Growing pains

Even after a court victory, few charter schools are expected to join New York City’s pre-K push

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Pre-K students play during center time at The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. The school is one of the few charters that participates in the city's pre-K program.

When visitors come to The Renaissance Charter School in Queens, Principal Stacey Gauthier often insists they stop by the pre-K classroom.

Gauthier raves about the nurturing teacher. She marvels at the progress that students make in recognizing letters and numbers, and swears by the ease with which they transition to kindergarten.

Her program stands out for another reason: It’s in a charter school.

“This is really, truly a labor of love and a strong philosophical belief that pre-K is a wonderful thing,” Gauthier said.

Few charter schools have joined New York City’s efforts to make pre-K available to all of the city’s 4-year-olds. A recent legal victory for Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, seemed poised to change that. In November, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools should have more freedom to run their pre-K programs without the city dictating curriculum or other requirements — a significant ideological win for the charter sector.

But the decision is unlikely to open the floodgates for New York City charter schools looking to start pre-K programs. Advocates say the lawsuit didn’t resolve more significant barriers that hold charter schools back, including a crunch for funding and space and, this year at least, a tight turnaround for getting programs running.

“Until we settle these larger financial issues, you’ll continue to see limited participation from charter schools,” said James Merriman, chief of the New York City Charter School Center. “It’s going to be very, very hard for them.”

Success took the city to court over a 241-page contract that the city requires to receive funding for pre-K. The document regulates everything from curriculum to field trips, and Success argued that was an overreach of the city’s authority.

The disagreement struck at one of the core philosophies of charter schools: that they should be free from the bureaucracies of school districts. In a press release touting the court decision, Success said their victory meant the city education department “cannot micromanage charter school pre-K programs.”

Soon, the city is expected to release a new request for proposals for charter schools interested in starting or expanding pre-K programs. Operators will have the chance to bid for those contracts — the first test of whether Success’s legal victory will help change the landscape of pre-K providers.

Observers don’t expect a sea change, however, citing familiar issues in the charter world that are left unresolved by the court battle: per-student funding, and finding space for classrooms.

“Unfortunately, the decision a lot of schools make is it’s too onerous to try to make happen,” said Ian Rowe, the chief executive officer of Public Prep, one of the dozen or so charters that offers pre-K.

While the city is required to provide charter schools with space in public buildings or help pay their rent, that rule doesn’t apply for pre-K. When Public Prep charter decided to launch its pre-K, Rowe said the school had to carve out space in their existing buildings. Public Prep serves about 80 pre-K students at its Bronx campuses, and hopes to start serving students at its Lower East Side location next year.

As it stands now, Rowe said he relies on private dollars to supplement Public Prep’s early childhood efforts, which he called “not sustainable.”

In kindergarten, charter operators can rely on receiving about $15,000 per student — but in pre-K, the figure falls closer to $10,000, according to the New York City Charter School Center.  Meanwhile, class size and staffing requirements for pre-K means more money needs to be spent on salaries. 

“For an age when one could argue you have the greatest opportunity for influencing student behavior and attitudes, you get the least amount of money,” Rowe said.

Another factor contributing to the budget squeeze: Under state law, pre-K is not considered a grade like kindergarten is, so schools don’t receive the same type of supports for children who come from poor families, have special needs, or may be learning English as a new language, said Gauthier, the Renaissance principal.

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said funding for pre-K is determined “based on a detailed analysis around specific needs and operational expenses of each program.”

The education department “works with all our pre-K providers to ensure they have appropriate funding,” Cohen wrote in an email.

This year timing is also a factor. Though Success fought its pre-K battle for years, the network won’t be starting a program soon, saying there simply isn’t enough of a runway to get a program up and running for 2019-2020.

“Hundreds of New York City children missed out on pre-K education at Success Academy over the past three years because of this legal battle,” the network said in a press release. “However, it’s a victory for younger children and their families.”

