unchartered territory

Head of charter school set to close fires back at teachers, DOE

The head of the Brooklyn charter school whose charter could be revoked is firing back at the Department of Education and the former teachers who reported her.

In a letter sent to parents on Tuesday, Sheila Joseph, superintendent of the East New York Preparatory school, called the DOE’s allegations that she artificially inflated her salary, violated its charter by shortening the school year and expelled nearly 50 low-performing students before they took state tests “unfounded and untrue.” Joseph also argued in the letter that the school’s high faculty turnover rate was necessary to preserve high standards for the students.

“No one enjoys faculty turnover, but just as we have high and uncompromising standards for our students we also will not compromise on faculty performance,” she wrote. Between the end of last school year and the beginning of this one, the school lost every teacher it had.

“Some of our best teachers are now here because others had to be let go,” Joseph continued. “I don’t take lightly the fact that there has been turnover. However, I will never allow your children to have anything less than the absolute best.”

Former teachers at the school reacted angrily to Joseph’s explanation to parents.

“She’s lying,” said one former teacher who was dismissed in June.

“You’re saying you let go of 100 percent of your staff last year because they were bad, but all of your students passed the test?” the teacher said. (The school had 100 percent of its students score proficient on state math exams last year.) “If so, you must have done something with the scores.”

Teachers accused Joseph of firing them in retaliation for wanting to leave and for reporting abuses at the school to the DOE, which put the school on probation last February.

“I knew this was coming,” the teacher said. “We opened this can of worms.”

Teachers described a school in which teachers were fired arbitrarily and replaced with staff with neither teacher certification nor undergraduate degrees. The principal of the school was fired almost immediately after announcing she wouldn’t return the following year after having differences with Joseph, teachers said. A former teacher described a main hallway decorated with pictures of the teaching staff. “You’d come in and you’d see another picture gone,” the teacher said. “You’d be like, oh no.”

In addition to expelling students, a teacher said, low-scoring third graders were sent back to second grade to avoid being tested. Teachers said that students with disabilities were either counseled out of the school or taught by teaching assistants who lacked proper certification.

One teacher said the school never gave her a copy of its charter; when she finally received it from the DOE’s charter school office, she discovered the school had received funds for technology and project-based learning that were never implemented. Another former teacher said that, even as Joseph gave herself a raise, she cut teachers’ hours and solicited donations from parents, citing budget cuts.

Mona Davids, head of the New York Charter Parents Association, who has argued that charter schools need to be more transparent and held accountable for more than just test scores, said the case of East New York Prep underscores the need for better parent grievance processes and teacher whistle-blower protections in charter schools.

“If you’re trying to tell us that everyone of those 48 [expelled] students’ parents didn’t want to complain about it — they couldn’t complain about it, because they have nowhere to go in the charter school system,” Davids said. The DOE opened its investigation of the school in response to complaints from parents, but Davids said the process must be more formal.

Davids said that as a charter school parent, she also hoped that teachers would one day be able to report improprieties they see in their schools without fear for their jobs.

“There should be whistle-blower protections for teachers in charter schools,” she said. “I’m not saying that all charter schools should be unionized, but with every job, there should be some some protections.”

The school and parents received a letter from the DOE on Monday night detailing the reasons behind the closure. The school has 30 days to respond before Chancellor Joel Klein makes a final decision. In the letter, Joseph says she will reply to the charges in that time.

Joseph is also convening a series of meeting with parents to defend herself and the school. The first of those meetings was held tonight, with three more to follow through the weekend. One former teacher also reported that the school’s parent coordinator is organizing a petition for parents who want to save the school.

The DOE is holding a meeting of its own at the school, next Wednesday, to explain the closure and offer help placing students in other schools.

A former teacher said she was confident that the schools’ students would weather the changes and find spots at other schools.

“The school doesn’t even need to be shut down, in my opinion,” she said. “[Joseph] just needs to go.”

Here is the full text of Joseph’s letter:

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.