it's a deal

Mayor de Blasio strikes a charter deal, making it easier for schools to expand, pay for space

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has agreed to a series of changes that will benefit New York City charter schools, a group he’s publicly battled in the past.

It comes shortly after a big win for de Blasio: a two-year extension of his control of the city’s schools. City officials indicated the deal, outlined Thursday, came out of that bargaining process, which pitted the pro-charter State Senate against the more anti-charter Assembly.

The deal includes several items that have been on charter leaders’ wish lists for years — indicating that, for de Blasio, avoiding another mayoral-control fight next year was worth compromise.

One is a streamlined process for schools asking the city for space in public buildings, or help paying rent in private space. The city is promising to respond to requests for rent within five business days. (A 2014 law that requires the city to provide one or the other for new or expanding charter schools.)

The de Blasio administration said it will speed up rent reimbursements and reply to requests for upgrades in co-located space within 45 days, pledging to grant the requests unless “demonstrably unreasonable.”

That’s important for charter advocates who have long argued that the de Blasio administration makes it more difficult than necessary for schools to access space and funds they’re entitled to under the law. Until now, the de Blasio administration has defended its process, saying space in public buildings is more limited than charter advocates claim.

The city also indicated it would not fight back if state officials reissue charters for New York City charter schools that have closed (sometimes called “zombie charters”). Only 23 charters were still officially available for schools in the city. The change would make it clear that an additional 22 can open.

“The charter sector is an important partner in our mission to deliver an excellent education to every child in New York City,” said City Hall spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein. “Through the debate over mayoral control, we identified a few common-sense areas where we could better work together to ensure all 1.1 million school children have a chance to succeed.”

The city also said it will provide MetroCards for charter school students whose schools begin before busing starts, at a cost of about $3 million per year, and will work to avoid splitting single charter schools across two locations.

Under the 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that do not get public space are entitled to the total rent of the private space or 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate, whichever is less. That increased to 30 percent this legislative session, and the city pledged to apply that increase immediately.

With the session over for the year, the provisions appear possible for de Blasio — who exerts no control over how new charters are issued by the state education department or SUNY — to implement on his own.

Officials provided few additional details about the changes, though during the legislative session Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reportedly rejected a proposal to reissue “zombie” charters. Assembly spokeswoman Kerri Biche said Heastie was not an “active participant” in this series of charter school negotiations.

“He said from the beginning the Assembly majority would not trade anything regarding charter schools for mayoral control,” Biche said. “Mayor de Blasio and the city’s Department of Education have the right to make decisions of their choosing in regards to the administration of charter schools that do not require any legislative action.”

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan hailed the deal as “an important step forward.”

The pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY also applauded the deal, calling it “good for all public school kids.”

“Parents will have access to more school options and charter operators will get significant relief,” executive director Jenny Sedlis said in a statement.

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.