charter wars

As war over charter schools rages on, what power does the city actually have?

PHOTO: Annie Ma
Sharita Moore-Willis, whose daughter will start first grade at Girls Prep Lower East Side this fall, speaks at a rally on the City Hall steps demanding an apology from Mayor Bill DeBlasio for his earlier comments on charter school test scores.

New York City’s charter school battle lines are as clear as ever. Last week, the mayor fired the latest shot by dismissing some charter schools’ test score gains as a product of test prep rather than “actually teaching kids.”

Charter school advocates, who called his comments “insulting” and “mean-spirited,” took to the op-ed page and are planning another massive rally this September to call on the city to “stand with public charter schools”

But while the debate rages on, the city’s power to stop the charter sector from expanding has slowly waned. The Department of Education can no longer authorize new schools, the state doubled the city’s charter school cap, and legislation requires the city to provide rent money for charter schools using private space.

That leaves little practical recourse for de Blasio to hamper charter schools, some argue, regardless of how he feels about them.

“It seems completely like rhetoric to me,” said Dirk Tillotson, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great School Choices, which helps launch community-based charter schools. “I don’t think the education department has any credibility, and he particularly doesn’t have any credibility on charters.”

Others say that rhetoric itself has power, and that the mayor can complicate the process for charter schools trying to find public space. Here’s a look at what the city can — and can’t — do when it comes to charter schools.

Can the mayor stop charter schools from expanding? (No, that’s not him.)

The city’s Department of Education used to be able to approve or “authorize” charters, but it lost that power in a series of state legislative changes passed during the Race to the Top era. Now, charter approval and oversight is left to the New York State Board of Regents and SUNY.

Roughly 50 charter schools still remain under the control of the Department of Education, holdovers from when the city used to authorize charters. In February, the city moved to close three low-performing charter schools under its control. Even the New York City Charter School Center did not protest those closures.

“Nobody wants to see a school closed, but it’s important that authorizers maintain high standards and hold charters accountable,” said James Merriman, CEO of the Charter School Center, at the time.

Charter schools currently serve 95,000 students, roughly 8.6 percent of the student population, and a state cap controls their growth. Last year the state doubled limit on the number of new charter schools that can start in New York City from 25 to 50.

Can he deny charter schools space? (Not technically, but advocates argue he can make it difficult.)

School space has been a key flash point between de Blasio and advocates.

Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz led the charge against de Blasio in 2014 with a crusade to secure charter school space — and it’s a battle she won. The state passed a law requiring the city to provide new charter schools with space inside city buildings or fund private rent for schools.

Despite that law, some charter advocates argue de Blasio could do a better job finding public space for charter schools. Public space is often preferable to private space, they say, since those buildings are already designed to accommodate students.

In June, the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools released a report claiming there are 67 schools in the city with more than 500 seats available for students. City officials called that claim “misleading,” since many factors determine whether a given space is appropriate for a school, including projected enrollment and the type of seats available.

Still, leaders of the city’s largest charter school networks said the city could provide more space to schools with fewer strings attached.

“The process was often marred by unnecessary hurdles, difficulties and delays,” wrote a group of charter school leaders in an open letter to de Blasio. “Sadly, in other cases, public charter schools were not provided with public facilities, leaving thousands of families stranded without a high-­quality option or building.”

Can he control charters’ ability to provide pre-K? (Not exactly)

This fall, Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz refused to sign the city’s pre-K contract, arguing that being asked to do so is illegal since Success is overseen by SUNY, not the Department of Education.

“One of the primary reasons Success scholars and teachers have been able to achieve so much is their ability to learn and work without the shackles of bureaucracy exemplified by this 241-page contract,” said Success spokesman Stefan Friedman in February.

City officials fired back, insisting that they have a responsibility to ensure pre-K standards remain high in every school, including charter schools. Moskowitz appealed to State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who denied her request. In response, she cancelled her pre-K classes this year.

State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan appeared to throw his weight behind Moskowitz when he sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, arguing that the state should help ease the regulatory burdens on charter schools. It is still unclear how the law will be interpreted, but Assembly Speaker Heastie sent a dueling letter to the governor, disagreeing with Flanagan’s interpretation.

Does the rhetoric itself have power? (Possibly, but only if people listen)

Even if he has little practical power over charter schools, some say his words themselves are deflating.

“I think it does hurt charter schools when he casts aspersions and basically says their hard work to help [students] meet Common Core standards is really just a glorified parlor trick,” Merriman said.

