embedded on the front lines

Door to door in Crown Heights with a charter school foot soldier

Bianca Blake (check!) and George Banning in Crown Heights, Brooklyn
George Banning canvasses for charter school advocates in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

As next week’s Race to the Top deadline approaches, pro-charter advocates are marshaling all their resources to lift the state’s cap on charter schools. George Banning is one of their foot soldiers.

It’s been hard to miss the advocacy group Education Reform Now’s pro-charter, anti-teachers union ad blitz. The group, backed by millions of dollars raised largely from hedge fund managers, spent $750,000 on a television ad buy last week, for example. Its web ads plaster Google, Facebook and news websites.

But the group is also trying to rally support for its efforts in Albany by sending roughly 40 canvassers like Banning literally to voters’ doorsteps.

To persuade lawmakers to support their issues — many of which clash with the powerful teachers union — Education Reform Now has to argue that its positions enjoy a groundswell of public support. But the true extent of public support for its position is unclear. The last independent poll that asked found that more than 60 percent of New Yorkers wanted more charters, but that was in March 2009. A recent poll reported that public support for Chancellor Joel Klein, a charter school cheerleader, is declining.

And so one afternoon last week, Banning hit the streets of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn armed with postcards and petitions addressed to the neighborhood’s assemblyman and senator. On a clipboard, Banning carried a list of names and addresses of registered voters.

Face of the campaign

Banning is a tall man in his early 30s with a posture that gives away his history as a dance graduate of LaGuardia High School. After an injury, he gave up his dancing career, got an undergraduate degree in biology and is headed to medical school this fall. He got this job through connections made as a canvasser for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, and goes out canvassing five afternoons a week.

Each of the postcards Banning carried asked lawmakers to vote “yes” on a measure that would more than double the number of charters allowed in the state. Banning, who has canvassed in all the city’s borough’s except Staten Island, is also hoping to build support for an effort to do away with the city’s seniority-based layoff system.

banning_2
George Banning in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

The day I tagged along, Banning was covering friendly territory. Crown Heights’ Assemblyman, Karim Camara, introduced the cap lift bill that Education Reform Now supports and that the Senate already passed earlier this month. Banning also happened that day to be canvassing the neighborhood where he grew up; his elementary school, P.S. 161, was a few blocks away. (One man mentioned that his mother-in-law had taught there for many years. “Mrs. Alexis?” Banning replied excitedly. “I know her.”)

The roughly 15 voters who opened their doors for Banning in Crown Heights in a three-and-a-half hour canvassing shift are clearly not a representative sample. But their responses to Banning’s pitch suggest that at the very least, the lobby’s public relations campaign has succeeded in capturing attention, if not creating deep knowledge of the issue.

Banning’s script typically went like this: First, he introduced himself as a representative of a pro-charter advocacy group and assured that no, he was not with the census. Banning then asked if the person knew that New York had lost $700 million because state lawmakers had not lifted the cap on charter schools.

Responses varied:

— “I saw the commercials, but I don’t know the politics of it.”
— (Blank stare.)
— “Is that what they were showing ads for on the TV?”
—”Mayor Bloomberg came to my church Sunday talking about this, so what the heck!”
— “What does Karim think of this?”
— “Is this that $700 million thing?”

Making the pitch

For some of Ed Reform Now’s canvassers, it’s just a job, Banning told me, but he’s a true believer. Banning is the father of a student at Excellence Charter School and has a personable, persuasive manner as he explains that he thinks all parents deserve strong public school choices, including charter schools, for their children.

He convinced most voters he encountered to sign their names and addresses to pro-charter school postcards with relative ease, often arguing that doing so would help the state secure the $700 million Race to the Top funds state officials argue New York’s schools desperately need. “Anything for the kids,” several people said as they signed without asking questions.

Not everyone was so amiable. “So we’re going to sell ourselves to Washington for this?” asked one man, suspicious of the federal government’s push to dangle funds as a way of influencing state educational policy. He took a flier but did not sign.

If he secured a signature on a pro-charter school postcard, Banning moved to stage two. “Also, have you heard about the crisis in Albany with budget cuts?” he asked. (“Which one?” one woman deadpanned.) Around 6,400 teachers face layoffs, he explained. “That’s really sad,” he said, “and what’s more sad is that they’re going to fire first the teachers who have been hired most recently.”

“Do you think that’s fair?” he asked.

“I’m on the fence about this,” responded Ann Rollins Boyd, the mother of a P.S. 161 student who had signed Banning’s charter school postcard. “In the corporate sector when they downsize, that’s how they do it, too.” Banning pushed, and Boyd eventually assented that she thought there should be a way to pinpoint the best teachers and spare them. She signed the petition.

At one house with day care signs in the window and mail from the national teachers union peeking out of the mailbox, Banning got a surprising answer. “No, I don’t think that’s fair,” said the middle-aged teacher who answered the door. “I’m not supposed to sign this, but I’m going to,” she said.

Jason Hayes, left, and George Banning debate charter schools and seniority-based layoffs.
Jason Hayes, left, and George Banning debate charter schools and seniority-based layoffs.

The last visit of Banning’s run was also the only one where Banning encountered serious opposition. “This, to me, is a jaded issue,” said Jason Hayes, a filmmaker and former teacher. “If you’re giving people a choice between a charter school that’s extremely well funded and a public school that’s extremely underfunded, what kind of a choice is that?”

Banning spent the next 20 minutes trying to convince Hayes that charter schools don’t weed out students and are not a form of privatizing public education, and that the push against seniority-based layoffs is not a union-busting strategy. It didn’t work. “At the end of the day, this campaign for me is not about educating kids in the best possible way,” Hayes concluded.

But Hayes’ opposition won’t show up in Education Reform Now’s records. Later on the train, as Banning tallied all of the responses he’d received on a scale of 1 (signed a petition) to 5 (extremely opposed), I noticed that he didn’t include Hayes at all. He wasn’t the registered voter at that address and so wouldn’t be counted, Banning explained.

I asked how Banning would have rated Hayes if he had been the voter at that house. To my surprise, Banning told me he would rate Hayes as a 3.

He seemed pretty opposed, I said.

“He took some literature,” Banning said optimistically. “And he said he’d think about it. Maybe he’ll change his mind.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.