Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.

chalkbeat cheat sheet

All eyes are on Denver’s teacher pay negotiations as a strike looms. Here’s where things stand and how to tune in.

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have been negotiating for more than a year against a backdrop of widespread protests over teacher pay.

Now, the union is inching toward a strike.

The issues at play are narrower than they are in Los Angeles, where teachers are striking over pay but also class sizes and school resources. In Denver, the union and district agreed on a general contract last year. Now, the sides are focused on the district’s complicated pay-for-performance system, with the union pushing for higher salaries and more opportunities for raises.

The union says it will call for a strike vote on Jan. 19 if a new agreement can’t be reached.

In the meantime, negotiations in Denver are particularly interesting because state law requires bargaining to happen in public. If you’re just getting caught up, or want to tune in as the back-and-forth continues, here’s what you should know.

When are the union and district set to negotiate, and how can I watch?

There are three more sessions on the schedule.

  • Tuesday, Jan. 15, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • Thursday, Jan. 17, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
  • Friday, Jan. 18, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

All three of those sessions will take place at the Acoma Campus, at 1617 S. Acoma St., and are open to the public.

You can also watch online. The district often livestreams the negotiations — here’s where you can find them. It doesn’t always, because doing so takes staff time.

If the district isn’t livestreaming, the union will set up a Facebook Live with a cell phone and a tripod, but it will be of lower quality. Here’s the union’s Facebook page.

If you don’t see anything in either place, it probably means the two sides are caucusing, or meeting in private. Those meetings aren’t streamed.

If you tune in, you’ll see members of both negotiating teams. The union’s team includes Pam Shamburg, Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s executive director; Corey Kern, DCTA’s deputy executive director; Henry Roman, DCTA’s president; Rob Gould, a Denver teacher; and several other teachers.

The district’s negotiation team includes Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer; Susana Cordova, superintendent; and Michelle Berge, general counsel.

What are the union and district at odds over?

The two sides are negotiating the contract that governs the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, known as ProComp.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable. It pays teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position.

But giving up the incentives altogether would mean giving up tax money raised specifically for teacher salaries. In 2005, Denver voters passed a tax increase to fund ProComp, and the ballot language was specific about how the tax revenue would be used, including to pay teachers for things like working in hard-to-fill positions, increasing their teaching skills, and earning positive evaluations. District officials project the tax will raise $33 million next year.

Where do things stand?

The timing: The current agreement is set to expire on Jan. 18, and union leaders have said they will call for a strike vote on Jan. 19 if a new agreement cannot be reached.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association informed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment on Jan. 8 of its intent to strike. A union must give the state 20 days notice, which means the earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28.

The basics: The biggest sticking point is money. Buoyed by widespread protests over teacher pay in Colorado and other states, the Denver union has asked the district to invest about $30 million more of its $1 billion budget into teacher compensation.

The district’s offer as of Jan. 11 would invest $23 million more into teacher pay. District officials have said some of that money will come from increased state funding, but $7 million would come from cuts to the district’s central office, where many administrators work.

The salary schedule: The union has proposed returning to a more traditional salary schedule. The maximum base salary would be $100,000, which a teacher with a doctorate could earn after  20 years of positive evaluations.

After offering less than that for months, the district’s Jan. 11 proposal matched that $100,000 maximum base salary. Earning it would require a teacher with a doctorate to have 30 years of positive evaluations.

The base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree on the district’s schedule as of Jan. 11 would be $45,500. The union’s schedule would start at $45,000.

The union’s salary schedule differs from the one the district has proposed in one major way: it has more “lanes,” which allow teachers to get raises more frequently.

The “lanes” represent a teacher’s education level. The salary schedule also has “steps,” which represent a teacher’s years of satisfactory evaluations.

The union’s proposed salary schedule has nine “lanes” and 20 “steps.” The district’s Jan. 11 offer has only six “lanes” but 30 “steps.” In the union’s view, the district’s offer doesn’t give teachers enough of a salary boost for furthering their own education.