Some, like Tillotson, are skeptical that the mayor has enough allies to make a dent at the state level. “He can politically lobby, but he’s got no political juice,” Tillotson said.

But others, like Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with some charter schools, say the mayor’s words matter.

“What he does have is the bully pulpit. He’s the mayor, he has significant following in the city,” Bellafiore said. “He has a bullhorn and that has an impact.”

debating admissions

In a mostly black district, parents bring different concerns to debate over New York City’s specialized high schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Mutale Nkonde, a parent in Brooklyn's District 16, asked education department officials how black and Hispanic students would be supported in specialized high schools.

After raucous protests against plans to integrate New York City’s specialized high schools, parents in Brooklyn’s District 16 aired starkly different concerns about efforts to overhaul admissions at the coveted schools.

At a public meeting Monday night, parents in Bedford-Stuyvesant asked education department officials how they plan to support black and Hispanic students at specialized high schools, where those students are dramatically underrepresented.

“There are stakeholders within this city who do not want our children in those schools,” said Mutale Nkonde, a district parent with two children. “Ultimately, these are our children who we’re sending into potentially hostile environments.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio ignited a firestorm this summer with a push to eliminate the entrance exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria for the city’s specialized high schools. Critics blame the test for segregation at the schools, where only 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic, compared with almost 70 percent who are in district schools citywide. Alumni and some parents have vigorously pushed to keep the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, arguing it’s an unbiased measure that helps ensure the schools’ prestige.

 But parents in District 16 brought different demands to the table. Students in the district are mostly black, and 84 percent are from low-income families. Parents called for teaching practices that reflect the diverse experiences and cultures of these students. To underscore the need for a more welcoming environment at the elite schools, one parent pointed to a social media campaign in 2016 in which students posted about discrimination they faced at one specialized high school with the hashtag “Black in Brooklyn Tech.”

Parents also decried the education department’s efforts as small scale — only 25 black students from the district would be admitted to specialized high schools under the city’s plans. In a district where test scores are historically low and retaining students in local schools is a struggle, parent leaders said more systemic approaches are needed to lift performance and vaunt black, Hispanic, and low-income students to success.

Since the SHSAT is enshrined in state law, legislators will have to act on de Blasio’s plan. In the meantime, the city is expanding a program that offers admission to students who score just below the entrance cutoff.

“Our needs are not going to be met by getting the exact same things that everyone else gets,” said Lurie Daniel Favors, a parent and general counsel at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.

The meeting was in sharp contrast to last week, when about 300 parents packed a meeting that quickly grew heated in Manhattan’s District 2, a wealthy enclave that sends an outsized share of students to specialized high schools. Many of those present argued the city’s plan would send unprepared students to rigorous schools. Backlash in the Asian community has been particularly fierce; more than 60 percent of students at specialized high schools are Asian, compared with just 16 percent citywide.

Education department leaders highlighted a pilot initiative already underway at two specialized high schools to address climate concerns, including anti-bias training for students and staff at High School of American Studies at Lehman College, and training for black and Hispanic parents at Brooklyn Tech who will help serve as recruitment ambassadors for the school. They also pointed to initiatives such as an expansion of pre-K for 3-year-olds in District 16 as proof that the city is tackling wider inequities in the system.

“The fact that we had ‘Black in Brooklyn Tech,’” where young people were asking, “‘Is this a place for me?’ is a problem,” said LaShawn Robinson, deputy chancellor for school climate and wellness. “We have to address those problems, because every school in this system is a place for our young people.”  

Payroll Data

From pay to personnel, changes in the principal’s office shed light on Vitti’s first year — and his plans for the next

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Take a look at the Detroit district’s payroll, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has already brought major changes to the principal’s office.

Fully 17 new principals have been hired at the Detroit Public Schools Community District since Vitti took over the superintendent’s office last summer, and another nine have transferred to new schools. Pay is up three percent, and principals now report to “principal leaders” — former principals whom Vitti tasked with overseeing turnaround efforts building-by-building.

(Find salary and staffing data for principals in the Detroit Public Schools Community District below. Chalkbeat has requested but has not yet received salary data for charter school principals from Michigan’s education department.)

But more than a year into a turnaround effort led by Vitti, those changes are likely only a start.

Vitti spent much of his first year moving the district to a new K-8 curriculum and reshaping the central office. It’s common for turnaround districts to replace principals — an Obama-era school improvement grant even required it as a first step. While Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet sought to completely overhaul the principal corps, he said this week that deeper changes can be expected next summer.

