war of attrition

IBO admits charter school special ed attrition numbers missed the full picture

A widely publicized statistic showing that charter schools do a poor job of retaining their special education students was based on flawed data, the city’s Independent Budget Office has admitted.

The agency reported in January that 80 percent of special education students identified at the start of kindergarten in 2008 left their charter school within three years. But the real figure is likely different, since the IBO only accounted for students receiving full-time special education services—omitting students with less-severe needs.

“If we made a mistake, it was the following: we should have named our finding full-time special education students,” said Raymond Domanico, the IBO’s director of education research.

It’s not clear how much the error affected the results, given that relatively few students are already identified as having special needs at the very start of kindergarten.

Still, it complicates long-simmering debates about how well charter schools serve special education students in which the 80 percent figure had already become a flashpoint. That number was emphasized repeatedly in the IBO report, and prompted a number of headlines (and Chalkbeat coverage).

It also raises questions about how committed the agency is to accuracy, given its role as a nonpartisan education data watchdog. The state legislature specifically charged the IBO with sifting through Department of Education data when it voted to renew mayoral control of the city’s schools in 2009.

The IBO’s numbers leave out a large chunk of students who fall under the city’s special education umbrella, including students who get pulled out of general education classes for some period of the day and students who receive services like speech and occupational therapy. State data shows that 31 percent of the city’s special education students in 2008-9 received services for less than 40 percent of the school day.

Domanico blamed the error on confusing data the agency received from the Department of Education, since students labeled “special education” did not include all students receiving special education services.

And though he acknowledged that the report wasn’t as specific as it could be, Domanico insisted that a correction was not warranted because that finding still reflects special education students, it was one part of a report much larger in scope, and because the city’s data has been inconsistent in the past.

“There was nothing that’s incorrect,” he said. “Our findings still hold; it’s a matter of specifying who we’re talking about.”

Special education advocates see it differently. Ellen McHugh, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, said the IBO’s conflation was “misleading,” since many special education students don’t receive services full-time.

In a highly polarized environment, the agency’s independent status also gives its findings additional credibility, McHugh said.

“It’s disappointing for advocates who thought they had this as examples of discrimination [by charter schools]. It’s also reinforcement for charter school advocates who say everyone lies about charter schools,” she said.

The error was first brought to the IBO’s attention by researcher Marcus Winters, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute and had conducted a study using data on the same cohort of students, who were in kindergarten and at a charter school in the 2008-9 school year. (That study found that special education students left district schools and charter schools at about the same rate.)

Winters and the IBO used student data from different points in the school year, making direct comparisons between the two reports difficult. Still, Winters was struck by just how far apart their numbers of special education students were.

Returning to his data, Winters says he accounted for 198 such students in spring 2009; the IBO had counted just 25 that fall.

“Whatever it is, that number they’re using is way too small,” Winters said.

Winters asked the Department of Education to explain the discrepancies. The response from the department was that, in the confusing labyrinth of the city’s data sets, the total number of special education students is not captured by only those students labeled “special education,” but instead by the labels of “IEP” and “disability.”

Winters passed that along to the IBO, and the New York City Charter School Center noted his explanation last month. The IBO now says he’s right, but only acknowledged that publicly after inquiries from a reporter.

“It rang true to us when we heard it,” Domanico said about Winters’ information. “The data that we’re reporting is accurate, but perhaps it could have used the [‘full-time’] qualifier.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede