first reaction

From outrage to indifference, charter school educators respond to the NAACP’s call to limit their schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

When Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem West, heard that the NAACP passed a resolution to curb charter school growth, he called a meeting with his teachers.

“In my school, I just brought them together. I gave them news reports if they hadn’t seen it already. I asked them to take a look at that, just read it, quietly, and then we shared,” Shabazz said. “We had a conversation. We talked about it.”

During that conversation, Shabazz said, his teachers expressed confusion. They could not understand why, after working to help educate so many students of color, they were being admonished by the NAACP, he said.

That was a common sentiment at a Wednesday afternoon rally in Foley Square for charter school teachers, principals and staff, organized by the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. Like Shabazz, other school leaders and teachers felt compelled to facilitate either formal or informal conversations about the NAACP’s resolution.

The NAACP called for the moratorium last weekend, arguing charter schools expel too many students and “perpetuate de facto segregation” by catering to higher-performing children. Those arguments have long been made by the teachers union, which quickly praised the NAACP’s decision.

Success Academy, the largest charter network in New York City, came under fire last year after one principal was found with a “Got to Go” list featuring students’ names.

The NAACP’s decision drew criticism from the editorial boards of several major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. But on Wednesday night, Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, stood by the organization’s decision, saying, “We will do what we have to do.”

That is both distressing and personal to Kiah Hufane, principal at Success Academy Harlem Central.

“I grew up with family who talked about the NAACP as the next great hope for African-Americans during the civil rights movement,” she said, “and to have this organization speak for me is really just downright offensive.”

The news was distressing enough to her, she said, that she felt it necessary to have a school-wide discussion about it, which she characterized as “a hard conversation to have with my staff.” One of her main concerns is that the NAACP’s actions will cause a withdrawal of public support for charter schools. In cities other than New York, she fears it could significantly slow charter school growth.

Others say that while the NAACP’s position is upsetting, it won’t cause a tangible difference for charter schools.

“Although it makes me sad — and maybe I’m being naive — it doesn’t really worry me that much,” said Katherine Genao, a teacher at Success Academy Bronx II. “While there are people opposed, there are more and more people who are rallying for us.”

(Most teachers and staff approached by Chalkbeat declined to answer questions, but the organizers made certain attendees available to the press.)

Jacob Mnookin, executive director at Coney Island Prep, argued his own experience speaks louder than the NAACP’s criticisms.

“We haven’t talked a lot about it as a school,” Mnookin said. “We have over 2,000 families on our waiting list, and I think it’s unfortunate and sad for an organization like the NAACP with such a storied history to tell families that desperately want a better choice like that for their children, that they shouldn’t have that.”

Barriers to entry

For many students meeting New York City’s high school application deadline, it’s already too late

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

The day before the city’s high school application deadline, Megan Moskop, high school admissions coordinator at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, encountered a parent whose child wanted to apply to Baruch College Campus High School, a highly sought-after school in Manhattan with a 100 percent graduation rate.

Moskop had to explain to the family that the school is essentially off-limits to them, she said. It’s not that the student is low-achieving, Moskop said, but the family does not live in District 2 — and 99 percent of last year’s incoming class at Baruch came from that district.

The fact that students who live in certain geographic areas have “priority status” is just one way in which a system with over 400 high schools is, in practice, narrowed for students and families. By Thursday, when high school applications were due, Moskop said, many New York City students had likely abandoned their favorite schools.

“It’s almost, how quickly are the kids willing to give up on their dreams?” she said.

New York City’s high school choice process, which allows students to rank their top 12 schools, should make all schools available to any student regardless of where they live. But many roadblocks complicate that ideal.

By the time the deadline approaches, students at low-performing middle schools tend not apply to high-performing high schools, even if they have high test scores, according to a recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

The system is notoriously difficult to navigate, particularly for students who live in low-income areas and have less help moving through the process. Some schools have geographic priority, some have academic requirements, and others ask students to provide information beyond what is actually needed.

