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Power struggle over charter schools to continue as city officials head to Albany

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, left, is pushing the city's education department under Carmen Fariña to be tougher on low-performing charter schools.
Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, left, is pushing the city's education department under Carmen Fariña to be tougher on low-performing charter schools.

The de Blasio administration is taking more heat over its relationship with charter schools — this time, for going too easy on them.

In an unusual faceoff, officials from the city education department are set to appear before the Board of Regents on Monday to defend their recommendation to keep a set of city charter schools open. It appears that the two charter school authorizers have settled some of their disagreements, but larger tensions remain, and the meeting could foreshadow a battle over the city’s power over charter schools coming later this year.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s happening.

This is round two of a battle that started last month.

The Regents fired the first shots in December.

The city regulates 70 charter schools, and seven schools’ charters were up for renewal in December. The city wanted the schools’ charters to be renewed, though none for a full five-year term. The city’s application detailed the challenges that some of the schools were facing, from lagging test scores to financial struggles.

The Regents — already on edge after they rubber-stamped a Rochester charter school application in November that had to be quickly rescinded after it was discovered its founder lied on his resume — said those reports raised too many red flags and sent them back.

“I wouldn’t vote to keep most of these schools open, quite honestly,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. “None of them have a track record worth writing home about.”

The city resubmitted renewal applications for some of the schools on Jan. 9, but didn’t change their recommendations. A city education department syndicate led by Laura Feijoo, the senior superintendent in the Office of School Support, is headed upstate to meet Tisch and company face to face.

But state education officials now say they think the city’s recommendations should be approved, according to a posting on the Regents’ website, indicating that the two sides reached an agreement this weekend.

The Regents will also consider applications from eight more schools, three of which with had low enough test scores that the city only wants to give them until June 2016 to improve or face closure.

The Regents’ moves last month were unusually aggressive and unusually public.

Under state law, Regent can send the city’s charter school recommendations back with comments or objections, but typically disagreement plays out behind the scenes. Both sides usually settle on a proposal by the time it comes up for a vote.

“There’s always been this back-room discussion that takes place prior to the meeting,” said Dirk Tillotson, the former CEO and COO of the New York City Charter School Center who now helps develop and open schools.

“To see it take place in this way speaks to me of the antipathy between the board and the DOE, or some sort of lack of coordination,” Tillotson added. “Even when the Regents didn’t agree with what the DOE was doing, they didn’t embarrass them like this.”

What’s clear is that the Regents are using their legal power over the renewal process to take a more active role in charter-school oversight. Though the Regents can’t outright reject the city’s renewal recommendations, they can continue sending the city’s proposals back until they get a proposal they agree with.

“I don’t even understand why we’re negotiating this,” Lester Young, a Regent representing Brooklyn, said at last month’s meeting. “We’re the State Education Department. Why don’t we just say, ‘Here’s what we want and don’t send it unless you have it.’”

The debate is part of a larger tug-of-war over the city’s struggling schools.

Just a month earlier, Tisch suggested that if the city didn’t move more aggressively to retool its struggling district schools, the state would step in to close them. Tisch made it clear that her concerns extended to how de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña would regulate charter schools.

“If your school has not been doing well, regular school or charter school, we have to think about taking the next step,” Tisch said.

The Regents want the city to set clearer goals for schools to avoid confusion when deciding whether a charter school should stay open and for how long. That’s likely to come up Monday, as several of the schools being discussed at the meeting aren’t keeping up with schools with similar student populations in a variety of academic areas.

Regents have also raised concerns about the reports’ consistency. The reports for some schools compared academic performance data to district schools with similar student populations, while others left that out. Student retention was highlighted for one school, but not for any of the others. One school leader said that some of the details in his report were simply erroneous.

A spokeswoman for the city education department did not respond to requests for comment.

The back-and-forth could mark the beginning of a move to take charter-school authorizing power from the city.

The state’s three authorizers are the Board of Regents, the State University of New York, and the city Department of Education. The city lost the power to open new schools in 2010, but it still conducts school visits, writes reports, and issues recommendations for the 70 schools it had already authorized.

And even though New York’s charter school movement is still relatively young, the rivalries between those with the power to open and oversee charter schools run deep.

The Regents’ criticism of the de Blasio administration could be an opening salvo in a fight for more authorizing power. Last year, the State Senate pushed a provision that would have allowed schools to leave the city as an authorizer and join one of the state’s other two authorizers, something that could come up again this year during negotiations over lifting the charter school cap.

The Regents have made such a power grab before. The board symbolically rejected about 70 percent of SUNY’s charter approvals between 2007 and 2009. In 2009 and 2010, as legislators debated whether to lift the charter school cap and how many to give each authorizer, Tisch backed legislation that would have limited SUNY’s power, though SUNY successfully fought back.

Meanwhile, the schools caught in the middle are anxious.

There are 38 city-authorized charter schools up for renewal this year, and officials at those schools are watching the fight carefully. Some are even jumping into the fray.

Christina Reyes, founder and executive director of Inwood Academy of Leadership Charter School, decided to drive to Albany to personally lobby state education officials after finding out they sent back her school’s renewal application. She invited Regents to visit the school — Betty Rosa is the only one who took her up on the offer — and peppered the Department of Education with questions, though she said she has heard little back.

Though Inwood Academy’s test scores have lagged behind district averages, the school outperformed others with similar student populations and its special-needs students excelled on last year’s math tests. The school also retained 93 percent of its students, a point of pride for Reyes.

Still, Reyes agreed that her school’s test scores weren’t where they should be. “We’re better than that and we can prove we’re better than that and we will,” she said.

Inwood is one of three schools whose charters expired on Dec. 14, meaning that they are technically not authorized to operate (many of the others expire tomorrow), raising questions about their legal protections in the event of an accident.

Reyes said the experience had left her weary of the city’s renewal process.

“Do we want to be subject to the whims of change that you’re subject to when you have someone in office every four years?” she said.

Officials at another charter school whose decision was delayed, Teaching Firms of America, have refused to sign the renewal agreement. Founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din said it’s not because he disagrees with the 2.5-year renewal decision, but that he objects to a provision in the agreement that says his school should strive to retain a high percentage of its staff.

Kalam Id-Din also objected to the city’s decision to deny his application to add middle school grades and sent the education department a letter last month rebutting the city’s report.

“There’s a lack of rationale,” he said. “We still haven’t gotten it.”

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