June 13, 2012
The head of one of the city’s largest charter school networks is calling on state charter authorizers to reject a law that requires schools to serve a larger share of high-needs students.
The law, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz wrote in a letter to authorizers this month, creates “perverse incentives” for charter schools to “over-identify” students in high-needs categories, an effect that she said would do more harm than good for children.
“We urge you not to impose any enrollment and retention targets,” Moskowitz wrote to the New York State Education Department and SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which are charged with enforcing the law. “Instead, we request that you partner with us in going to Albany to change this poorly-thought-out legislation.”
The mandate for charter schools to enroll more high-needs students was established in 2010 when lawmakers passed the Race to the Top bill. A charter sector self-assessment earlier this year found that a large majority of charter schools still served lower proportions of poor, special-needs and English language learning students than their districts.
It’s taken some time to iron out the details, but last month authorizers proposed a method of calculating the targets that they intend to use. The proposal is a complex methodology that would assign enrollment targets to each charter school based on the overall ratio of high-needs students in school districts where they operate. Schools that repeatedly fail to comply could be closed.
In response to the proposal, some in the charter sector have raised concerns. In its public comment, the New York Charter School Association suggested to authorizers that they create a single metric to hold schools accountable for their enrollment, rather than separate metrics for each different enrollment target. NYCSA is concerned that if a school serves a large proportion of students in a high-need category, such as poverty, it could still be penalized for under-enrolling in another category, such as special education or ELL.
But the most radical proposal was left to Moskowitz, who rejects the target plans outright.
This is not the first time a Success official has urged caution over charter school regulations. A week after the enrollment targets were proposed, Success’ General Counsel Emily Kim said that she believed any regulation that was not encouraging schools to move students toward more general education settings was sending the wrong message.
At the heart of the Success network’s concerns is the belief that many district schools too easily classify students as high-needs and then don’t work hard enough to declassify them, in part because schools received additional funding to provide these services.
“Poorly designed financial incentives and a dense bureaucracy have turned the city’s ELL programs into a parking lot – a place where students sit idly for years without hope of mastering essential skills and accelerating their academic progress,” concludes a report on the city’s ELL population that Success released last year. The report found that about one-third of the city’s English language learners failed to test out of the program for seven consecutive years.
Moskowitz said since her schools excel at declassifying ELL students authorizers could slap her with being out of compliance in middle school grades because most of her students would be declassified by then.
“Bizarrely, our successful education of ELL students will actually put us out of compliance with the proposed ELL targets,” Moskowitz wrote.
Critics of Moskowitz and the Success charter network have raised their own concerns about the schools’ rate of student attrition and it’s unclear how many students who leave the schools are identified as high-needs. Roughly one third of students in Harlem Success Academy I’s first two cohorts have left the school over the course of elementary school, according to state data..
State education officials have said their jobs weren’t to change the law, but rather implement it in the fairest way possible. As part of that effort, they created a provision that would give credit to schools – such as Moskowitz’s – that declassified students at higher rates than the district average. The provision would credit to any student who was classified as ELL or special education at any point in the last three years, even if they were later declassified.
But charter school advocates said that wasn’t going far enough. NYCSA suggested in its public comment that the “three-year-lag” be extended for the entirety of the student’s time in a school.
Officials for both SUNY and SED did not respond to comment about Moskowitz’s letter or about whether they would change their proposal in response to the suggestions. SED published a FAQ based on feedback it received in the public comment section, but did not respond to Moskowitz’s call to lobby the state.