End of the line

Before Families for Excellent Schools’ sudden implosion, waning influence and a series of stumbles

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A pro-charter school rally in Albany that Families for Excellent Schools helped organize in 2015.

Years before its public implosion this week, Families for Excellent Schools stood at the center of New York’s charter-school sector and the rough-and-tumble politics surrounding it.

At its peak in 2014, the pugnacious charter-school advocacy group deployed thousands of parents and teachers to Albany to flex the sector’s political muscle and promote charter-friendly legislation. It launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign slamming New York City’s new charter-skeptical mayor, Bill de Blasio. And it helped secure a major policy victory that provided public space or rent money for the city’s new charter schools.

Now, four years later — and over a period of just a few days — Families for Excellent Schools has come crashing down.

Its demise was hastened by a series of recent blowups, including the organization’s decision last week to fire its founder and CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, following an investigation into “inappropriate behavior.” That led its closest ally, Success Academy Charter Schools, to cut ties with the organization. And in September, the group’s political arm was forced to pay a record-breaking fine and to reveal its donors, following a disastrous political campaign in Massachusetts.

But well before its sudden collapse, the group’s influence had been waning as it became more politically isolated, observers said — in part because of its combative style and deep ties to Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy’s polarizing leader. As Moskowitz and Families for Excellent Schools kept up their relentless attacks on the de Blasio administration, other charter groups that had adopted a more diplomatic approach questioned its efficacy.

“Did it get the attention of the administration? You bet it did,” said Steven Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which brings together independent charters based in New York City. “But in the long run, what does that do?”

When it launched in 2011, the organization’s mission was less controversial: To tap the political power of charter-school families by converting them into advocates, leading get out-the-vote efforts, and coordinating political efforts among the city’s charter-school networks.

But its leaders soon found that training parents on how to organize politically and show up at local community meetings was painstaking work. At the same time, the group was growing closer to Moskowitz: At one point, some Families for Excellent Schools staff members worked out of Success Academy’s offices. Soon, it was attacking de Blasio, who had singled out Moskowitz for criticism during his campaign.

After the mayor blocked three of Moskowitz’s schools from opening or expanding, Families for Excellent Schools helped stage a 2014 rally in Albany that drew 11,000 attendees — among them many families and students from Success, which cancelled classes so they could attend. The rally, which featured fiery pro-charter remarks from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, overshadowed one that de Blasio held at the same time to promote his prekindergarten plans.

In a short span, the group had shifted from parent organizing to the flashier, more combative politics favored by Moskowitz and its pro-charter donors.

“The idea that a small group of parents met with a legislator is just not as sexy as 17,000 parents marching across a bridge,” said Sharhonda Bossier, who co-founded Families for Excellent Schools with Kittredge and now works for an unrelated education non-profit. “There was a ton of pressure from the philanthropic community to behave that way.”

In 2014, Families for Excellent Schools spent $9.6 million on lobbying — more than any other group in the state. With backing from a deep-pocketed board and donors including the Walton Foundation (which also provides funding to Chalkbeat), the group expanded into a $20 million operation by 2016. It also established a political arm outside New York, which helped pour $15 million into the pro-charter Massachusetts ballot measure.

But as it grew, the political combat it specialized in was becoming less in demand. State legislators passed laws to help charter schools expand and operate, and tensions eased between New York City’s charter sector and de Blasio.

“It has been less of an us versus them and more finding opportunity to work together,” said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini.

Families for Excellent Schools did not join in the detente. Instead, it expanded its assault on de Blasio to include issues not directly related to charter schools. It used controversial state data to paint the city’s district schools as chaotic and violent, and denounced de Blasio’s expensive school-improvement program.

“It had really become about fighting [with] a mayoral administration that most people [in the charter sector] actually agreed with” on a range of other issues, said Bossier, the Families for Excellent Schools co-founder.

In a statement, a Families for Excellent Schools representative said the group advocated on behalf of a “a diverse coalition of public charter schools and families.”

“The accomplishments we’re most proud to be a part of — the landmark school facilities law and a series of increases in per-pupil funding for charter students — benefitted public charter schools that work closely with the de Blasio Administration and those that are more skeptical of the Mayor’s agenda,” said the statement.

Meanwhile, Families for Excellent Schools had developed ambitions outside New York. It expanded to Connecticut and Massachusetts, where it poured resources into the ballot measure in favor of charter expansion. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

And echoing their counterparts in New York, some Massachusetts charter groups worried that Families for Excellent Schools’ no-holds-barred tactics hurt the sector’s public image.

“The bipartisan coalition that was strongly in support of charter schools — equally Republican, equally Democrat, equally independent — has been shattered through this campaign and the tactics employed by Families for Excellent Schools,” Marc Kenen, who ran the organization that filed the state’s ballot initiative, told WBUR.

