the race is on

With New York nearing charter cap, it’s a race to fill the final spots

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Teacher Flo Evans works with a pre-K student 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 for all program. Charter operators say funding and facilities issues are main deterrents.

Just seven slots remain for charter school openings in New York City, and the race to fill them first is on.

Nineteen applicants, split between two bodies that can authorize charter schools, are competing for the remaining spots. But the decision may come down to who authorizes their chosen candidates first.

The competition for the slots kicks off as the future of the sector looks especially bleak in New York City. The New York state Senate now has a Democratic majority, with more progressive Democrats who oppose charter expansion having replaced lawmakers who were more friendly to publicly funded but privately managed schools. That dims charter operators’ hopes that the state’s cap, which limits the number of new charter schools that can open in New York City, will be increased.

The two bodies that can authorize New York charter schools — the New York State Board of Regents, which oversees the state department of education, and the State University of New York, or SUNY — each has its own criteria and process for reviewing and accepting applications.

Department of Education officials are reviewing five applications — four for schools in the Bronx and one in Queens, according to their website. SUNY is reviewing 14, said Susie Miller Carello, the executive director of SUNY Charter School Institute, though the public list on SUNY’s website lists 15. Both bodies will continue to whittle down applicants through the review process.

The seven slots up for grabs may very well go to those applicants who get the first OK. When asked if it’s essentially a race to the finish, Carello said, “That’s right.”

Applicants submitting proposals through the state board of education had until Jan. 10 to submit their paperwork for the first round of applications. Only applicants who operate schools that have previously been approved by the Board of Regents and continue to be in good standing are being considered in this initial round due to the “limited number of charter schools” available in New York City, state officials said.

Independent or newer charter schools will have a chance to apply during a later application period beginning in April. After a full review process, the Board of Regents will then decide on which ones to approve by early June, unless that timeline changes.

But by then it might be too late for the Regents pool. That’s because SUNY has already accepted its first round of applications from charter groups in New York City. SUNY’s Board of Trustees is set to make a final decision by March or April — at most, three months before the Regents.

Although SUNY must also send their candidates to the Regents for pro-forma approval, the Regents can’t reject SUNY’s list. They can only send applications back with suggested changes. If the Regents don’t act within a 90-day window, SUNY’s choices are automatically authorized. This means which charter groups get approved may come down to which authorizer’s process ends first.

Officials say that of the 110 charter schools already authorized by the Board of Regents, a majority were from new school applicants representing independent, stand-alone charter schools. Those are schools that aren’t run by an overarching network, like Success Academy or KIPP.

Steve Zimmerman, director of the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools, which advocates for charter schools that are not part of a large network, said he disagreed with the state’s decision to prioritize those that have established schools in the Regents’ initial round.

“I think it’s sad,” he said, explaining he’s not opposed to expanding a successful model, “but there’s not a whole lot of innovation that comes from the replication. That’s not how it works.”

The Regents’ new requirements were available on the state education website and made available to the public for comment, department officials said. They received no feedback, though it’s not clear when the changes were announced.

James Merriman, chief executive director for the New York City Charter School Center, which advocates and provides support for charter schools, sees the Regents’ new criteria as “perfectly reasonable.” The problem, he said, is with the shrinking charter cap, not the education department’s criteria.

“All of it underscores the larger issue, which is essentially there are really no charters left to give, and there are lots of groups that either want to replicate successful schools or start new schools, and they won’t be able to, and that’s really unfortunate,” Merriman said.

And in the end, the requirement may not even matter if SUNY approves its list of charter schools sufficiently early, filling up all seven available spots before the Board of Regents acts.

Carello, the SUNY official, says she sees a promising candidate pool. “We have a number of qualified applicants and we are engaging in the application analysis that has served the State University of New York really well over the last 20 years,” she said. “All of the applicants are eager to show us why they are going to run a really great school.”

Piece of the pie

Colorado bill would take back money from state-authorized charter schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs

A bill introduced in the Colorado House would take back money set aside for state-authorized charter schools and return it to the general fund, where it would be available for any purpose.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat and former Poudre School District board member, would repeal one portion of a key compromise from the 2017 legislative session.

That bill required school districts to share money from mill levy overrides, a kind of local property tax increase, with charter schools that they had authorized. It also said that the legislature should set aside state money for schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, a state entity, to serve as the equivalent of that mill levy money. This money is on top of the base per-pupil funding that goes to all schools, much of it provided by state dollars.

