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.

the portfolio push

40 cities in 10 years: Leaked presentation offers more details on new group’s goals to spread charter (and charter-like) schools

Students enter the building on the first day of school at Denver's McGlone Academy on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The new organization aiming to spread a mix of charter schools, school autonomy, and unified enrollment across the country wants to reach 5 percent of low-income students in the U.S. within five years, according to a presentation obtained by Chalkbeat.

The City Fund, whose formation was announced late last month, has already amassed over $200 million and a well-connected staff, making it poised to influence education policy in cities across the country.

The full presentation, used a few months ago to pitch potential funders, offers the most detailed available blueprint of the group’s goals and strategies, which include expanding charter schools or charter-like alternatives. Known as the “portfolio model,” it’s a controversial approach that has faced skepticism from both critics and supporters of charter schools. The academic success of the approach remains hotly debated.

“Our goal is to make the model normal,” the presentation says. “After enough adoption we believe the model will transition from being a radical idea to a standard policy intervention.”

Neerav Kingsland, the managing partner of The City Fund, declined to comment on most details in the document or offer additional information about the group’s funders, but said “nothing dramatic” has changed since the presentation was used.

The City Fund’s pitch: Spreading the Denver, D.C., and New Orleans model

The presentation opens by declaring that “very little works in education reform,” citing an analysis of nearly 200 randomized trials in education.

The group contrasts that to more recent results in Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, three cities that “have broken through with dramatic and sustained gains for all children,” it says. The presentation also cites Indianapolis, Camden, Memphis, Baton Rouge, and Newark as already adopting strategies it prefers. Texas, too, is promoting those ideas through its state education department.

“Given this momentum, we believe that in the next five years we can scale the model to reach ~2% of all United States students and ~5% of low-income students,” it reads.

The City Fund’s goal is for cities to have a large charter sector, “often scaling to serve 30-50% of students,” the presentation reads. Those schools, it argues, creates a competitive environment, one pillar of The City Fund’s model. They believe this will help “all boats rise.”

The second pillar is accountability, or “the expansion of the city’s best schools and the replacement of its worst, regardless of type,” based on a common performance rubric. And the third is equity, which it connects to a central choice system for a city’s district and charter schools.

One thing that is explicitly not part of the approach: more public money for schools. “None of these structural reforms cost public dollars,” the presentation reads. “Cities can increase the efficiency and equality of the system within existing budgets — with philanthropy supporting the transition costs.”

The group has an aggressive timeline for convincing cities to move in this direction, according to the presentation.

Between 2018 and 2021, it hopes to have success in at least 20 cities, affecting around one million students. Specifically, their goal is for 10 cities to have fully adopted the model, and 10 more to be making progress.

From 2022 on, the group hopes to influence “every major city in America,” growing by a couple of cities each year, the presentation says. (“If I had to rewrite that slide I would say, ‘if evidence and demand follows,’” Kingsland said in an interview. “We really aren’t going to expand if the evidence isn’t there.”)

In seven to 10 years, the group hopes to get to 30 to 40 cities.

How will The City Fund make that happen?

Deploying its leaders to speak and blog, convening sympathetic policymakers and advocates, and partnering with groups, including low-income parent organizers, are some of the strategies the presentation lists.

Money will also be a key source of influence.

City Fund says initial investments will be around  $15 to 25 million for the first three years in each one of a carefully selected group of cities poised to fully adopt the model. Most of that money will flow to local groups, where City Fund leaders will sit on the boards of directors. After seven to 10 years, The City Fund plans to exit a city, allowing the group to spread to new ones and “enabling national scaling.”

The group will have substantial resources to draw from. As Chalkbeat previously reported, the presentation says the group has raised over $200 million and that its first investors are Laura and John Arnold and Reed Hastings.

What we still don’t know: where it will go, who else is funding it, and whether it will work

The presentation leaves some crucial questions unanswered.

For instance, who else is funding the effort besides the Arnolds and Hastings? Kingsland wouldn’t say, but The City Fund recently netted a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Gates is also a funder of Chalkbeat.) A spokesperson for the foundation said the grant was for four years and intended to “support both high-quality charter schools in Oakland and school leaders in” the district.

A spokesperson for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation said that it also would be funding The City Fund, though declined to say how much money had been awarded, saying final details were still being worked out.

Spokespeople for the Walton Family Foundation and Bezos Family Foundation both said their groups have not supported The City Fund.

Another question: What cities does the group plan to spend its money on? The presentation doesn’t say, though some other signs have emerged.