The district’s proposal is an attempt to diversify the ways teachers can get a pay raise. Teachers could move a lane by getting an advanced license or serving for 10 consecutive years, in addition to earning a higher degree or National Board certification.

About those bonuses: The district and the union also disagree on the size of the bonuses and incentives. The union favors larger base salaries and smaller incentives, with some as small as $1,000.

The district has proposed three different incentives at $2,500 each. One would be for teachers who work in high-poverty schools, where more than 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Another would be for teachers who work in hard-to-fill positions, such as special education and secondary math, and teachers who teach in Spanish.

The third $2,500 incentive would be in the form of a retention bonus for teachers who return to work at a set of 30 schools the district and the union deem “highest priority.”

About 72 percent of Denver teachers would qualify for one of the two $2,500 incentives, district officials said on Jan. 11. About 37 of those same teachers would qualify for both incentives.

A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree who gets both incentives — say, a first-year special education teacher in a high-poverty school — could make $50,500 under the district’s proposal.

How did we get here?

Here’s a timeline if you’re looking to dive even deeper.

high stakes

Newark’s rush to create new magnet-school admissions test is raising eyebrows. Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark is creating a new admissions test for its popular magnet schools.

In Newark, a new high-stakes exam that every eighth-grader will take next month is raising questions — and not the multiple-choice kind.

The district has been rushing to complete the test, which the superintendent revealed at a parent conference in December, so that students can take it next month. It will determine, along with other factors, which students are admitted to the city’s coveted magnet schools in the fall.

The implications for students’ futures are huge: Students who attend magnets are far more likely than their peers in traditional high schools to graduate and earn college degrees. Yet officials have said little publicly about who’s developing the test, how schools will use it, or even why it’s necessary.

“Why make kids take an additional test unless there’s a very good reason for it,” said Jonathan Taylor, a research analyst at Hunter College in New York City who has studied that city’s controversial high-school entrance exam. “They already have to take enough of these tests.”

The exam appears to be aimed at making Newark’s magnet schools more selective, based on Superintendent Roger León’s belief that they have been admitting some students who are under-qualified or insufficiently interested in the schools’ themes.

“The whole concept that anyone and everyone can get into the magnet high schools — that’s not why they were designed,” León said last month. “You actually have to qualify to get into those schools.”

But the data show that Newark’s six magnet schools already enroll the city’s highest-achieving students (based on state test scores), and very few students who are still learning English or have disabilities, who tend to perform less well on standardized tests. León’s move comes as New Jersey’s governor tries to cut back on high-stakes testing, and the mayor of nearby New York City has proposed eliminating a similar gatekeeping test entirely.

Newark’s “magnet schools are definitely enrolling different kids — fewer English language learners, fewer special-education students, fewer students who eligible for free lunch,” said Christopher Tienken, a professor of education administration at Seton Hall University. “I think they should actually be looking at measures that increase the diversity of the schools.”

Beyond the purpose of the test, experts also raised questions about its design, as the district appears to be creating it in-house with the help of local educators. Tests used for high-stakes purposes such as admissions decisions are expected to meet accepted standards and be carefully vetted.

“The test should be validated before using it,” Taylor said. “You don’t have a test, start admitting kids, and then look to see 30 years later, ‘Well, gee, is this a valid test?’”

Officials may have answers to these questions, but they haven’t yet shared them publicly. The district did not respond to questions for this story or make any officials available for comment.

For now, Chalkbeat has rounded up everything we know about the test so far. And we spoke with experts to find out the best practices when introducing a new exam like this — along with the risks.

What’s on the test?

The test will measure students’ English and math skills.

The district is creating the exam itself, with assistance from principals and other school staffers. The educators helped write math questions and shared essay prompts their schools have used to assess students’ reading and writing skills, said Carla Stephens, principal of Bard High School Early College–Newark.

