Charter growth

These 5 New York City charter networks are getting $23M from the feds to expand

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Ascend charter school network CEO Steve Wilson observes students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York City schools are getting almost half of the money that the U.S. Education Department is handing out this year to help charter schools grow.

Five of the 17 charter operators receiving this year’s “Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools” grants are based in New York City, and they will take home more than $23 million over the next five years. All together, the 17 operators were awarded $52.4 million.

The five New York City operators are Ascend Learning, East Harlem Tutorial Program, Family Life Academy Charter Schools, Great Oaks Foundation, and Success Academy Charter Schools.

Ascend Learning ($9,484,885) currently operates 10 schools in Brooklyn. In its grant application, the network said it wants to double its student enrollment to 8,000 by 2021. The network got high marks for improving students’ test scores, but one reviewer noted that the schools serve fewer students with disabilities and English language learners than other local schools. “This is a concern because over time the applicant does not seem to have been able to remedy this situation,” the reviewer wrote. One change the network has made over time: shedding the “no-excuses” approach to discipline, which its CEO said was producing “too many unhappy children.”

East Harlem Tutorial Program ($2,781,280) currently operates two schools and plans to add a high school for students who complete the middle school programs. Its application notes that teachers are trained through a residency program run at Hunter College which is undergoing an independent evaluation. (Research is mixed on whether the training programs, which are increasingly popular, yield better teachers, especially given their high cost.)

Family Life Academy Charter School ($900,000): The grantee with the smallest award, this network calls itself an “emerging … ‘community grown’ charter school network” in its application, using language that reflects a deep divide within New York City’s charter sector between major networks and ones with a more mom-and-pop origin story. It is planning to add a middle school for its three Bronx elementary schools to feed into.

Great Oaks Foundation ($3,834,000) has one school in New York City and others in Newark; Wilmington, Delaware; and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Its founder and president once ran the city’s charter schools office under then-Chancellor Joel Klein, a charter advocate. The network has hired hundreds of tutors to give each student two hours of extra help every day, and its application outlines a plan to create a teacher residency program and improve summer teacher training. The application reviewers wrote that they were impressed by students’ test scores but questioned why the network had offered up only one year of results.

Success Academy ($6,130,200): The winner of the largest award is also New York City’s largest charter network, with 41 schools serving 14,000 students and a lightning rod CEO, Eva Moskowitz, whose expansion ambitions are no secret. The network wants to use the federal funds to add grades to 20 of its existing schools. (Other expansion plans bring the network’s projected number of schools to 77 in 2021, with more than 31,000 students, according to its grant application.) Its unclear how much the network needs the federal government’s support: Its grant application says it expected to net $43.5 million last year “from foundations, individuals, and fundraising events.”

Nationwide, the schools are getting a portion of their grants this year; future funds are dependent on Congress agreeing to pay out the pledged amount in each year’s education budget. The education department also awarded $145 million to nine states — New York was not included — that pledged to help charter schools open.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”