School Choice & Charters

New York, Boston Grant Some Schools More Flexibility

By Mark Stricherz — July 11, 2001 5 min read
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Leaders of the Boston and New York City districts have announced that some of their high-performing schools will be rewarded with greater flexibility over regulations and budgets.

In Boston, 26 schools have been named “effective-practice schools” for having raised student test scores and successfully implemented the district’s improvement plans. In New York, meanwhile, two charter schools on the verge of folding have agreed to renounce their charter status in exchange for entering a “learning zone” that will give them similar freedoms, but more money.

“This is the inverse of charter schools, where you give flexibility and see results,” said Tim Knowles, the 63,500-student Boston district’s deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. “We’re getting results and then giving flexibility.”

Officials in the 1.1 million-student New York City district intend to expand the learning zone beyond the two charter schools, which have asked the state to allow them to relinquish that status.

Harold O. Levy

In a statement, Chancellor Harold O. Levy said the policy would give “elements of regulatory and contractual flexibility available to charter schools.” In fact, the two schools selected for the “learning zone,” Middle College and International high schools, both on the campus of LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, were the first in the city to gain charter status when the state enacted its charter law in late 1998.

Second Stage

Boston leaders trumpet their plan as the second stage of reform efforts started five years ago by Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant. Previously, schools that raised student test scores and embraced the district’s six improvement initiatives were given cash bonuses. Now, the 26 “effective practice” schools will have more rewards, but also more responsibilities.

Designated schools will receive between $10,000 and $25,000 each for professional development, Mr. Knowles said, adding that schools can earn more based on extra participation. Schools will also gain new leeway, including freedom to buy supplies from outside vendors; broad powers over their budgets, especially federal Title I dollars; and more authority over curriculum, such as selecting reading programs for low-performing students, Mr. Knowles said.

Thomas W. Payzant

In exchange, the schools will serve as models for the district’s 104 other schools, agreeing to host visitors three times a year, said Ellen C. Guiney, the executive director of the nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence, which has worked closely with the district to try to improve schools.

Yet to be worked out is how much flexibility the schools will be permitted, said district spokeswoman Tracey M. Lynch.

Edward J. Doherty, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, which supports the plan, amplified that theme. District officials “throw around the phrase ‘make ‘em more like pilot schools,’ but I don’t know what that means,” he said. Pilot schools receive funding from but operate largely independent of their districts.

Survival at Stake

In New York, the principals of Middle College and International high schools expressed confidence about their schools’ new status, saying they expect to receive the benefits of a charter school with few of the drawbacks.

Deputy Chancellor Judith A. Rizzo agreed. “The whole point,” she said, “is not to micromanage these folks.”

She noted that the schools can hire their own vendors for supplies, hire and fire staff members, and choose their own curricula and pedagogy.

While leaders of both schools had hoped that charter status would give them new freedoms, such as not having to give parts of the state regents’ exam, they later faced problems. Chief among them was a lack of state and federal aid, school officials said.

“When we did the five-year budget projections” this year, said Cecilia Cunningham, the principal of Middle College High School, “we realized we could not have survived.”

Said International High School’s principal, Eric Nadelstern: “The bottom line for all of us is that converting to a charter school made it very difficult, if not impossible, to survive.”

Both principals estimated their schools received $2,000 less per pupil, or a total of about $6,300, than they did before converting to charter schools. As such, they did not receive federal Title I or vocational education money, nor did they receive critical state funding, they said.

Ira Schwartz, the coordinator for the office of New York City school and community services for the state education department, said the two schools should have received the Title I aid, but he agreed that state funding may have been trickier to obtain because of peculiarities in the state charter law.

Hastening the schools’ decision to give up charter status was the state’s ruling this spring that charter schools should run their finances separately from those of their districts. As a result, the schools would have lacked the staff to fill out lengthy state and federal grant forms, Mr. Nadelstern said.

Union Involvement

As members of the learning zone, the two New York City schools will see some of their policies stay the same. Each school will still be run by a school advisory committee, made up of administrators, parents, students, and community members. The committee will review the yearly budget, check staffing and instructional plans, and gauge academic performance.

But other policies will change. Overseeing this committee at each school will be a coordinating council, a new body that will consult and advise Ms. Rizzo. The council will include ex officio representatives of the principals’ and teachers’ unions, an ex officio member from the board of education, and the principal.

District leaders said they would likely announce new schools eligible for the learning zone later this year. Chancellor Levy will make that decision, while a board of directors, which will include union representatives, will recommend individual schools.

What has yet to be decided is how often the coordinating council will meet, an issue that could loom large if the unions reject a school’s policies.

“New York City has a long history of reforms that don’t do what they’re supposed to,” said the education historian Diane Ravitch. “This is something that I guess is ‘charter school lite,’ but it remains to be seen.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as New York, Boston Grant Some Schools More Flexibility

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