turf wars

SUNY trustees approve Success Academy for Upper West Side

A still from Upper West Success' website.
A screenshot from Upper West Success Academy's website.

The State University of New York’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved Eva Moskowitz’s application to open a charter school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side this morning.

But the approval is unlikely to dampen any of the controversy surrounding the Upper West Success Academy, which Moskowitz’s charter network plans to open in the fall of 2011.

The fight over the school has centered on two questions: Is a new charter school the answer to the district’s overcrowding? And, if so, should that charter share another school’s building?

This is the first time Moskowitz’s charter chain plans to open a school in a neighborhood that is not predominantly low-income. Moskowitz has said she intends the school to provide an alternative to parents who have been crowded out of the neighborhood’s most popular schools or who cannot send their students to one of the city’s gifted programs.

Moskowitz has said she would like the charter to open in P.S. 145, which the city currently lists as underutilized. City officials have told the school they are likely to site the charter there, according to P.S. 145 parent leaders, though the city says no decision has been made.

Over the past few weeks, as Moskowitz has begun to advertise the school’s arrival to the neighborhood, opposition to the school has begun to grow, especially among P.S. 145 parents, neighborhood activists and politicians. Critics fear that, even in cases where the city considers a building underutilized, district schools will be squeezed if an expanding charter moves in.

“The community is behind improving our existing schools, not evicting them,” said Noah Gotbaum, the president of District 3’s parent council.

Gotbaum and others, including the neighborhood’s Councilwoman Gale Brewer, worry that if Upper West Success moves in, it could compromise an $11 million grant P.S. 145 and seven other neighborhood schools recently won to expand. The school is supposed to use the grant money to attract more students by improving its technology programs.

Brewer also said that neighborhood activists had wanted the city to move a small middle school, West Prep Academy, into the building to help relieve overcrowding in the district’s southern section, a plan that would also be jeopardized by the entrance of Upper West Success.

Under the revisions to state charter school law passed this year, charter applicants must demonstrate demand for the school in the neighborhoods where they want to open. Parents and activists who attended the SUNY trustee vote this morning said their voices were largely ignored in the approval process.

“There’s one fatal flaw in this overall process: nobody asked what the community wanted,” said Donna Nevel, a West Side parent and community activist.

But Moskowitz has insisted — and SUNY officials agreed — that demand exists for her school in the crowded neighborhood.

“We’ve spent a lot of time this summer talking to Upper West Side parents,” Moskowitz wrote in the New York Post this week. “Regardless of their politics or ideology, they almost all agree on one thing: If they can have the option of applying to a new, tuition-free school in their community with proven results, they want that option.”

Just before the trustees voted to approve the application, Pedro Noguera, the chair of SUNY’s charter school committee, expressed concern that because the Charter School Institute does not select sites for its schools, parent objections might be overlooked.

But when institute staff noted that the city would need to go through its own public approval process before siting Upper West Success in a district building, and that the institute also can veto a proposed charter school location, Noguera seemed satisfied.

“I think that hopefully should give those members of the community who are objecting to the location ample opportunity to be heard,” Noguera said.

The fight will likely now shift to the city’s public approval process for siting the school. If the city decides to give the charter school space at P.S. 145, it will hold a hearing at the school and the citywide school board will vote on the move.

Tina Crockett, president of the P.S. 145’s parent association, argued today that the co-location is not a foregone conclusion.

“We just think [Moskowitz is] unfairly jumping the gun to influence parents to attract them to her school,” Crockett said.

“Let us go through the process,” she said. “Don’t insinuate that it’s a done deal.”

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 subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (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.