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Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014.

Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014.

Geoff Decker

Success Academy drops lottery preference for English learners

Eva Moskowitz’s school-admissions fight with the federal education department still isn’t settled.

The Success Academy charter school network announced on Monday that it is dropping a plan to guarantee seats in its schools for English language learners, saying it was unable to resolve its ongoing dispute with the federal education department over how to give those students an extra boost during the admissions process. The announcement represents a setback for the network, which had lobbied the department to allow such set-asides while its charter schools receive federal funds.

Moskowitz, the Success Academy CEO, had declared victory last September following a concerted lobbying effort from charter school advocates and then-State Education Commissioner John King. Months earlier, federal officials clarified that charter schools were allowed to hold “weighted lotteries,” which would allow schools to increase certain students’ odds of winning a spot.

But the network’s plans apparently went further than that. Success Academy’s lottery, scheduled for next month, would have given 14 percent of its new seats to English language learners automatically — something department officials told the network last month still runs afoul of civil rights laws that bar federal funds from going to schools or programs that discriminate on the grounds of race, color, or national origin. (From 2010 to 2012, Success Academy set aside 20 percent of its seats for those students.)

That meant the U.S. Department of Education will pull federal start-up funding for new Success Academy schools unless it changes course, the network said on Monday. The decision does not stop Success from giving English language learners additional weight in their lottery, but the network says it’s too late to plan to do so for its April lottery.

“This is incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking,” Moskowitz said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

The network’s announcement comes as charter schools face continued criticism for not serving their fair share of high-needs students, including English language learners. The city’s charter sector has lagged behind district schools in their percentages of English learners, who make up one in seven district-school students but only one in 15 charter-school students. Just over 10 percent of Success Academy students are English learners, according to the network.

Charter school operators in New York have argued that “set-asides” — like Success Academy’s 14 percent plan — are necessary if they are to follow a state law that requires them to serve student populations that reflect their local districts. Advocates of increasing diversity in schools say lotteries can be used to create integrated schools, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods.

The federal government’s policies only apply to charter schools that are applying for federal grants, and many city charter schools routinely set aside a portion of their seats for high-risk students.

In 2010 and 2011, Success was awarded $15 million in start-up grants to open or expand 24 schools by 2016. Moskowitz called that funding essential and said the network is changing its policies to ensure its schools will still qualify.