Charter backers reluctantly embrace idea of "Mayor de Blasio"

As public advocate, Bill de Blasio presented reports about how to improve the process through which schools are awarded space inside city-owned buildings. In 2011, de Blasio presented reforms to the co-location process, which has benefitted charter schools under Bloomberg.

Next week, thousands of parents will flood the Brooklyn Bridge to rally in support of the charter schools that their children attend. It’s an aggressive — and divisive — approach meant to send a message to Democrat and mayoral frontronner Bill de Blasio, who says he wants to slow the growth of charter schools and charge rent to the ones operating in city-owned buildings.

But a smaller group of school leaders and well-heeled charter backers are also taking a quieter approach in a hopeful attempt to seek influence with the Democratic mayoral nominee. Faced with increasing odds that de Blasio will be the next mayor — and the understanding that charter school parents are unlikely to support Republican Joe Lhota — they’re lining his pockets with campaign donations.

Some also attended a fundraiser Thursday to try to influence the likely mayor on education policy, which is being organized in part by Craig Johnson, a former Democratic state senator who now chairs the Democrats for Education Reform political action committee.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to begin a dialogue around all the issues affecting kids, including universal pre-kindergarten, co-location, and all those issues,” said Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep, a network that operates four charter schools in the city.

Rowe was among the charter school supporters at the de Blasio fundraiser. Organizer Johnson, who worked with de Blasio on John Edwards’ 2004 presidential campaign, is among the names listed atop a fundraising invitation to the event, hosted by Martin Scheinman, a lawyer and contract arbitrator.

Other supporters, such as Public Prep chairman Bryan Lawrence, already opened their wallets to de Blasio at Johnson’s request. The reluctant embrace comes despite ongoing suspicions that de Blasio’s plans for education could hurt the charter sector.

“He says he wants to make the city better,” said Lawrence, who said he donated $4,950 to de Blasio, the maximum allowed for individuals under the city’s campaign finance laws. “And if he’s elected, we’re looking forward to working with him on how to do that.”

Lawrence said the donation isn’t a signal that de Blasio had earned his vote just yet. Last month, Lawrence gave $2,500 to Lhota’s campaign, and he said he is eager to learn more about both candidates’ education plans.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how both of them approach improving the public school system,” Lawrence said.

Paul Appelbaum, who along with Lawrence sits on the board of Families for Excellent Schools, which is organizing the Brooklyn Bridge march, contributed $2,500 to de Blasio, according to FES Executive Director Jeremiah Kittredge.

Despite their wary relationship with de Blasio, the charter sector is even more reluctant to support Lhota, whose education agenda maps more closely to their own. Lhota has pledged to double New York City’s charter school sector and continue to allow schools to operate in city-owned buildings rent-free. In contrast, de Blasio offered more details this week about the sliding scale he’d employ to charge rent to charter schools that have raised large sums of private money.

“Bill de Blasio is no friend to the education reform movement,” said a Lhota spokeswoman, Jessica Proud.. “He wants to obliterate charter schools despite their enormous success in educating our children.”

The de Blasio campaign declined to comment.

But charter school leaders said they see areas of agreement with de Blasio on education. Rowe pointed to de Blasio’s plan to expand early childhood access, which includes a tax on the wealthy to fund full-day universal pre-kindergarten. Rowe said he supports the plan, but added that de Blasio must embrace changing state law to allow charter schools to serve these students.

“Quality pre-kindergarten is one of the most important legislative initiatives, in particular for kids from the communities we serve,” Rowe said.

De Blasio has said he does not believe charter schools should be allowed to operate pre-K programs.

Some charter school advocates believe they can convince de Blasio to change his mind on that issue and others. And some also say participating in a massive rally that could end up attacking de Blasio is not the way to do it.

“All of my parents voted for de Blasio,” said Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, principal of Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, explaining why his school would not attend the rally. “How could I tell my parents to then turn around and protest the person you just voted for mayor?”

But Kalam Id-Din said he was still troubled with de Blasio’s statements this week about charging rent to charter schools. To him, they represented a direct contradiction to de Blasio’s larger platform to address the city’s socioeconomic inequities.

“You’re going to tax the people who are trying to serve our most at risk students?” Kalam Id-Din said. “That to me is just perverse.”

Here’s the invitation for tonight’s de Blasio fundraiser, including a list of donors:

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.