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A council bill and a looming report thrust ‘backfill’ into charter-school debate

City Councilman Mark Levine, who is sponsoring a charter-school enrollment transparency bill.
City Councilman Mark Levine, who is sponsoring a charter-school enrollment transparency bill.
Geoff Decker

A Teach for America alum on the City Council is packing the legislative punch behind a new campaign aimed at pressuring charter schools to serve more high-needs students.

Councilman Mark Levine introduced a transparency bill in January that would shed light on how often charter schools and some district schools “backfill” vacant seats with new students. Meanwhile, a parent group backed by a prominent former charter-school CEO is planning to release an analysis of enrollment data that could lend new urgency to a debate that has long divided the charter sector.

Levine’s bill would also require the city to release data on how many students leave and are replaced in gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools. Together, a bigger set of public information about how students enter and leave schools would help parents and the public better evaluate city schools and their test scores, he said.

“If all you know about the schools are the test scores, and you don’t have any information about their backfill and attrition rates, then you don’t have the complete picture of school performance,” Levine, who represents Harlem and Morningside Heights, said in an interview.

Filling the seats of students who leave a school isn’t required, but some charter school operators believe backfilling is essential to fulfill the sector’s mission of serving at-risk students. And not filling seats means schools receive less public money to operate, making a no-backfill policy impossible for many schools.

Christina Reyes, founder and executive director of Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said she backfills for financial and ideological reasons. Not doing so is unfair to district schools that are usually obligated to accept students throughout the year, she said.

“If a district school doesn’t have a choice, why is it OK that we have a choice?” Reyes said.

The argument against backfill is that it can disrupt a carefully cultivated school culture and make it difficult for new students to catch up. Schools belonging to some charter management organizations, such as Uncommon Schools and Success Academy, have rejected backfilling in many grades — although both networks say they have begun filling more seats in recent years.

Levine’s bill represents a middle-of-road approach to regulating the city’s charter-school sector, whose growth is roundly opposed by many of Levine’s colleagues on the council. Education committee chair Daniel Dromm, who last week sent letters to charter schools seeking financial information about their operations, wants to pass a symbolic resolution to call on the state legislature to “reject any attempt to raise the cap on the number of charter schools.”

Last month, the parent group Democracy Builders, founded by former Democracy Prep CEO Seth Andrew, started an online petition to support Levine’s bill and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argued that all charter schools should backfill. Democracy Builders wants to require charter schools to backfill students, which would likely require changes to the state charter law.

That’s a step too far for Levine, who was a member of Teach for America’s second-ever cohort in 1991 and taught for two years at P.S. 146 (He also served a brief stint as executive director of Teach for America’s New York office in 2002). Levine said at this point he’s just looking for more data about the scope of the issue.

“I’m not prescribing a remedy here,” Levine said. “I think we need to get the data first. We can’t even have a reasonable conversation on the policy without it.”

Democracy Builders does have some data at its disposal. The organization is finishing an analysis of enrollment data from 2006 to 2014, and sources who have reviewed it say it could have a significant effect on the way state test scores are used to compare charter schools, particularly those belonging to some charter management organizations that don’t backfill.

That analysis has not yet been made public, but Democracy Builders Executive Director Princess Lyles said it will show how well schools hold onto students, or replace the ones who leave, and what effect that has on state proficiency rates, Lyles said.

“Generally speaking, we see that proficiency rates are going up as student enrollment is going down,” said Lyles, who added that she expected the analysis to be available later this month.

That context that is absent when the state releases its test scores each year, and schools with the highest proficiency rates routinely cite their performance on those tests as evidence that their model is working.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said he supported the initiative, though he said Levine’s bill is flawed because it doesn’t require the same data for all city public schools. (Levine says he’s revising the bill to include them.) Merriman said the data should also show when students when students enter and leave schools, to rebut criticism of schools pushing students out before state tests, and show where students go when they leave charter schools.

“We are supportive of increased transparency and welcome additional data in regards to student enrollment that further helps put student achievement into perspective,” Merriman said in a statement.

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