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.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.