Success Academy chief Eva Moskowitz says she won’t run for mayor — this time

Eva Moskowitz, the polarizing charter school chief who has frequently clashed with Mayor Bill de Blasio, will not run for mayor in 2017, she said Thursday.

Speaking in front of City Hall, Moskowitz said she wanted to remain focused on her growing network of charter schools and on “educational activism.” The much-anticipated announcement brings speculation about her role in the 2017 mayor’s race to an early end, though she said she hasn’t ruled out a run in 2021.

“I think that what could be accomplished in public education is game changing,” she said. “I believe we have the chance to dramatically change public education, of doing for education, frankly, what Apple did with computing for the iPhone, what Google is doing with driverless cars.”

With Moskowitz bowing out of the mayoral race, speculation is likely to shift to the question of whether she will give her blessing to another candidate — which could bring with it the backing of thousands of charter-school parents and perhaps some of Success’ wealthy financiers. She said Thursday that she would seek to endorse a candidate who promised to overhaul the city’s education system, but added that she has yet identify that person.

Moskowitz has developed a passionate, if still relatively small, constituency of parents who want to see charter schools expand. On Wednesday, thousands of charter school supporters marched to City Hall, including parents, students, and teachers from Success’ nearly three-dozen schools.

But she would have faced a tough challenge if she had decided to face off against de Blasio when he runs for a second term: The mayor would have an advantage as an incumbent with broad support among organized labor, and Moskowitz would need to cultivate a larger base of support beyond charter-school parents and donors.

She also would have to contend with a reputation for abrasiveness and a record of confrontation with her critics, which has led some fellow charter operators to distance themselves from her and galvanized many charter-school opponents. During her announcement Thursday, protesters chanted in nearby City Hall Park.

Moskowitz acknowledged that such protests would become a fact of life if she became mayor, with “four years of dueling press conferences” likely between her administration and her chief antagonist, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew.

Mulgrew released a statement after the press conference suggesting that if Moskowitz ran for mayor it would expose her connection to big donors.

“Thousands of teachers and parents are disappointed today.  They had been looking forward to pulling back the curtain and showing the public the real Eva Moskowitz and the privatization agenda of her hedge-fund pals,” he said.

Still, the interest her announcement brought on Wednesday and Thursday illustrates the power she wields as one of de Blasio’s toughest critics. Moskowitz defeated the mayor early in his tenure when he tried to block her schools from moving into public buildings, and she has more recently publicized their disputes over payments and public space for her schools. On Thursday, she said she does not blame him for the challenges facing the city school system, but that he should be held accountable for finding ways to fix it.

Moskowitz, a former city councilwoman who chaired the education committee, has long mixed politics with the work of running charter schools. She runs a political action committee, Great Public Schools, that’s given money to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state elected officials in recent years. She’s also an adept fundraiser, with members of the Success Academy network’s board contributing large sums to campaigns.

Her decision not to challenge de Blasio comes as Success Academy is growing quickly. The network is preparing to open eight new schools next year, and dozens of others are still expanding. The network also saw the departures of two longtime executives last month, including Keri Hoyt, Moskowitz’s longtime second-in-command.

One challenge for Moskowitz, and Success, if she were to run for public office in the future is the scrutiny it would attract to her schools.

Moskowitz has clashed with educators on a host of practices that she uses in her schools — whose students consistently outscore most of their charter and traditional school peers on state tests — including harsh discipline policies. She says that suspensions should be used to send a message to students and families about a school’s expectations, something she’s defended as many cities, and federal education officials, have pushed to reduce exclusionary discipline practices. Her schools have also been criticized for an overemphasis on intense test preparation and for serving a smaller share of high-needs students than the traditional public school system.

Meanwhile, Moskowitz’s appearances in Washington and at education-reform events have given her a growing profile on the national stage. Last year, she testified before Congress about education’s role in boosting the economy and this year brought students and a teacher to Capitol Hill to show demonstrate a lesson to lawmakers.

“I am very clear in my convictions of what needs to be done,” she said Thursday, “so I’m going to continue to do educational activism in the same way I’ve done it for the last 20 years.”

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.