Families are already researching their pre-K options, and applications are due in March. Yet the city hasn’t released its request for proposals for charter schools interested in pre-K, and it’s unclear when operators would get word that their program has been approved — creating a time crunch when it comes to recruiting families and hiring teachers.

Rowe said he is still determined to expand Public Prep’s pre-K classes, and hopes to apply as soon as the opportunity is available, unlike many other operators.

“I think most charters have given up,” this year, he said.

Cohen, the education department spokesman, said the city is “currently in the process” of drafting a new contract for funding for pre-Ks in charter schools and that officials are “continuing to analyze” the impact of the court decision. As for charters already operating pre-Ks, the city will “issue more guidance in the coming weeks” about what the court decision means for them, Cohen wrote.

With charter operators facing headwinds in the the state legislature, concerns about pre-K might get pushed to a back burner. Recent midterm elections ushered a new Democratic majority into office, and with it, a bleak future for the expansion of charter schools in New York. Advocates are likely to focus their efforts pushing for an increase in the cap on how many charter schools can operate in New York — just seven charters are left.

“People are worrying about those things,” Gauthier said. “I’m not sure if people are going to be jumping on the pre-K wagon.”

early childhood discipline

New Colorado bill aims to keep young students in school — even after they misbehave

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Colorado’s public schools handed out nearly 6,000 out-of-school suspensions to young children. 

This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation that could reduce those numbers — the latest push in a four-year effort to get early childhood discipline reform across the finish line.

The bill introduced Wednesday would limit suspensions and expulsions of students in preschool through second grade to certain circumstances, including if they bring weapons or drugs to school, or are deemed a safety threat. It would also require schools to exhaust other alternative discipline options before removing students from school. Finally, the bill would limit suspensions to three school days.

If passed, the law would take effect July 1, 2020.

While the bill would apply to all public K-12 schools, it would apply to only some preschools — those housed in school districts or charter schools, as well as community-based programs serving children eligible for certain kinds of public funding, such as state preschool dollars.

The behavior that gets little kids suspended varies, but can include biting, kicking, fighting or causing frequent classroom disruptions.

Across the nation, boys, children of color, and children with disabilities receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

In Colorado, the disparities are pronounced. Last year, for example, young boys received 86 percent of K-2 suspensions though they made up only half of the K-2 population.

Black students, who made up just 5 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received nearly 12 percent of K-2 suspensions last year. Students with disabilities, who made up 10 percent of K-2 enrollment statewide, received 37 percent of K-2 suspensions.

The Colorado Department of Education tracks suspension data for public schools, but not for preschools that operate outside of public schools.

Opponents of suspensions and expulsions say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

But school district leaders who’ve pushed back against discipline legislation have argued that limiting suspensions takes away one of their few tools for addressing disruptive and violent behavior. They’ve also expressed frustration about the lack of staff and resources, especially in small rural schools, to handle students’ mental health needs.

This year’s early childhood bill is similar to one that was defeated in 2017, but allows schools a little more leeway in doling out suspensions and expulsions. For example, the earlier bill would have allowed expulsions only when young students brought guns to school. Now, there would be several reasons a young student could be expelled.

Likewise, the previous bill would have allowed suspensions only if a student endangered others, but didn’t specify that bringing drugs, controlled substances, or weapons to school could also be grounds for suspension.

The earlier bill faced sharp opposition from rural school district leaders, among other groups. It ultimately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the coalition of groups that worked on the latest bill tried hard to incorporate feedback from critics while staying true to their goals.

“We’ve done our best all along the way to be responsive,” he said.  

Besides broadening the grounds for out-of-school discipline, the latest version of the bill delays implementation by a year.

Jaeger said that delay will allow state-level mental health and funding initiatives in the works now to trickle down to school districts and give districts more time to adapt local discipline practices.

K-2 Suspensions by District

This chart shows the number of suspensions given, not the number of students suspended. In some districts, individual students receive multiple suspensions during a school year.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.