This new proposal doesn’t affect charters that are authorized by districts, which would still be required to share additional local property tax money. But it does away with the fund within the state budget that provides extra money to state-authorized schools.

The Charter School Institute oversees 39 schools serving more than 18,000 students.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get traction. Kipp is the sole sponsor right now, and charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support at the Capitol in the past. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the founder of the New America charter network, which has schools authorized by the Charter School Institute as well as by local districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run nonprofit organizations. Opponents see them as siphoning students and money from traditional, district-run schools, while proponents argue they provide much needed diversity of school types within the public system and with that, options for parents and students.

The 2017 legislation passed with bipartisan support but divided Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. This is the first legislation of the 2019 session to attempt to roll back gains made by charter schools under previously divided state government.

The 2018-19 Colorado budget includes $5.5 million, roughly $300 per student, for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local mill levy money they don’t get, and the proposed 2019-20 budget calls for that to almost double to $10.5 million. “Fully funding” the charter institute schools — meaning providing them the equivalent of what they would get from local property taxes if they were authorized by their districts — would cost $29.7 million.

Kipp said that with education funding tight, the state cannot afford to share with charters. She calls the plan to spend state money to make up for local property tax revenue “taxation without representation.” Mill levy overrides are approved by voters in those school districts, while there is no equivalent special tax approved statewide to help charter institute schools — or any Colorado schools, for that matter.

“You have a person who has never voted for a mill levy override, and their school may be drowning, and their tax dollars are going to another district,” she said.

Mill levy overrides, which can amount to thousands of dollars per student, provide important supplemental funding in districts where voters agree, but they’re also a major contributor to inequity in Colorado school finance. In the case of charter schools, the 2017 legislation means district-authorized schools benefit from those dollars, and state-authorized schools get some extra money from the state.

But district schools in places where voters have turned down requests for additional property taxes don’t get any additional money, even as the state continues to withhold money from schools under the budget stabilization factor.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, calls the bill “very disappointing.” The extra state money, known as the mill levy equalization fund, represents a fraction of the money that charter schools would get if they had district authorization and access to mill levy overrides. It’s also a tiny fraction of the more than $7 billion that Colorado spends on K-12 education.

“We’re starting from way behind on funding equity,” she said. “To say that any charter is getting more than their share is just inaccurate. We still have a long way to go.”

Lewis sees the taxation question differently than Kipp. Parents are paying higher property taxes to support their district schools, while their children in charter schools don’t see the benefit. Meanwhile, charter schools have to pay for their buildings out of operating costs, meaning they have less money for teacher salaries and other educational needs.

At Mountain Song Community School, a 300-student Waldorf charter school in Colorado Springs, the extra $300 per student has allowed the school to hire an additional special education teacher and classroom aides to better serve students with disabilities.

“Our costs are rising rapidly because more and more severe needs students are coming to our schools,” said Teresa Woods, principal at Mountain Song. “Districts have economies of scale. As a single school, we’re doing the work that a district would do to meet our students’ needs, but we don’t have any resources to pool.”

“If the mill levy funds were cut, it would definitely cut into our ability to meet the needs of all our students, and we’re mandated by law to serve those students, including severe needs students,” she added.

At the Thomas MacLaren School, another Colorado Springs institute-authorized charter school serving roughly 800 students, administrators have treated the mill levy equalization money as one-time funds and used them for building upgrades, but if that money were reliable each year, the school would raise teacher salaries, which lag far behind those in the surrounding school district, Executive Director Mary Faith Hall said.

The Colorado Early College network, serving more than 2,900 students on campuses in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, and Fort Collins, has used the additional money to provide bus transportation, to increase teacher salaries, and to cover some tuition, books, and fees for college courses. The early college model helps students earn college credit while still in high school, with many students graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

“The CEC Network of schools would be devastated to lose this funding” Chief Executive Administrator Sandi Brown wrote in an email.

Kipp said these financial challenges don’t mean the state should kick in more money than it does for district-run and district-authorized schools. These issues are embedded in the charter school model, she said, and it’s not the state’s job to solve them.

