Officials join anti-data push, but Sheldon Silver sides with state

Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson with City Councilwoman Letitia James and mayoral candidate Tom Allon.
Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson with City Councilwoman Letitia James and mayoral candidate Tom Allon.

Parents concerned that a new student database could break privacy laws are getting the support from a new high-profile set of allies: elected officials.

Several City Council members joined parents and privacy advocates outside the Department of Education today to protest the state’s involvement with a nonprofit organization called inBloom. The state is pouring detailed student information into inBloom’s database, which grew out of a Gates Foundation-funded project called the Shared Learning Collaborative that was meant to help states use data to improve student achievement without individually underwriting data system.

The state will retain control of the data, but critics of the project say the state is putting students at risk by handing information about them over to a third party. Their protest has the support of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a leading candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary, and another candidate for mayor, Republican longshot Tom Allon, appeared at the Tweed Courthouse rally today. Allon compared the database to “child pornography.” Meanwhile, an Albany lawmaker, Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, this week introduced legislation to allow parents to opt their children out of the database altogether.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver threw cold water on O’Donnell’s proposed bill tonight, telling concerned parents that he supported the state’s data initiative and that there was little to worry about.

“The data system is to provide information to teachers to improve instruction, as well as provide access to students and parents to facilitate instruction and learning,” Silver wrote in his letter. “However, SED does not intend to allow personally identifiable student records to be used for commercial purposes.”

Some parents said they remained unconvinced that officials could guarantee that their student’s information, which is protected by federal privacy laws, would remain private and secure. Lea Mansour said she feared her childrens’ data could be leaked and end up being used against them later on in life.

“I don’t want colleges to know,” said Lea Mansour, a parent whose son attends P.S. 75. “I don’t want his future employer to know.”

Local critics have allies elsewhere, too. Michelle Malkin, the right-wing pundit, has said the data project represents “yet another encroachment of centralized education bureaucrats on local control and parental rights.”

State education officials have begun transferring student data, which they said is already being collected at the district level, into the database. Spokesman Dennis Tompkins said that teachers would begin to have access to the new database during the 2013-2014 school year.

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.