charter politics

De Blasio takes heat from politicians, parents at charter school rally

On the steps of City Hall following Wednesday’s charter school rally, the Bronx borough president had strong words for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“The public school system is your system. Charter schools are a part of that system,” Ruben Diaz Jr. said. “All we want from you, Mr. Mayor, is to treat them equitably.”

Diaz was the highest profile member to criticize de Blasio at a massive rally held Wednesday in Brooklyn and in front of City Hall, but was far from the only one. He was among thousands of parents and students who co-opted the mayor’s signature goal of reducing inequality by calling on the city to offer more support to charter schools and improve education for black and Hispanic students, holding up signs that read, “Hey Mayor! End Inequality NOW!”

The rally, organized by the well-funded advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, was similar in tone to last year’s event. It came on the heels of a series of education policy announcements from de Blasio and as the city’s charter movement continues its rapid growth.

De Blasio has been cooler to charter schools than former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and has been criticized by advocates for not offering charters enough support. Families for Excellent Schools and Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz have circulated letters recently accusing de Blasio of hurting the city’s needy students by not offering charter schools space in public school buildings — though the city is expected to spend over $30 million on rent in private space for charter schools by next summer.

But if parents at the rally last year were focused on what the newly elected de Blasio might do as mayor, this year’s crowd was already buzzing about his re-election campaign in 2017.

Parents, most of whom had students at Success Academy schools, were generally warm to the idea of a Moskowitz bid for mayor. Moskowitz has said she is interested in the position, and a representative told reporters that will make a political announcement on the steps of City Hall Thursday morning.

“Oh definitely. Oh yes of course,” said Hawa Magass, the parent of a fourth grader at Harlem Success Academy 3, when asked if she would support a Moskowitz run.

Some, like Natasha Venning, the parent of two children who attend different Success Academy schools in Harlem, said the mayor’s attitude toward charter schools persuaded her not to vote for him.

“No, I didn’t and I told everybody not to,” Venning said about voting for de Blasio. “I think he’s full of crap.”

Elected officials in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough and home to a large share of the city’s persistently struggling schools, have long been split on whether the city should encourage the rapid growth of charter schools, which already occupy parts of many Bronx school buildings. The borough president’s father, State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., has been a longtime charter supporter. Still, the criticism Diaz Jr. offered Wednesday was notable for coming from a fellow Democrat typically allied with de Blasio, and has added to speculation that Diaz might be considering his own mayoral run.

In response, the mayor’s office pointed to the mayor’s education initiatives including pre-K for all, and plans to offer new reading support for second graders and Advanced Placement classes for all students and argued that they are designed to improve all of the city’s public schools. And even before Moskowitz announced that she will speak at City Hall on Thursday, the rally was criticized by the mayor’s allies as a political stunt.

“We believe that’s the path to raising achievement — not just for some students — but for all students,” City Hall spokesman Wiley Norvell said.

The Alliance for Quality Education advocacy director Zakiyah Ansari was incredulous that Diaz would speak against the mayor.

“If we’re really about equity, why wouldn’t you want someone who’s really focused on the majority of the system?” she asked.

But Diaz held that the mayor could do more to find suitable locations for charter schools and to support them financially.

“We want to work with the mayor,” Diaz said after the press conference, but charter schools are now, “a permanent part of the tapestry in the city of New York.”

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.