The Charter Wars Revisited: “Backfill,” Suspensions, Choice and Authentic Assessment at the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Institute (MI) is a conservative think tank, publishes City Journal and supports research; Marcus Winters, a senior fellow and professor at University of Colorado has written a number of papers supporting charter schools. The latest MI event was entitled “Are NYC Charter Schools Doing All They Can to Serve the Neediest Students?”

Winters presented his latest paper, “Pushed Out? Low Performing Students and Charter Schools,” Winters argues,

• Low-performing students are more mobile, regardless of where they are enrolled: in NYC charters as well as traditional public schools, low-performing students are more likely to change schools than their higher-performing peers.
• Low-performing students are not more likely to exit NYC charters than traditional public schools.
• To the extent that higher attrition rates for low-performing NYC students offer cause for concern, they are no less a problem for the city’s traditional public schools than they are for its charters.

Winters agreed there was anecdotal evidence in regard to “push outs,” however due to the lack of transparency there is no hard data, although he did agree that the failure to fill vacated spots in charter schools, commonly called “backfill” was an issue.

Read Chalkbeat on the “backfill” issue here.

Read the full Winters report here.

I was nibbling on the breakfast fruit and croissant and sipping my coffee when next speaker changed the entire tenor of the meeting.

Seth Andrew is the founder of Democracy Prep and Democracy Builders, an avid supporter of charter schools. Andrews challenged the charter school community: in the upcoming April lottery open up positions in all grades. Currently, with rare exception, charter schools only accept students in their opening grade. He argued if charter schools ended the “backfill” accusations, charter schools and public schools could be compared evenly. Andrews turned to Ian Rowe, his co-panelist and the CEO of Public Prep, and challenged him to fill empty seats in his charter schools, and specifically referenced declining enrollment grade by grade with specific numbers: they didn’t come to blows, however, it was “hot and heavy” for a while. For Andrew if a kid doesn’t get picked in the initial charter school lottery s(he) is trapped in a public failing school. If charter seats are available every year in every grade we would have an even playing field between charter and public schools. Andrew warned if charter schools fought “backfill” it would be forced upon them. Andrew further pushed the envelope, he charged that for every kid charters lose by attrition, they lose the funding for the kid, let’s say $15,000, and they attempt to replace the money through philanthropy, which Andrew says is not a workable model. I was stunned, and fascinated.

Jim Merriman, the President of the NYC Charter School Center, and another panelist, agreed that single entrepreneurship charters were at a substantial disadvantage; they had no outside support network; he mused about a BOCES-type support system. There are, I believe 37 BOCES centers across the state, school districts purchase services from BOCES, perhaps specialized services for Students with Disabilities, Career Education, literacy, math or technology experts, all available to assist the surrounding school districts. Would a BOCES-like network be necessary for the individual charters schools to prosper?

Merriman sees charter schools as evening the playing field. For decades, according to Merriman, middle class parents could chose neighborhoods with “good” schools or attend screened schools that use reading and math scores to segregate students by race and class, charter schools simply give the same advantage to inner city kids surrounded by low performing schools. What would de Blasio say?

In the Q & A I asked whether the substantially higher rates of charter school suspensions was increasing the “school to prison pipeline?” The highly unsatisfactory responses: charter schools have standards and students must live up to the standards, and, public schools want to suspend, and can’t. In my view charter schools suspend high numbers of kids due to the inexperience of their teachers. Experienced teachers learn to “listen with a third ear,” to grow antenna, to intuitively know when a kid is angry or frustrated or depressed, they know how to intervene and avoid a confrontation situation.

All the panelists agreed the current state testing system was deeply flawed. Ian Rowe suggested project-based authentic assessments on every grade.

Charters, public, unions, cities, suburbs and rural, I believe every school across the state would agree that authentic assessment would be a far better system to assess student progress than the current Pearson Common Core tests. (Read an excellent Grant Wiggins article here on authentic assessment)

Is it possible to get past Eva and work with charter schools on areas where there is common agreement?

Will charter schools agree to “backfill” vacant seats?

Will public and charters work together on professional develop and school/teacher support?

Can charters and publics work together to move from Pearson tests to true authentic assessment?

Sol Stern was a resident scholar at MI who specialized in the Middle East and Education, he mused about which of the two would be resolved first … I used to think Education


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