crib sheet

We read Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare” so you don’t have to

Eva Moskowitz did not generate the idea for Harlem Success herself; Randi Weingarten has been criticizing her successor, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, to her friends; and former Chancellor Joel Klein thinks that at least two of his former deputies have gone soft on reform in their new school districts. These are among the claims in “Class Warfare,” Steven Brill’s new book on the education reform movement.

Much of “Class Warfare” will be familiar to GothamSchools readers. The book’s main characters include, on one side, former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and, on the other, teachers unions president Randi Weingarten; many of its main plot points center on New York City, and some of the key classroom scenes take place in Harlem.

But the following insights — some of them more solidly sourced than others — were news to us. Here’s a run-down of Brill’s most intriguing New York-related reporting:

The war behind the war: Bloomberg v. Klein

  • On labor issues, Bloomberg sometimes undercut Joel Klein. Klein’s team thought they could get the UFT to sign off on a change in the teacher termination process. But Bloomberg, who was nearing reelection, told them not to push their luck. “The mayor blinked,” the DOE’s one-time labor chief, Dan Weisberg, told Brill. “The mayor just gave up.” Weisberg said he “clashed almost daily” with City Hall over back-channel contract negotiations in 2005.
  • Similarly, Brill reports that in 2006, Bloomberg told Klein and Weisberg to “stand down” on pushing a time limit for teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve. As Klein left office last year, he was still calling for that policy.
  • Bloomberg was weighing a third term even a year into his second, and his education policies reflected that. The 2007 teachers contract included little in the way of substantive policy, an oddity at a time when Klein was setting an aggressive tone at Tweed. In fact, the only major change, a schoolwide bonus program, was spiked this year. “The plan,” Klein told Brill, “was to make some progress in the 2005 contract — which we did, though not enough — and then go in for the kill in 2007. Mike deciding to run for a third term completely killed that.”

What Klein really thought of his proteges and more that you didn’t know about him

  • Klein didn’t think he would be chancellor. Brill reports that a mutual friend suggested that Bloomberg consider Klein, but after their first meeting, Klein “didn’t think he had connected with Bloomberg.” Bloomberg now says he picked Klein because “Jesus Christ wasn’t available.”
  • The animosity displayed between Klein and Randi Weingarten, the teachers union president for most of his tenure, was real. “Joel Klein would come to detest [Randi] Weingarten as much as she detested [Klein ally, PS 49 Principal Anthony] Lombardi and him,” Brill writes.
  • Klein isn’t uniformly proud of his protégés. Former Klein deputies now head school systems in Baltimore, New Haven, Chicago (where Jean-Claude Brizard came from Rochester, N.Y.), and New Jersey. But in some of those places, Klein said his former deputies had not been bold enough. “All of them had big minds, but not all had strong minds,” he told Brill. Brill and Klein do not name names. Among the former Klein deputies now leading education efforts in other cities, at least two have received criticism from proponents of aggressive reform. In Baltimore, Andres Alonso has been positioned as a more collaborative alternative to Klein; in New Haven, Garth Harries, the number-two school official, led an agreement with the teachers union that critics charge included too many concessions.
  • Klein’s pension from his eight years as chancellor is guaranteed at the same rate as city teachers’ — 8.25 percent per year. The benefit structure is costly for the city, as we reported last year. “Who else but Bernie Madoff guarantees 8.25 percent a year permanently?” Klein asked.

What Randi Weingarten thinks of Michael Mulgrew, why Eva Moskowitz started Harlem Success, and more charter school politics:

  • Klein created the idea of charter school co-locations with the precise intention of generating a political fight. He told Brill that he slipped $250 million for charter school co-locations into 2005’s larger-than-ever budget and “nobody noticed.” He also said that his decision to give the UFT charter school space inside a city school building was strategic. “Once Randi’s school was co-located, she could never be against co-location in principle,” Klein told Brill. “She’d have to oppose the specifics of the co-location plan but not the idea.” Since then, the UFT has twice sued the city over the specifics of its co-location plans. The union also received City Council funding this year to plan its charter schools’ exit from their co-located site.
  • Weingarten hasn’t approved of the battle that her successor at the UFT, Michael Mulgrew, has waged against charter schools. Brill writes that Weingarten told friends that she was embarrassed by Mulgrew’s efforts to prevent the lifting of the charter cap in 2010 because she thought the union had already lost. The cap was lifted when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, usually a friend of the union, suddenly threw his support behind the move.
  • The cap probably could have been lifted sooner if the city had made a few concessions. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told Brill that she wanted Klein to give up his commitment to co-location as part of the negotiations around lifting the charter school cap in 2010. “If Joel would give up on co-location and look at doing something on saturation, it would sure ease all the tension,” Tisch told Brill.
  • Harlem Success Academy wasn’t Eva Moskowitz’s idea. Brill reports that several hedge-fund managers approached Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, for advice about starting a network of charter schools; Grannis had previously helped launch the Girls Prep charter school. After Moskowitz critiqued the hedge-fund managers’ plan, they offered her the job — but they told Brill they hadn’t planned to do so before that.

On Race to the Top, including what the Obama administration really thought about New York’s application:

  • The Race to the Top competition was partially inspired by the Gates Foundation. In 2008, the Gates Foundation held a small-scale competition to encourage school districts and teachers unions to work together. When an Obama administration official first proposed the idea of having states compete for federal funds, they were reminded that the Gates competition had achieved its aim of fomenting collaboration.
  • Race the to Top could have been three times bigger. When Obama administration officials approached David Obey, a member of the House of Representatives who controlled the appropriations committee, he wasn’t happy that the competition would annoy the unions and that his state, Wisconsin, was unlikely to win. So he cut the initial proposal of $15 billion (out of $100 billion being distributed to schools) down to the $5 billion that made up the first Race to the Top competition.
  • Other states were supposed to beat New York, which came in second in Race to the Top’s second round. New York’s win — after a dismal showing in the first round — came largely because the state and its teachers unions agreed to toughen teacher evaluations (the same evaluations that are now being disputed in court). Federal officials were shocked to see that the people hired to evaluate Race to the Top applications gave so much credit to union collaboration in New York. They were also distressed that Colorado and Louisiana, which had reshaped their laws in response to the competition, had not made the cut — to the point that they considered changing the rules after the competition was over. Politics K-12, Education Week’s education politics blog, has the complete run-down on the rankings shakeup that Brill writes caused “near-panic” at the U.S. Department of Education.

Rubber rooms, Wendy Kopp and LIFO, and more miscellaneous extras:

  • The number of teachers removed from the classroom on misconduct charges is tiny and falling. In the year after the city closed the rubber rooms that housed teachers accused of misconduct, Brill reports that just 155 teachers were removed from the classroom, down from 250 to 300 teachers a year before that.
  • Teach for America tempered its opposition to “last in, first out” layoffs, which would have heavily affected its members, out of pragmatism. “It should be obvious how I feel but we have to work with these school systems and teachers every day,” TFA founder Wendy Kopp told Brill.
  • Capacity is a big problem. Brill describes how top Harlem Success staff members quit midyear, citing the toll of their long hours and high-pressure jobs on their relationships and bodies. Meanwhile, the superintendent of Pittsburgh’s schools told Brill that even if he replaced the weakest 3.5 percent of his teachers each year with better teachers, he would be able to “refortify” only a third of his workforce in a decade. And that’s in a system with just 2,200 teachers, compared to nearly 80,000 in New York City.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”