UPPER WEST SIDE — A federal decision that compelled a controversial charter school network to stop setting aside seats for students who are learning English left education advocates confused and searching for answers about the surprise development at a public meeting Thursday.
Upper West Success Academy, which is co-located with the Brandeis Educational Campus on West 84th Street, announced through the city's Department of Education that it is changing its charter "to remove a lottery preference for a set-aside percentage of ELL [English Language Learner] students" — a move motivated by a directive from the U.S. Department of Education.
Success Academy charter schools, led by founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz, operate a lottery system to admit students that had included reserved spaces for ELL students so that the schools could mirror the student population of nearby public schools.
Last year, 20 percent of the 12,000 students who applied to the network's 20 New York City schools were categorized as ELL and 20 percent of the lottery spaces were saved for them, a representative of the charter said.
But the federal Education Department ruled that charter lotteries in New York can't reserve seats for at-risk students and threatened to withhold $15 million in promised grants to Success Academy if it did not comply, GothamSchools reported. There is confusion over whether New York's charter laws allow for preferences to be given to at-risk students, and the federal DOE is arguing that New York's laws don't clearly authorize it, GothamSchools reported.
"Can you show us why the federal DOE has an issue with this?" asked Noah Gotbaum, a CEC member and former City Council candidate, at a hearing Thursday night that the city DOE was mandated to hold on the topic.
"If they have an issue with this they must have an issue with the state law that requires charters to take an equal number of ELLs," he continued.
The charter network was one of the first in the state to set aside seats for ELL students, and Moskowitz equated the Education Department's decision to a "cruel Sophie's choice" in a letter she wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
"This is unconscionably bad policy, particularly at a time when there is a national concern about meeting the needs of immigrant families in this country," Moskowitz wrote.
The charter network's representative said the organization would continue fighting the federal decision behind the scenes.
Along with the Upper West Side location, Success Academies' admission policy will affect schools across the city, including five Harlem Success Academies, as well as the Hell's Kitchen and Union Square outposts.
At the hearing Thursday, education leaders grumbled about the change and the lack of details from Success Academy, whose representatives were not in attendance.
David Tipsen, from the progressive advocacy group New York Appleseed, said he was confused by the timing of the decision.
"I don’t understand why charter schools that are older than two years...are requesting charter revisions that don’t seem necessary," he said.
The DOE refrained from directly answering questions at the hearing and said it could not provide the revised charter document or explain the discrepancy between the state and federal charter regulations, leaving attendees frustrated about the lack of information available.
Gotbaum said the hearing was not well-publicized and he was not confident the messages of frustration with the charter change would make it back to the federal Education Department.
"There’s no accountability. The people who are authorizing this change aren't here," he said, noting the absence of Success Academy or federal representatives.
The U.S. Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The public has until Saturday to share its comments on the proposal with the New York City DOE via firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at 212-374-5761.