Budget battles

Proposed budget would slash funds to SUNY charter authorizer

The state organization commonly cited as a national model for approving and overseeing charter schools is facing quietly proposed cuts that would slash its budget by nearly 70 percent.

The State University of New York’s Charter School Institute (CSI), which oversees charter schools from the union-run UFT School to the popular KIPP schools, is slated to lose $1.7 million of its $2.4 million budget under budgets proposed by both the Assembly and the Senate.

CSI is one of the groups that are the prime oversight bodies for the state’s charter schools. Known as “authorizers,” the groups are responsible for reviewing proposals for new charter schools, monitoring the schools they approve, and closing charters they deem under-performing. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has praised CSI for its rigor and willingness to shutter schools that don’t live up to high expectations.

“All of that takes real human resources,” said Jonas Chartock, the agency’s executive director.

The cuts are a serious threat but far from a done deal. The institute has historically been a target of political efforts, often supported by the teachers union, to weaken its authority to open charter schools. But the union is not supporting these cuts. Rather, the proposals appear to be more prompted by the state’s financial duress.

The legislature frequently proposes drastic cuts to agencies in initial budget proposals that are later reduced as the final budget is negotiated, charter school advocate Peter Murphy said.  The point is to force agencies to open up and justify their spending. “I’m not trying to minimize it, but it’s going to be subject of negotiation,” said Murphy. The governor’s proposed budget plan leaves the Charter Schools Institute’s funding intact.

New York State United Teachers president Richard Ianuzzi, who has frequently criticized charter schools for a lack of state oversight, today defended SUNY against the proposed cuts.

“A cut that would reduce oversight for charter schools just would not be in the best interests of accountability for the dollars the state is spending,” Ianuzzi said. “If you’re allocating the dollars for charter schools, you should be allocating the dollars to monitor them properly.”

Chartock said that he plans to develop stronger tools to make sure that the Institute’s charters schools improve their services to special education students and English learners, two groups that charter school detractors and supporters both say should be better served by the schools.

“We want to be able to do that in real time,” he said, “but this would really hinder our ability to respond to the critical questions that do surround charters.”

The cuts would be particularly devastating given that the number of charter schools CSI is responsible for overseeing is only likely to increase in the near future, Chartock said. Many advocates are urging Albany to lift the cap by June to increase the state’s competitive edge in the second round of the Race to the Top competition.

CSI is not the leanest authorizer in the state, but it does employ fewer staff per school than other authorizers. The agency employs 14 professional and four support staff members to oversee 74 of the state’s 160 charter schools. The city’s charter school office, which authorizes 66 schools, employs 10 staffers and operates with a budget of just under $1 million. The State Education Department’s Charter School Office, which oversees the 28 schools authorized by the Board of Regents, includes 10 professional and one support staff member.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.