Challenging charters

Regents signal toughness on charter schools and send Success Academy renewals back to SUNY

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

Members of the Board of Regents are striking a firm tone when it comes to charter school oversight — but they have yet to make any dramatic moves that would close a school or deny its expansion request without warning.

That was the takeaway from an hour-and-a-half long discussion the state’s policymaking body had on Monday. Charter school business that could have been routine — including renewals, mergers, and revisions — dissolved into a wide-ranging discussion about how to ensure the schools are enrolling enough high-needs students and what hurdles a charter school should clear to remain open.

Despite the lengthy discussion, the Regents ultimately did not pull the plug on any of the recommendations made by the State Education Department. But several Regents, in some cases, either voted against the proposals or abstained.

The board also sent 10 proposed Success Academy renewals back to SUNY for review, saying the authorizer jumped the gun and gave preliminary approval for the renewals years too soon. State education officials say this is a break from precedent; SUNY officials disagree with that assessment. The move was largely symbolic since SUNY still has final say over the renewals.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Success proposals had been discussed at length before the meeting. “We have taken a great deal of time and effort to have extensive discussions around this issue,” she said. But at the meeting, the Regents did not dwell on Success Academy. They did, however, discuss some of the other charters at length.

One school that garnered much attention was Cultural Arts Academy Charter School at Spring Creek, a Brooklyn charter authorized by the city’s Department of Education, which was up for a short, three-year renewal and a one-year expansion of 45 students for technical reasons.

The school has decent test scores, but enrolls relatively few economically disadvantaged students. Only 32 percent of the school’s students were low-income in the 2015-16 school year in a district where 79 percent are poor.

Several Regents expressed concern about the school’s enrollment and one even suggested these types of practices contribute to school segregation.

“It seems to me that there is something out of sync,” said Regent Lester Young. “How do you have a framework that allows this to happen?”

Regent Judith Johnson made a similar point. “I’m concerned that what we are doing here is continuing to support the segregation of schools,” she said. “I sometimes get emotional about this because I don’t understand why we continue to support programs like this that violate the principles that we stand for in public education.”

Summit Academy, another New York City charter school, was singled out for its relatively poor academic performance. Only about 26 percent of students pass the English exam at the school, while 49 percent do in its district. That school received approval for a two-year renewal.

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”

on the record

Eva Moskowitz sends letter calling Success board chair’s comments ‘indefensible’ — but also defending his record

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy

In response to widespread criticism of a racial comment made by Success Academy’s chairman, the leader of the charter network, Eva Moskowitz, sent a letter Tuesday to parents, teachers and staff.

In the letter, Moskowitz used strong language to condemn Daniel Loeb’s comments. On Facebook last week, Loeb wrote that Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African-American state senator whom he called loyal to unions, does “more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Loeb later apologized and deleted the comment.

In today’s letter, Moskowitz called the comments “indefensible,” “insensitive” and “hurtful,” a more aggressive rebuke than her previous statement.

Yet she also defended Loeb’s track record in the letter, pointing out his commitment to Success and various social causes. A spokeswoman for Success Academy confirmed that Loeb remains the board’s chairman.

The racist violence that ensued this past weekend in Charlottesville put an even more damaging spin on his comments. At a rally Monday to support Stewart-Cousins, the Senate’s minority leader, she made the connection between her situation and the events in Charlottesville.

“That is extremely hurtful given the legacy, certainly, of people of color — my ancestors,” said Stewart-Cousins. “We all got a chance to see it in Charlottesville, what that represents.”

Moskowitz made a veiled reference to the weekend’s events in the letter, saying that engaging students is “all the more important in the face of the broader trauma and crisis we are facing as a country.”

Here is the full text of the letter: