school closures

Memphis board votes to close City University Boys Preparatory charter school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
About 40 parents, students, and supporters of City University Boys Preparatory asked the Shelby County Schools board to keep the school open.

After 10 years, City University Boys Preparatory will close at the end of the academic year.

Shelby County Schools recommended closure of the middle school in Whitehaven following a scheduled evaluation to determine if the district should renew its 10-year charter.

“Kids were regressing at City University Boys Preparatory,” said Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and performance management. “Students were getting further and further behind.”

There were three other charters up for renewal, including a high school in City University’s network. But their academic performance merited a recommendation to stay open, Leon said.

The school board’s 6-3 vote Tuesday wraps up the only evaluation of charter schools eligible for renewal under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s leadership before he leaves in January. Board members Stephanie Love, Miska Clay Bibbs, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman voted to keep the school open.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Lemoyne Robinson, chancellor of City University charter schools.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon to review the recommendation, Lemoyne Robinson, the charter network’s chancellor, said poor test scores were caused in part by the district defaulting on promised academic interventions and resources that he said were part of an annual fee the school paid to the district.

“When given what they needed, and what they’re promised, and what they paid for, they excelled,” Robinson told school board members.

Robinson said after the hearing that the former Memphis City Schools under Superintendent Kriner Cash provided access to several data management systems, a practice standardized test, and curriculum support for teachers.

But district leaders said there was no record of a contract that outlined those resources. And even if there were, “because of the autonomy charter schools have, this district has never had the philosophy or extended the opportunity to provide academic interventions to charter schools,” said Bill White, the district’s chief of planning and accountability.

Robinson also cited issues with the online rollout of the state’s standardized test, and relied heavily on evidence of the district’s own opposition of using the scores to make high-stakes decisions. But middle school students at City University in Memphis have taken state tests on paper, not online.

Charter schools are private organizations funded by public dollars that were created to give those nonprofits more control over teacher employment, curriculum, and school operations compared with district-run schools. In exchange for the extra autonomy, charter schools have more oversight by the local district.

About 40 parents, students, and school supporters came to the hearing urging board members to keep the school open.

“The experience at City is unlike any other school that I’ve been to,” said Malcolm King, who is a senior at the network’s high school and graduated from the middle school. He cited $750,000 in college scholarships and enrollment in two dual enrollment classes as proof of the school’s ability to prepare students.

“I would hate to see all the work go to waste,” he said.

Enrollment at the City University middle school for boys had reached its peak of 121 in 2012, but lost about a third of its students in 2014. By August, just 88 students had enrolled. Test scores had put the school in danger of closing in 2015 and also of appearing on the state’s priority list for the bottom 5 percent of schools. By state law, any charter school on that list must be have its charter revoked by the local district.

On the last round of state tests, 12 percent of students at the school scored at grade level in English and 9 percent scored at grade level in math, which was better than previous years and helped the school’s score in the district’s evaluation, Leon said.

Over the course of its history, the school achieved its highest scores during the 2014-15 school year, with 32 percent and 26 percent scoring at grade level in English and math, respectively. That’s when Robinson said his charter network chose to pay for resources he said he was denied after the city and county school systems merged in 2013.

Only four charter schools in Shelby County Schools performed more poorly than City University’s school for boys, Leon said.

That data spanning 10 years prompted district leaders to recommend charter revocation because it’s unlikely the school will significantly improve if allowed to stay open, Leon said. For comparison, 24 percent of students districtwide last year were at grade level in English and 29 percent were at grade level in math.

Eddie Jones and former district teacher Edmund Ford Jr, who are county commissioners that provide local funding for the district, came before the board to support the school.

“Almost four of the 10 years, you really couldn’t count their scores,” said Eddie Jones, whose district includes the middle school. “One [year] the state said throw it out. You had one with technical difficulties, and one you could not use.”

He added that if the board voted to close the charter school, it could set a precedent for the state to use the same test scores to close district-run schools.

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:

Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.