charter politics

De Blasio takes heat from politicians, parents at charter school rally

On the steps of City Hall following Wednesday’s charter school rally, the Bronx borough president had strong words for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“The public school system is your system. Charter schools are a part of that system,” Ruben Diaz Jr. said. “All we want from you, Mr. Mayor, is to treat them equitably.”

Diaz was the highest profile member to criticize de Blasio at a massive rally held Wednesday in Brooklyn and in front of City Hall, but was far from the only one. He was among thousands of parents and students who co-opted the mayor’s signature goal of reducing inequality by calling on the city to offer more support to charter schools and improve education for black and Hispanic students, holding up signs that read, “Hey Mayor! End Inequality NOW!”

The rally, organized by the well-funded advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, was similar in tone to last year’s event. It came on the heels of a series of education policy announcements from de Blasio and as the city’s charter movement continues its rapid growth.

De Blasio has been cooler to charter schools than former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and has been criticized by advocates for not offering charters enough support. Families for Excellent Schools and Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz have circulated letters recently accusing de Blasio of hurting the city’s needy students by not offering charter schools space in public school buildings — though the city is expected to spend over $30 million on rent in private space for charter schools by next summer.

But if parents at the rally last year were focused on what the newly elected de Blasio might do as mayor, this year’s crowd was already buzzing about his re-election campaign in 2017.

Parents, most of whom had students at Success Academy schools, were generally warm to the idea of a Moskowitz bid for mayor. Moskowitz has said she is interested in the position, and a representative told reporters that will make a political announcement on the steps of City Hall Thursday morning.

“Oh definitely. Oh yes of course,” said Hawa Magass, the parent of a fourth grader at Harlem Success Academy 3, when asked if she would support a Moskowitz run.

Some, like Natasha Venning, the parent of two children who attend different Success Academy schools in Harlem, said the mayor’s attitude toward charter schools persuaded her not to vote for him.

“No, I didn’t and I told everybody not to,” Venning said about voting for de Blasio. “I think he’s full of crap.”

Elected officials in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough and home to a large share of the city’s persistently struggling schools, have long been split on whether the city should encourage the rapid growth of charter schools, which already occupy parts of many Bronx school buildings. The borough president’s father, State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., has been a longtime charter supporter. Still, the criticism Diaz Jr. offered Wednesday was notable for coming from a fellow Democrat typically allied with de Blasio, and has added to speculation that Diaz might be considering his own mayoral run.

In response, the mayor’s office pointed to the mayor’s education initiatives including pre-K for all, and plans to offer new reading support for second graders and Advanced Placement classes for all students and argued that they are designed to improve all of the city’s public schools. And even before Moskowitz announced that she will speak at City Hall on Thursday, the rally was criticized by the mayor’s allies as a political stunt.

“We believe that’s the path to raising achievement — not just for some students — but for all students,” City Hall spokesman Wiley Norvell said.

The Alliance for Quality Education advocacy director Zakiyah Ansari was incredulous that Diaz would speak against the mayor.

“If we’re really about equity, why wouldn’t you want someone who’s really focused on the majority of the system?” she asked.

But Diaz held that the mayor could do more to find suitable locations for charter schools and to support them financially.

“We want to work with the mayor,” Diaz said after the press conference, but charter schools are now, “a permanent part of the tapestry in the city of New York.”

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.