the pay problem

A look at the whys and hows of executive pay at charter schools

A hotly-debated topic in the larger battle between charter school advocates and those who oppose their expansion is the question of executive pay. How much is too much for a charter school chief executive officer?

Though charter schools are privately operated, they receive public funding, which opens them up to criticism when their CEOs and CFOs receive high six-figure salaries.

One interesting case study is Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools founded by Deborah Kenny in 2001, which operates three charter schools — two middle schools and one high school — in Harlem. According to an analysis done by Kim Gittleson, Kenny also happens to be one of the mostly highly-paid charter executives in the city, second only to Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children Zone charter schools.

Like all charter schools, Kenny’s schools are privately operated but receive public funding, opening her up to criticism that her salary far exceeds what traditional public school administrators earn. This year, Kenny’s base salary, excluding her pension and expense account, is $275,000. She also has the opportunity, as she has every year, to earn a year-end bonus of $150,000 if her schools do well, putting her total salary at a potential $425,000.

Ed Lewis, chairman of the board for Harlem Village Academies, said Kenny’s salary is entirely paid by the board and private contributions.

“She’s not being paid out of funds from the public,” Lewis said. “She’s being paid by private funding and I think the individuals who have given money to the charter school clearly understand that in order to maintain and to try and provide the continuing best results, we need to attract and keep and compensate people, particularly if they perform. She’s just been sterling at getting results.”

Lewis said that comparing Kenny’s salary to what traditional public school principals or superintendents make is unfair, as those positions don’t come with the job requirement of connecting with donors and raising funds to support the schools’ survival.

“It’s all part of the effort to attract fundraisers who are interested in the concept of providing the best service for our kids,” Lewis said. “Deborah has this ability to attract and reach out to a variety of people. What she is paid is quite appropriate.”

Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association, said it’s difficult to object to charter CEOs’ salaries, as they have raised the money that goes to paying them.

“What charter schools have brought into the public education world is the educational-entrepreneur, who takes enormous risks, works killer hours and brings new ideas and investors into public education,” Murphy said. “They’re paying their own salaries by raising ten fold or a hundred fold what they get paid themselves.”

Kenny’s starting salary was $140,000 with a possible bonus of $40,000, Lewis said, adding that she did not receive a raise for five years. Last year, her salary was frozen because of the economic downturn and the difficulties the charter organization faced in raising money.

Asked what prompts debate about charter CEOs’ salaries, Lewis attributed the criticism to jealousy.

The teachers union and charter school opponents “are going to try and protect their turf,” Lewis said. “So if you have the possibility of a new competitor in the market place who is bringing in results, then you’re going to get a reaction.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”