New York charter leader Eva Moskowitz: Colorado doesn’t spend enough on its students

PHOTO: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images
Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy at a Harlem location in 2014.

The leader of New York City’s largest charter school network was in Denver Tuesday for a conversation with Chalkbeat’s editor-in-chief that touched on school culture, education funding, and why “no-excuses” is a label Eva Moskowitz doesn’t want attached to her schools.

The event was hosted by The Colorado Forum, a civic group concerned with education.

Moskowitz founded her first Success Academy charter school in Harlem in 2006. The one school has since grown into a network of 46 that serve 15,500 students across New York City. Success Academy charters are known for their academic rigor and high test scores – and have come in for criticism for their rigid discipline and intense test prep. Moskowitz has said her goal is to expand the network to 100 schools in the next decade. In a recent article, Chalkbeat editor and CEO Elizabeth Green asked what this approach means for the future of public education.

Moskowitz sat down with Green and members of The Colorado Forum, as well as some Chalkbeat readers, for an hour-and-a-half question-and-answer session. We’ve excerpted some of the conversation below.

Teacher training is paramount to the Success Academy model, Moskowitz said.

“Our teachers come four to five weeks before the children come. And they go through a series of training including a very in-depth content institute.

“If they’re teaching kids in the older grades, we also look at the data and the student work of the previous year. So if you’re a second-grade teacher, we really want you to study the data of the first graders from the year before. We want you to look at samples of student work. And we want you to understand all of those things related to the pedagogy, not to mention how you handle challenging students or the expectations around positive phone calls to parents.”

She said students need to be trained, too.

“Depending on the age level, we do invest time in teaching the basic routines. It may seem obvious to you that a 5-year-old would know how to hang up their coat, and where to put their coat, and what to do with the boots and everything else, but actually you have to teach kids that.

“I remember when I opened Success Academy, the first one, and I really did not know what I was doing, I experienced the lack-of-two-hands-on-the-lunch-tray problem, where the milk slides over, and I had the contents of 200 trays on the ground. And I didn’t understand…how many times you would have to tell 5- and 6-year-olds to keep two hands on the tray.

“That stuff sounds terribly boring and unimportant compared to poetry, but if you don’t take the time to really learn the routines and practice the routines, you can’t hit the ground running.”

Success Academy has been criticized for treating students harshly, especially after the New York Times published a video of a teacher ripping up a student’s work. But Moskowitz said that video isn’t representative of the network’s culture.

“Our view is that schools should be a place where children are loved and feel loved, and that one can do very rigorous learning and be a place of joy and love.

“I think you can see kids in uniform and say, ‘Oh, you’re a no-excuses school.’ But we’re not. We’re a school that does project-based learning, that does block play in kindergarten and first grade. We are tremendous believers in games. We play games for 90 minutes every Wednesday. … My favorite is Monopoly in second (grade).

“All of our schools have art, music, dance. We have science five days a week. I don’t think any journalist who comes to our schools with an open mind is going to see anything other than exuberance – incredible exuberance – about school.

“The notion that somehow all these parents are hoodwinked by this joyous paramilitary environment – you know, they’re savvy consumers, they love their kids, they want their kids in a happy environment. It just seems implausible that somehow everyone would get snookered simply because I put a pamphlet under their door saying, ‘Hey, come to Success Academy.’”

In order to offer electives, Moskowitz said she has to make certain budgetary decisions. That includes having bigger class sizes, such as 32 students in kindergarten.

“It’s not that I like big class sizes. And as a teacher, you’d much rather have a smaller group of students. And as a parent, I’d much rather have 15 kids in my kid’s class than 32.

“It’s really about the economics. If I have 32 kids in a class, then I can pay for the art, the music, the dance, the dedicated science teacher, the chess teacher. So I have to make choices about what I value the most. If I could value everything equally, I would have small class sizes and the chess teacher. But I can’t do that. So I have to make the model work.”

This year, Success Academy will graduate its first class of high school seniors. The class of 17 seniors started off as a group of 73 kindergarteners, Moskowitz said. She explained that while Success has a lower than average student attrition rate, the network does not accept new students – or “backfill,” in education-speak – after fourth grade.

“I think reasonable people can differ on, ‘Is it more virtuous to backfill or to open schools faster?’ And I have chosen to open schools with lightning speed. But to start at the beginning, I really believe that teaching children to read is of the utmost important, and so I want to get that right.

“But also, there are practical reasons. If you admit a kid in ninth grade, then it’s going to be very hard to teach ninth grade physics because the ninth grade physics is dependent on kids who’ve had science five days a week, K to 8. If you really build backwards from calculus, you’re doing things mathematically in kindergarten that are foreshadowing that.

“We find that even in fourth grade, kids are three years behind.”

Moskowitz talked about rallying parents to lobby New York state lawmakers for more per-pupil funding for charter schools. In the beginning, Success Academy got $10,579 per student, she said. Now that amount has increased to $14,501. Colorado schools get about half as much: $7,662 per student this year. Asked about teacher recruitment, Moskowitz said being able to offer teachers a good salary and benefits helps.

“I don’t know that much at all about Denver, Colorado. But from the little I know, you have a per-pupil problem. It’s going to be very hard to attract talent, no matter if you’re district or charter, unless you get that per-pupil up.

“I’m not suggesting that money is everything. But it’s a very important something.

“You can’t educate kids well on what you guys are dealing with.”

Moskowitz, a Democrat, also talked about her much-publicized meeting with President Donald Trump shortly after he was elected. She said she was at one of her schools when he called. She didn’t answer at first because she thought it was a prank.

“I did make the decision, and maybe it was a poor one, that when the president-elect calls you, that you should meet with them. I wasn’t tainting anything by responding to the president-elect’s call.

“But I am a Democrat, and I found the campaign very troubling, and that was before everything that happened. I am far more troubled even now than I was. I didn’t think I could be more troubled. But I am more troubled now.…The notion teachers should carry guns in school just astounds me as an answer to the tragedy in Florida. I can’t think of a worse idea.

“I’m not going to talk about a private conversation. But I was really focused on improving Success schools and trying to get to 100 and break the scaling code, etcetera, so that’s what I’m doing.

“He did ask me about Common Core. I kept trying to disclose, ‘I’m a Hillary supporter. I’m a liberal Democrat.’ And I said, ‘Oh, and I believe in Common Core,’ because I thought that would lead me to the door. And he said he said, ‘I believe in Common Core.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ On that level, it was very strange.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”