Many families also hit snags when it comes to attending open houses or a high school fair. These can give students a leg up in admissions, but families often do not realize their importance until it’s too late, teachers and counselors said.

“They don’t go to the open houses,” said Gloria Carrasquillo, a guidance counselor at J.H.S. 151 in the Bronx. “They just have that application in a drawer or something.”

Another set of students may see options vanish because of their academic records. Many schools are “screened,” which means they accept students based on factors like grades, test scores and attendance. Families often have unrealistic expectations about whether their children will be competitive, said Elaine Espiritu, family impact coordinator at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School.

Department of Education officials said they are working with middle schools and families to ease the process. This year, they added more information about the application process to the High School Directory, and launched a new website called SchoolFinder, which allows students to search for schools that match their interests.

“We’re committed to making the admissions process to New York City’s high schools easier for students and families and we are listening to the feedback of students, families, and guidance counselors,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

At Brooklyn Laboratory, Espiritu said families appreciated the new SchoolFinder app, and the school organized more than a dozen meetings to make sure families had as much information as possible. Still, the process can be tough, said Eric Tucker, co-founder and executive director of the school.

“We’ve worked hard to make sure that families have the tools to quickly get a kind of snapshot view of the kind of the data that matters most,” Tucker said. “But even then, this is an imperfect process because that amount of choice is overwhelming.”

behind the scenes

Trump’s nominee for ed chief already has influenced Tennessee’s voucher debate

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Michigan Republican Betsy DeVos in President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. secretary of education.

While many Tennesseans are still unfamiliar with President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to oversee the nation’s schools, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos already has quietly influenced the state’s contentious tug-of-war over a school voucher program.

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

Vouchers, which allow the use of taxpayer money for private school tuition, have been a hot potato issue in Tennessee in recent years. Three times since 2011, a voucher bill for low-income students has been approved by the state Senate, only to be shot down in the House, where lawmakers responded to constituent concerns about undermining public schools. But the votes have been increasingly close. During the most recent session, the proposal was only two votes shy of the necessary 50 to become law.

This year, the Tennessee Federation for Children targeted several seats aimed at tipping the balance. Republican Paul Sherrell, who received a $5,000 contribution, defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Kevin Dunlap for a seat representing Warren, Grundy and White counties. A public high school teacher, Dunlap virulently opposed vouchers during both years of his term serving on a House education panel.

The group also spent nearly $6,000 in support of Republican Michael Curcio, who won the Dickson-area district seat held by Democrat and voucher opponent David Shepard before he retired this year.

This summer, Tennessee Federation for Children was active during the summer’s Democratic primaries in Memphis, where the latest voucher proposal would have the largest impact. There, the affiliate spent $54,466 in support of school choice candidates — and a combined $25,144 against incumbents Antonio Parkinson and Johnnie Turner, who consistently have voted against voucher bills. Parkinson and Turner retained their seats, and only one candidate supported by the Tennessee Federation for Children won: Rep. John DeBerry, a passionate believer that vouchers would improve outcomes in his city.

The Tennessee affiliate is funded in part by DeVos’s philanthropic foundation, the Alliance for School Choice, receiving $200,000 in 2014. The same year, the foundation awarded $100,000 to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank that encourages lawmakers to embrace school choice legislation including vouchers.

It’s not yet clear if the Tennessee House’s pro-voucher contingent gained sufficient ground as a result of spending in this year’s elections, though the lead sponsor of last year’s voucher bill is optimistic.

“The elections definitely benefitted those who believe parents should have a choice in where the students go to school,” Rep. Bill Dunn said this week.

The Knoxville Republican noted that support for vouchers has steadily increased in Tennessee since he was first elected to the legislature more than 20 years ago. While he believes that support needs to grow to clinch the voucher vote, he attributes the gradual rise in part to groups like Tennessee Federation for Children.

“I’m very, very happy that people have gotten involved and said they’re willing to support this,”  he said.

Want to know more about how Tennessee’s most recent voucher proposal would impact schools? Read our explainer here.