Adding to Families for Excellent Schools’ bruising defeat, the group was slapped with a $426,500 fine for failing to disclose campaign donors and was barred from election-related activity in the state for four years. The high-profile failure, as well as a settlement that forced the disclosure of its donors, created new fundraising challenges, some observers said.

Back in New York, some of the charter networks the organization once courted — such as KIPP — had been developing their own advocacy and parent-mobilizing operations since well before last fall, leaving the group with fewer allies to fall back on.

Those former clients “stopped being willing to pay for [Families for Excellent Schools’] services as parent organizer or trainer,” said one charter school observer, “which meant, also, that Success was increasingly the organization’s only major validator.”

As a result, the group was left reeling last week when Success Academy announced — after Kittredge’s public firing — that it was parting ways with Families for Excellent Schools.

“Success Academy ended its relationship with FES last week, upon learning of the investigation into Jeremiah Kittredge’s actions and his termination,” said Ann Powell, a spokeswoman for the charter network.

A few days later, Families for Excellent Schools said it planned to shut down.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

capital crunch

As New York City’s public housing crumbles, pre-K centers go without crucial repairs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Yvette Ho, right, taps out a request to NYCHA to fix a leaky roof at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center. Meanwhile, a student shows her art project to Mary Cheng, who oversees early childhood programs for the Chinese-American Planning Council, a nonprofit that runs the daycare.

The tables where children would normally play had been dragged to create a makeshift barrier, blocking the 3- and 4-year olds from their favorite centers and from a growing puddle on the floor.

The ceiling at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center in the East Village was leaking again.

Center director Yvette Ho rushed to the classroom to survey the damage. On her phone, she tapped out a repair request to the landlord — NYCHA, New York City’s public housing authority.

“This is the perennial leak,” she said. “Just when you think it’s fixed, it comes back again.”

Decades of divestment, neglect, and mismanagement have left NYCHA buildings crumbling, forcing the city to give up some of its control of the housing authority to a federal overseer in an agreement struck last month. The plight of residents has been well documented in media reports and a scathing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which uncovered out-of-service elevators, faulty heaters, and health hazards like rodent infestations, mold, and lead paint.

But few realize that nestled within those buildings are about 100 child care centers that serve infants and toddlers even while critically needed repairs stack up. Mostly run by nonprofits that rent space from NYCHA, those programs offer a lifeline for families, often earning high marks from the city’s reviewers while also providing subsidized or free care for almost 5,000 children.

The programs face citations for facilities issues more often than programs in buildings leased from private landlords, a survey by the Day Care Council of New York found recently. Though it’s not always clear who is responsible for making repairs, operators can face burdensome fines.

Providers “have to dig into their own pockets,” said Mai Miksic, a research analyst for the Day Care Council. “They’re paying fines for problems that aren’t theirs.”

Groups representing nonprofit providers operating out of NYCHA community centers have begun to join together to advocate for changes, and they say officials have shown interest in taking action. They also say they know that their needs represent only a sliver of the pressing facilities problems facing the country’s largest public housing agency and its residents. Remediation of lead paint in agency apartments where children live is behind schedule, and the city estimates that NYCHA needs a total of more than $30 billion in repairs and upgrades.

Day care centers alone require $130 million in fixes, according to NYCHA. That figure likely does not include problems that affect the entire buildings where the centers are located, such as boilers that need replacing.

The Jacob Riis houses, which were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, needs almost $94 million in renovations over the next five years, including heating upgrades and drainage work, according to city figures.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, a 54-year-old social services organization that runs daycares and community programs in Lower Manhattan and Queens, has cared for small children in the complex for decades. It currently uses three classrooms in the basement of one of the towers, including one — the one with the persistent leak — that is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s heralded Pre-K for All program.

Staff and children at the center have a front-row seat to the building’s problems. A steam pipe in the main hallway frequently bursts. With every explosion, waterlogged ceiling tiles come crashing down and the center’s only bathroom for children becomes off-limits due to dripping, scalding-hot water. NYCHA has encased the temperamental pipe in a makeshift closet.

At times, the facility’s troubles have seemed too disruptive for the Chinese-American Planning Council to justify keeping its center in the building. All the garbage for the tower piles into a compactor room in the middle of the center. The only way to empty it, twice a day, is to haul the trash past classrooms and out an open door.

But Mary Cheng, the director of childhood services for the planning council, said they’ve resolved to stay because closing isn’t a good option, either — not for kids of such a young age, who thrive on stability, and not for parents who rely on the center’s longer hours so they can work to support their families.

We had to think: Are we being a service to the community or a disservice?” Cheng asked. “You’re faced with the issue of constant facility issues.”

Operators say they stay because NYCHA centers are usually where their services can have the most impact, and because the more affordable rent allows them to stretch their dollars even further.

