realpolitik

Charter backers reluctantly embrace idea of "Mayor de Blasio"

As public advocate, Bill de Blasio presented reports about how to improve the process through which schools are awarded space inside city-owned buildings. In 2011, de Blasio presented reforms to the co-location process, which has benefitted charter schools under Bloomberg.

Next week, thousands of parents will flood the Brooklyn Bridge to rally in support of the charter schools that their children attend. It’s an aggressive — and divisive — approach meant to send a message to Democrat and mayoral frontronner Bill de Blasio, who says he wants to slow the growth of charter schools and charge rent to the ones operating in city-owned buildings.

But a smaller group of school leaders and well-heeled charter backers are also taking a quieter approach in a hopeful attempt to seek influence with the Democratic mayoral nominee. Faced with increasing odds that de Blasio will be the next mayor — and the understanding that charter school parents are unlikely to support Republican Joe Lhota — they’re lining his pockets with campaign donations.

Some also attended a fundraiser Thursday to try to influence the likely mayor on education policy, which is being organized in part by Craig Johnson, a former Democratic state senator who now chairs the Democrats for Education Reform political action committee.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to begin a dialogue around all the issues affecting kids, including universal pre-kindergarten, co-location, and all those issues,” said Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep, a network that operates four charter schools in the city.

Rowe was among the charter school supporters at the de Blasio fundraiser. Organizer Johnson, who worked with de Blasio on John Edwards’ 2004 presidential campaign, is among the names listed atop a fundraising invitation to the event, hosted by Martin Scheinman, a lawyer and contract arbitrator.

Other supporters, such as Public Prep chairman Bryan Lawrence, already opened their wallets to de Blasio at Johnson’s request. The reluctant embrace comes despite ongoing suspicions that de Blasio’s plans for education could hurt the charter sector.

“He says he wants to make the city better,” said Lawrence, who said he donated $4,950 to de Blasio, the maximum allowed for individuals under the city’s campaign finance laws. “And if he’s elected, we’re looking forward to working with him on how to do that.”

Lawrence said the donation isn’t a signal that de Blasio had earned his vote just yet. Last month, Lawrence gave $2,500 to Lhota’s campaign, and he said he is eager to learn more about both candidates’ education plans.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how both of them approach improving the public school system,” Lawrence said.

Paul Appelbaum, who along with Lawrence sits on the board of Families for Excellent Schools, which is organizing the Brooklyn Bridge march, contributed $2,500 to de Blasio, according to FES Executive Director Jeremiah Kittredge.

Despite their wary relationship with de Blasio, the charter sector is even more reluctant to support Lhota, whose education agenda maps more closely to their own. Lhota has pledged to double New York City’s charter school sector and continue to allow schools to operate in city-owned buildings rent-free. In contrast, de Blasio offered more details this week about the sliding scale he’d employ to charge rent to charter schools that have raised large sums of private money.

“Bill de Blasio is no friend to the education reform movement,” said a Lhota spokeswoman, Jessica Proud.. “He wants to obliterate charter schools despite their enormous success in educating our children.”

The de Blasio campaign declined to comment.

But charter school leaders said they see areas of agreement with de Blasio on education. Rowe pointed to de Blasio’s plan to expand early childhood access, which includes a tax on the wealthy to fund full-day universal pre-kindergarten. Rowe said he supports the plan, but added that de Blasio must embrace changing state law to allow charter schools to serve these students.

“Quality pre-kindergarten is one of the most important legislative initiatives, in particular for kids from the communities we serve,” Rowe said.

De Blasio has said he does not believe charter schools should be allowed to operate pre-K programs.

Some charter school advocates believe they can convince de Blasio to change his mind on that issue and others. And some also say participating in a massive rally that could end up attacking de Blasio is not the way to do it.

“All of my parents voted for de Blasio,” said Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, principal of Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, explaining why his school would not attend the rally. “How could I tell my parents to then turn around and protest the person you just voted for mayor?”

But Kalam Id-Din said he was still troubled with de Blasio’s statements this week about charging rent to charter schools. To him, they represented a direct contradiction to de Blasio’s larger platform to address the city’s socioeconomic inequities.

“You’re going to tax the people who are trying to serve our most at risk students?” Kalam Id-Din said. “That to me is just perverse.”

Here’s the invitation for tonight’s de Blasio fundraiser, including a list of donors:

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”