“Charter schools have always said they can do better for cheaper,” Kipp said. “So do better for cheaper, and don’t ask for disproportionate share.”

governance

Aurora school board considers whether to close or renew large charter school

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
File photo of book bins in a charter school classroom.

The Aurora school board is considering whether to renew a charter school — if it meets a long list of conditions — even though it has ignored district concerns about its finances and governing board.

The board last renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure, but then decided to give Vanguard more time to provide information.

“The ultimate thing that I keep very heavily in mind around this kind of question is whether or not student needs are being met,” Munn said. “In this circumstance, we have not had any question about their student needs being met. In that context I felt very reluctant to recommend revocation.”

The Aurora school board will make its decision March 5.

Among conditions for Vanguard, the district suggests the school replace its board to include two parents and exclude employees of Ability Connection Colorado, a non-profit that founded the school and is now contracted to manage some services for Vanguard.

School leaders told the Aurora school board on Tuesday that they’re willing to comply with the conditions, and said they are making changes already. Previously, school leaders denied problems with governance, blaming some district concerns on misunderstandings.

Vanguard’s two campuses serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 9 percent of its students qualify for special education.

The nonprofit Ability Connection Colorado opened the school in 2007. The organization, which provides education and programs for people with special needs, is led by CEO Judy Ham, who also serves as the board president of the school.

Since it opened, the school has paid the nonprofit for administrative work in human resources, risk management and nutrition and financial services.

District officials have repeatedly said that it is a conflict of interest for Ham to vote on or sign contracts between the nonprofit and the school. The district was also concerned that the contract with Ability Connection Colorado didn’t clearly list the services it was to provide to the school and wasn’t awarded through a competitive process.

One former Vanguard teacher, Audrey Monaco, whose position was cut in December, explained that staff have repeatedly complained to their school board about Ability Connection’s services.

“Every person has a story about human resources,” Monaco said.

She and other employees have complained about unpaid benefits, dropped insurance, and missing documents. Monaco said that in the four years she worked at Vanguard, she had to provide her teaching license to the same Human Resource employee three times.

“I was like, where are you losing my confidential information?” Monaco said. “This was pretty upsetting to me.”

Monaco said she didn’t understand why the non-profit kept getting the contract when services didn’t measure up. However, one of the employees of Abilities Connection was Ham’s daughter, she said. District documents also reference concerns with Ham’s daughter, an employee of Ability Connection.

The Aurora district’s proposed conditions would require Vanguard to evaluate its service provider and to include a review of fair market values and survey responses from the Vanguard staff and families.

Another concern the district lists in its recommendation is about gaps in how the school tracks its finances. An audit, for example, showed money transfers to Ability Connection for about $465,000 that were not approved by the board and did not include itemized receipts. School officials later told the district the money was used for things like furniture, kitchen equipment and background checks, but did not provide documentation.

Munn noted that these issues could eventually affect how students are educated, though he doesn’t think they have yet.

“We think there are some organizational things around, just to be blunt, some adult issues that need to be fixed so that student needs can continue to be met,” Munn said.

Monaco believes the district’s conditions are fair and necessary so that the school can continue to operate.

But others, like Chad Smith, a parent of a 9-year-old student at the school, fear the district is using an “iron fist” to change the school.

“I believe Vanguard East and West was born from ACCO [Ability Connection] and I’m disappointed that you are demanding them to no longer have any influence or some kind of access to what their creation becomes,” Smith said. “I fear a new board will not be Vanguard Classical East or West, it will be whatever this new board chooses it to be. I hope it is still a school that I will want my daughter in.”

District board members seemed skeptical about renewing Vanguard’s charter after having had this same conversation about a year ago. Munn and Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney who helps write charter contracts, said that because the district had less information a year ago about the problems at Vanguard, the conditions imposed last year weren’t enough to really address the problems, even if the school had complied.

As an example, district officials had asked the school to hire a new executive director. But district staff say they found that the current executive director “was hand-chosen by Judy Ham and presented to the Vanguard Board as the sole option for approval” — evidence that conditions meant to empower the board “failed.”

Aurora board member Dan Jorgensen noted that he has heard only good things about the school’s education and programs.

Board members asked if the district felt confident Vanguard would meet the conditions this time around. District staff explained that if the school doesn’t comply with the conditions by the deadlines set in the contract, the board could close the school at that time, without waiting until the end of the proposed two-year contract.