“This will be the first year we focus more closely on performance (staffing, attendance, enrollment, climate and culture, and student achievement),” he wrote in an email. “Last year the focus was on operations and setting the right culture and climate in schools to begin implementation of this year’s reform.

“We are not satisfied with principal salaries right now,” Vitti added, saying he wants to further increase pay, especially for principals who help improve schools with especially low attendance or test scores.

Education experts see principals as a key ingredient in any u-turn school improvement efforts like the ones underway in many Detroit district schools. They say principals deserve as much credit as anyone for a successful school turnaround, and they note that when things aren’t going well, principals are very often the first to leave.

The pressure facing principals in the district is one reason Vitti hired four principal leaders, about one for every 25 principals in the district. Other districts have found that extra coaching for principals can pay off for schools, especially in large cities.

Staffing data obtained by Chalkbeat makes clear that changes to the principal corps are already a significant piece of Vitti’s legacy. Nearly one-third of the district’s roughly 100 schools have a new principal who was hired by Vitti’s administration.

Still, the district hasn’t seen the high level of principal turnover that often accompanies turnaround efforts.  Most of the departing principals retired or accepted a job elsewhere, Vitti said, and only a handful of school leaders were removed for low performance.

“We did not make more principal changes last year because we wanted to give principals the opportunity to learn and grow professionally,” he said. “Under emergency management, time and resources were not spent on building principal capacity to drive instructional reform.”

Despite a 3 percent raise this year, Vitti says pay for principals remains near the top of his to-do list. He wants to tie principal salaries to the size of the school, the principal’s performance, and the school’s historic performance. The idea is that principals should be paid more for helping a large, struggling school improve.

While it seems at first glance that principal salaries have already undergone major changes since June of 2016, Vitti says those changes are largely due to the district’s decision to treat principal as 12-month employees instead of nine-month employees. Under the previous system, principals who chose to work summer school received an additional stipend that didn’t appear in their overall salary, meaning their actual pay has changed less than it might appear on paper.

That’s why the data shows that the average salary for principals increased by 10 percent even though they only received a 3 percent raise.

Vitti said principals received raises if they took on more responsibilities at their current school or were transferred to larger or more challenging schools. Still, their salaries aren’t necessarily tied to their school or their level experience because principals in the district aren’t unionized and aren’t paid on a fixed scale.

There hasn’t been much change at the top of the pay range. While the top salary increased from $117,000 in 2016 to $131,000 today, the people earning those salaries — including the principals at Cass Technical High School, Cody High School, Pershing High Schools, and John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy  — remained the same. Cass is one of Detroit’s elite high schools, while Cody and Pershing are among its most troubled. John R. King is a large K-8 program with low test scores and high rates of chronic absenteeism.

Nearly half of the district’s 102 principals are clustered at the bottom of the pay range, making around $100,000 per year.

The lowest paid principals include dozens of returning principals, as well as new arrivals and two former Cass Tech teachers who Vitti tapped to lead Detroit School of Arts and Nolan Elementary-Middle School.

As the state of Michigan ratchets up accountability for principals, Vitti’s administration says higher pay will help attract replacements for principals who retire or who don’t cut muster.

While philanthropists have stepped up to help train some principals, the district no longer has an internal training program for school leaders. It ended during a decades-long period of declining enrollment, budget cuts, and administrative turmoil, which also led many Detroit administrators to flee for more stable suburban districts.

Jeffery Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, stuck it out for the last 11 years without a raise, and he says he welcomes the changes Vitti is proposing, especially the changes in pay. Even with the raise earlier this year, he says Detroit principals are still undercompensated compared to similar districts, especially taking into account the challenges their schools face. Principals in the district don’t have a union, but Robinson is part of a “focus group” that will meet with Vitti to hash out the details of changes to the pay scale.

Robinson says he supports the idea of paying principals based on the kind of school they manage.

“While both are complex, there are still some things that have to be managed at the high school level that don’t have to be managed at the K-8 level” he said.

Both Robinson and Wendy Zdeb, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, say the most important figure isn’t how many principals have left the district — it’s how many have stayed in spite of the difficult conditions.

“I find that administrators in Detroit are really committed,” Zdeb said. “They’re the consistency of the district, when you really think about it.”

 

See below for a list of current principals in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. You can search for names at the top right corner.

Note that the pay increases evident in this table largely weren’t raises. Vitti shifted principals to a 12-month schedule instead of 10-month schedule, so their salaries rose. However, many had already been receiving that extra pay in the form of a stipend for running summer school.

Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District payroll as of June 2016 and October 2018. “NA” means the principal was not employed by the district in June 2016.