León “had many calls and meetings where he has been consulting with the magnet school principals about the test,” said Stephens, who shared her magnet school’s writing prompt with the district.

The test will also try to assess students’ interest in each magnet school’s unique focus, which includes science, history, and the arts. León, who attended a magnet school, has said he believes some magnet students lack a real passion for the schools’ themes.

“Magnet high schools were always supposed to be a high school where students had an interest in what that specialty was,” he said. “We want the admissions test is to be able to gauge that.”

Who will take it?

All Newark Public Schools eighth-graders will sit for the test on Friday, Feb. 15.

They will do so in their own schools during the school day — a decision that experts applauded. Other districts have been criticized for administering high-school and college admissions tests on the weekends, making it hard for some students to participate.

All non-district students hoping to attend to a magnet school will take the test on Saturday, Feb. 16.

How will schools use it?

Magnet schools will consider the exam scores as they review and rank applicants. The rankings will determine which students are admitted for the 2019-20 academic year.

The scores will be considered alongside factors the schools already look at, including students’ grades, state test scores, and attendance records. Some schools also interview applicants and assess their writing and math skills, while Arts High School holds auditions.

Experts endorsed the district’s decision to have the schools use the exams in conjunction with other admissions criteria, which they said provides a more complete picture of each applicant.

However, school staffers said they have not been told how much weight each of those factors will be given — and whether schools or the district will decide that.

At one of the city’s most selective magnet schools, Science Park, parents and administrators clashed last year over how much weight should be given to applicants’ state PARCC scores. In a compromise, the school lowered their weight, making the PARCC scores count for 70 percent of applicants’ ranking. Now, Science Park and the other magnets will have to factor the new entrance exam into the mix.

Traditional high schools will also use the admissions test scores, León has said. The scores will determine eligibility for new gifted-and-talented programs that León has directed those schools to establish.

Is the test ready?

By the looks of it, not quite.

Students were originally scheduled to take the test this week, but the district quietly postponed the test until February. The district chalked that up to “logistical modifications.” But as recently as last month, officials said they were still revising the exam.

According to someone who spoke with the superintendent, part of the problem was that the school staffers who helped write the test borrowed heavily from assessments that high-school students take during the year.

“He said the questions were basically copied and pasted,” the person said. “It wasn’t good, so they had to redo it.”

And at a parent meeting this week at one of the most selective magnet schools, Science Park High School, Principal Kathleen Tierney said the test is “still being vetted,” according to an attendee.

What do experts say?

Researchers who study testing asked several pointed questions about Newark’s new high-stakes exam.

First, they wanted to know how officials decided it was necessary. They noted that the magnets already look at students’ grades and state test scores.

Taylor, the research analyst at Hunter College, pointed out that entrance exams can be less effective in identifying promising students than officials realize, calling into question their necessity. In a recent study, he found that the exam used to determine who gets into New York City’s elite “specialized” high schools was actually less predictive of students’ ninth-grade achievement than their grades or state test scores from middle school.

The experts also questioned how the district is ensuring the exam meets industry standards — especially when it’s being developed on such a tight timeline.

One key standard is that a given exam does what it’s intended to do; for instance, help a school predict which students will be able to keep up with its rigorous academic program. Another standard is that the exam is not biased against any group, such as girls or black or Hispanic students.

Some experts advised against using the test results in high-stakes admissions decisions before it has been shown to meet those standards.

“What they should be doing is piloting this test for at least one year,” said Tienken, the Seton Hall professor. “Test design is a multi-year process.”

Kurt F. Geisinger, director of the Buros Center on Testing at the University of Nebraska, said that trying out an exam on a sample of students before its full launch can help detect biases — but that can be difficult to do without having questions leak out. Either way, he said, the district should expect to continuously improve the exam.

“These things do take time to build,” he said. “You can’t expect them to be perfect year one.”