

A spokesman for the state education department did not respond to requests for comment today on why it had not yet sent SUNY the data it requested. But after a query from GothamSchools, education department officials contacted SUNY to say that the data would be forthcoming.

Some comparisons of how charters compare to nearby schools have already been made — by the city and state teachers unions. The unions found large gaps between the numbers of needy students served at charter schools and at other schools in their districts.

But SUNY wants to do a more granular analysis of how both charter schools and district schools enroll and retain needy students, the institute’s Vice President for Accountability Ron Miller said.

For example, schools could try to meet their special education targets by diagnosing more of their current students rather than admitting more students already diagnosed. To avoid that, Miller said he’d like to be able to see how many students already designated as needing special education services or English instruction are entering the schools and leaving them.

The institute also wants to make sure that charter school demographics compare to traditional public schools not just in the community school districts where the charter opens, but also in the specific neighborhood. “Geography makes a difference,” Miller said.

For example, several city school districts, including those in Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, have relatively few non-English speaking students overall. But pockets of those neighborhoods have large numbers of English learners, and Miller said that it was important that charters that open in those neighborhoods reflect that composition.

Rates of special education enrollment are similarly variable within traditional public school districts. Because of variables such as size or staffing issues, some district schools serve far more special education students than other nearby district schools. Being able to see those school-by-school variations is crucial to being able to set reasonable targets for charter school enrollments, Miller said.

Figuring out exactly how charter schools should be compared to district schools also raises a host of technical questions. For example, SUNY must figure out whether charters will be required to meet or surpass the enrollment rates of needy students, or whether it would be acceptable to enroll slightly fewer. The head of the New York City Charter School Center, James Merriman, raised many of these questions in a memo to SUNY’s Executive Director Jonas Chartock and State Deputy Education Commissioner John King earlier this month.

Finally, in addition to setting targets, SUNY also needs to be able to evaluate the schools’ plans for hitting the targets. The gap between enrollments in charter and district schools is large in many cases, and so some schools likely will not be able to hit the targets this year.

“There’s no way that instantaneously the schools are going to be able to get there,” Miller said. “So then it becomes about their plans and the credibility of their plans.”

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