frozen

New York’s latest charter-school funding debate, explained

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

If Suyin So had more funding, she would increase small group instruction, provide more music classes, and offer a language at her charter school in Queens. But first, she’d deal with the pipe that burst in a special education classroom this year.

“We’re contending with, is the boiler going to blow and who’s going to fix that?” said So, the founder and executive director of Central Queens Academy. Recently, she added, “I’ve learned way more about construction than about instruction.”

So is one of many hoping for increased charter school funding in the state budget this year. While district school per-student funding has increased by $2,113 since 2010 in New York City, charter schools have seen a $350 per-student increase, according to Families for Excellent Schools, the pro-charter group that organized a rally around the issue on Wednesday in Albany.

That doesn’t necessarily mean all charter schools have had less to spend on students than district schools. But the bulk of public funding for charter schools has been held nearly constant for five years. Advocates hope that will change this year, since the governor proposed lifting the freeze in New York City in his executive budget.

But why was the funding freeze there to begin with? Why change it now? And how has it affected charter schools?

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the funding freeze?

Under state law, as district school funding increases or decreases, so should charter school funding. (The charter figure lags by two years.) But the governor and legislature froze the number for charter schools at the end of the recession for 2009-10 and then again in 2010-11. The level of funding has held at the 2010-11 level ever since.

In the first years of the freeze, funding increases did not differ dramatically between district schools and charter schools. Some charter advocates were grateful that their funding remained constant during tough budgetary times.

But as the economy improved, district schools began receiving more funds, including from a new city teacher contract that upped teacher salaries. Charter schools got funding boosts in lump sums from the state, but overall, district school funding in New York City increased at six times the rate of charter school funding, according to FES.

Now, charter school advocates want to return to a formula that allows charter funding to increase as district school funds do.

So, have charter schools had less to spend on students?

It depends. Last summer, the city’s Independent Budget Office said although the city has increased funding for district schools more than for charter schools, the funding they receive is nearly identical — at least for the charter schools that operate in district buildings.

When those services, including maintenance and security costs, are taken into account, co-located charter schools received only $29 per student less than district schools in 2014-2015, according to the IBO.

“We say it’s essentially the same,” said Ray Domanico, the IBO’s research director.“Twenty-nine dollars is really a pretty meaningless difference.”

Charter schools that pay for their own space, though, received almost $3,000 less per student in funding than district schools, according to the IBO. All told, the city’s traditional public schools received an average of $17,928 per student in 2014-15, while co-located charter schools received $17,899 and charter schools in private space received $15,014.

(Advocacy groups, including FES and the Northeast Charter Schools Network, have disputed the IBO’s findings and questioned its methodology.)

As the city’s teachers union is quick to point out, charter schools can also raise money through private fundraising. New or expanding charter schools can now also apply for money to help pay for private space — further reducing that gap for schools that qualify. Central Queens Academy, which rents its own space and opened in 2012, gets that funding for some, but not all, of its students.

Why do charter advocates care about this now?

Charter advocates have been pushing to unfreeze the per-student funding formula for years, but it didn’t make it into Gov. Cuomo’s proposal or the final budget deal last year.

The funding boost would also provide an immediate benefit to all city charter schools, unlike the rent assistance, and would come as education spending continues to rise at a fast clip. From 2009 to 2014, district schools increased general education spending by $1,376 per student, according to the IBO.

What is the governor proposing?

The governor proposed both a lump sum of $27 million for charter schools and for charter school funding to parallel district school funding in New York City.

The funding formula is already set to unfreeze for the entire state next year, which means the governor’s proposal would “jumpstart” the process for New York City, said Andrea Rogers, a senior policy director at Northeast Charter Schools Network.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.