“These buildings were built with community spaces for a reason. Neighborhoods need places for people to gather,” said Melissa Aase, the executive director of University Settlement, a nonprofit that runs programs for seniors and after-school care in NYCHA buildings. “If we’re crumbling, it sends a really powerful message to the residents about their worth.”

NYCHA says it takes just over 10 days for the authority to respond to repair requests in community centers — a much shorter turnaround of more than a month across the system. Still, it’s a long window that advocates say has sometimes forced programs to shut their doors or even have their licenses yanked.

The nonprofit Union Settlement runs five early childhood centers in NYCHA buildings across East Harlem. Sometimes, they’ve had to turn parents away who come to drop off their children in the morning because the classrooms are unbearably cold in the winter. The group is usually able to make space at another facility when an emergency forces one to close, but the sudden change can pose a “huge hardship” for families who need to get to work on time, said David Nocenti, the executive director.

“The same problems that the residents have, the nonprofits have as we’re trying to serve those residents,” Nocenti said. “Just like boilers go out in residential buildings and there’s no heat, the same boiler generally affects the community centers as well.”

Facilities breakdowns can leave operators vulnerable to fines from the city health department, which can reach thousands of dollars. Most programs operating in NYCHA centers are subsidized by city, state, and federal funds, but typically public money can’t be used to cover the citations. At Jacob Riis, the staff has resorted to “simple fundraisers” like bake sales to pay the fines, Cheng said. 

Centers take more than just a budgetary hit, as resolving the citations usually requires managers or other high-ranking officials spending hours at a city hearing.

“It’s also a loss of the staff and a loss of the expertise at that time as well,” Nocenti said. “If the department of health comes and you have no heat, you get fined for no heat, even though we don’t control the boiler and can’t make repairs to the boiler.”

Aase said her organization has sometimes dug into its own budget to make repairs to keep its after-school and senior programs open. One University Settlement center has paid deep cleanings after 17 sewage floods in the course 12 months, she said, while another center with a rodent infestation has closed 10 times over the span of a year and required spending on extermination services.

A record of citations could pose problems for operators vying for city contracts, so it’s better to pay for fixes than risk your reputation, Aase said.

“When you have violations, it shows up as you’re being vetted,” she said. “We spend our own money because we know either that NYCHA doesn’t have the funds or doesn’t have the personnel to address the issue quickly enough, and community members want to come back.”

Calling themselves the NYCHA Community Space Coalition, service providers that run more than 200 programs within public housing facilities have drawn up an action plan for addressing what they say is an emergency situation. They are calling for state money to help pay for repairs, and reimbursement from the city when operators tap their own budgets for fixes. They are also asking for agreements that plainly spell out NYCHA’s responsibilities and a clear delineation of who is responsible for which fines.

There have been encouraging signs, said J.T. Falcone, a policy analyst with United Neighborhood Houses, one of the organizations behind the coalition. NYCHA is meeting weekly with other city agencies to help speed up repairs, and Falcone said the authority has designated specific people to oversee work on pressing issues.

Locally, there have been small changes that can make a notable difference in the day-to-day operation of a center. At Jacob Riis, the trash is now taken out once before students arrive in the morning, and a lock has been placed on the door to the compactor room which had previously been left open and posed a potential risk to children.

While providers have found willing partners, a NYCHA official suggested there’s only so much that can be done when faced with such deep needs across the housing authority.

“These centers are valuable assets to our communities that deserve to be preserved. But given NYCHA’s dire financial position and more than $30 billion in capital needs, it is difficult to accommodate both the repairs needed to secure our residents’ homes as well as the fixes for our centers,” a NYCHA spokesman wrote in an email. “We continue to work with our partners to clearly lay out roles and responsibilities for each party to determine the best strategy for financing existing repair needs within the context of NYCHA’s larger capital needs.”

These thorny problems will soon fall also to the city’s education department to help resolve.

Currently, contracts for publicly subsidized child-care centers are overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services. But that oversight is set to shift to the education department beginning this summer, part of a high-stakes effort to streamline services for the city’s children from birth through high school. Already, the education department has joined NYCHA’s regular meetings with other city agencies.

We’ll continue to work closely with our providers in NYCHA facilities and support them through this transition,” education department spokeswoman Isabelle Boundy wrote in an email.

For now, parents are left to keep their fingers crossed as they make use of programs that the mayor says could transform their children’s lives — and the city’s future.

Dexter Fauntleroy drops off his son at Jacob Riis most mornings. Three-year-old Kenai has gone to daycare there for most of his short life. Fauntleroy and his wife have kept their youngest son enrolled at the center, just down the street from their apartment in the Lillian Wald houses, because they’re impressed with how much Kenai has learned and the dedication they see from the staff.

Of course, Fauntleroy has noticed the persistent leaks and patch-job repairs. The thought that the roof could come crashing down on students someday has crossed his mind.

“Does that have to happen before it’s taken seriously?” he asked. “There has to be some accountability.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.