firing back

Charter CEO: Fariña has 'obligation' to release data after push-out claims

Some charter school leaders are taking a quieter approach to lobbying the de Blasio administration. Here, posters from a charter schools rally in October.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman is challenging Chancellor Carmen Fariña to prove that some charter schools have illicit enrollment practices, after she claimed schools were bending the rules on Thursday.

After Fariña suggested that some charter schools were pushing kids out ahead of state tests and selectively recruiting high-performing students, Merriman fired back with a 400-word statement that called on the chancellor to use her authority to investigate her suspicions. Merriman said that the center had “no evidence” that charters counseled out students before testing.

“The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well,” he said. “I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.”

“To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city,” he said, adding that corrective action should be taken in schools where there is evidence of improper discharging of students.

The response was unusually forceful, given that Fariña has cultivated a cordial relationship with many charter schools even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has more frequently clashed with the charter sector.

A spokeswoman for Fariña emailed Thursday night to temper the chancellor’s remarks, which came during a brief talk with reporters.

“The Chancellor believes schools should share best practices, serve English Language Learners and students with disabilities—and together, we will move our City forward,” said the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye. “As she stated in her remarks, Chancellor Fariña sits on the NYC Charter School Center Board and is committed to working closely with all stakeholders who are invested in improving student outcomes.”

Kaye did not say if Fariña would authorize the release of student discharge data that Merriman called for.

Fariña, a voting board member of Merriman’s organization, has visited many charter schools — focusing on those serving large shares of high-needs students — and brought a few into her signature initiative, the Learning Partners Program.

Merriman called her a “valued member of the board for whose services I and the other board members are very grateful.”

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible,” he added. “This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

In his response, Merriman also took issue with Fariña’s suggestion that some charter schools recruit students based on academic achievement, a practice that would be against state charter law. Fariña said charters should fill open seats with more than “just kids who get postcards because they’re level 3s or 4s to come to the school.”

“If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken,” Merriman said.

Merriman acknowledged that charter schools should enroll more students with disabilities and English language learners, a disparity that Fariña also highlighted. But he said the chancellor should also call attention to “far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees,” referring to screened district schools that select students based on factors like test scores and attendance.

Merriman’s full statement is below:

“This morning, Chancellor Fariña made some very serious allegations about the charter school sector and  they require a detailed response.

“First, we have seen no evidence that charter schools are counseling children out prior to test time as she has suggested is a not uncommon practice. The NYC DOE has access to enrollment and discharge data and now has an obligation to release such data not just for every charter school but for every district school as well. I call on the Chancellor to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.  To do anything else is to smear an entire group of public schools and their teachers and leaders who work very hard every day to educate children in this city.  Where the data shows such a pattern for any school, corrective action should be instituted immediately.

“Second, the Chancellor also seems to have alleged that at least some charter schools, all of which enroll their students via random lottery, are selecting students based on test scores. We have seen no evidence of this, either at the beginning of the year or anytime thereafter. While selecting students based on their academic achievement is a wide-spread practice throughout the district, charter schools cannot do so.  If there is evidence that the Chancellor is relying on in making this claim, she should immediately release it so that appropriate corrective measures may be taken.

“Third, Chancellor Fariña rightly called on charter schools to enroll more students receiving special education services and English Language Learners.  The NYC Charter School Center, together with many charter school leaders, has made access to charter schools for these children a priority; and there is more work for us to do.  However, in calling out charter schools, Chancellor Fariña inexplicably ignores far more troubling and gaping inequalities among the schools she oversees.  We and many others have documented the startling differences among district schools that are in close geographic proximity, not only in the numbers of students receiving special education services and who are English Language Learners, but also even more perniciously by race and class.

“We stand ready to work with the Chancellor, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect, to ensure that we not only have the highest-quality charter sector but also the most responsible.  This work will be made easier if we have this conversation based strictly on data available to all and not on anecdotes or generalized characterizations.”

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