The Gates Foundation grant is specifically targeted for Oakland, which recently adopted a plan approximating the portfolio model. City Fund staff members already sit on the boards of local organizations with similar agendas in Baton Rouge, Memphis, San Antonio, and Washington D.C, though it’s not clear if that means those will be target cities.

The Arnold Foundation, whose education philanthropy is now routed through The City Fund, has previously invested in portfolio efforts in Atlanta, Camden, D.C., Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

As expected for a group raising money, the presentation paints an optimistic picture of the success of its strategy, pointing to research showing substantial academic gains in New Orleans after that district’s structural overhaul post-Hurricane Katrina. The presentation doesn’t include the fact that those gains also came with a sustained infusion of both public and philanthropic dollars — nearly $1,500 per pupil compared to similar districts in the state. That’s striking, since the presentation suggests that no new public money is necessary to realize such improvements elsewhere.

The pitch also doesn’t mention studies of the approach that have found more tepid results, like a recent one on Tennessee’s Achievement School District, the state-run turnaround district previously led by one of the City Fund partners, Chris Barbic. (Kingsland has acknowledged those results in a blog post, saying “I thought the ASD charter effort would work. … Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions.”)

And in claiming that little in education reform has been successful, the group doesn’t refer to  research on school integration and increased school funding, which have generally found positive effects.

(Kingsland argued the effects of more school spending are small, pointing to one widely-cited national study, and said he supports school integration but questions “its scalability.”)

Doug Harris, a Tulane economist whose work showing test score gains in New Orleans was cited in the City Fund presentation, said he didn’t believe the additional money was the main driver of those improvements. But he is skeptical the New Orleans approach could be replicated without the extra resources.

“We don’t know how much money mattered, but given how much money seems to matter in other places, there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest we can do this on the cheap and get these kinds of results,” he said.

Want to learn more about the portfolio model? We’ve written about the ideas and people behind the approach; the research on the model; and efforts to put it in place in Kansas City and Oakland

Are Children Learning

Chicago schools to delay plan for tackling the gifted gap

PHOTO: Frederick Bass

Chicago Public Schools wants to delay for a year a plan to make gifted services available to more children outside of selected enrollment, or test-in, schools.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago Board of Education is holding a hearing on a request for a one-year extension to comply with a new Illinois law that compels school districts to better accommodate gifted children. The public can sign in to comment beginning at 8:30 a.m. in advance of the 9:30 a.m. meeting.

The law requires Illinois districts to identify students who are gifted using “multiple, reliable and valid indicators” and put programs in place to challenge them. That could include offering the chance to start kindergarten and first grade early, accelerating a child in a single subject, or having the child skip a whole grade.

But those steps are a big undertaking, one that Chicago wants to delay for a year. Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the district is seeking the extension to “allow us more time to thoughtfully develop and execute” a plan to comply with the scope of the new law.

The law, which went into effect July 1, also stresses that district approaches should be “fair and equitable”—and in Illinois, gifted services have been anything but. In the early 2000s, the state was considered a leader in gifted education. But by 2017, only 33 percent of high-poverty schools statewide offered gifted programs, lower than the national average of 69 percent.

Carolyn Welch, policy and advocacy committee co-chair of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children, says the new law is a “critical step” — especially for low-income students, who tend to be underrepresented in gifted programs if their schools offer them at all. In high-poverty public school districts like Chicago, many families don’t have the resources to pay for classes or enrichment activities outside of school. So students depend on public schools to meet their needs.

Prior to the new law, which is called the Accelerated Placement Act, about 55 percent of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46 percent lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

In Chicago, students can test in to competitive academic centers, classical schools, and other gifted programs, but outside of those, program offerings are ad-hoc. Like at a lot of big urban districts, what’s available at individual schools can vary quite a bit throughout Chicago schools, said Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. And there are more children in Chicago than the centers can serve, with three applicants vying for every seat, he said.

Elementary gifted programs also don’t accommodate students who might be gifted at one subject but average at another. And when you look at who attends those programs, they tend to be on the higher end of the socio-economic scale and disproportionately white. Some of that, Calvert added, “is a product of the fact that resources make a difference in achievement.”

Calvert said it’s important to have ways to identify and accommodate gifted students at neighborhood schools because it’s a way that, without new resources or special programs, “schools can provide something to students who need it.”

“If you’re a second grader ready for third grade content that has an option the school can provide, that doesn’t cost any more than serving that student as a second grader.”

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. Hispanic students, meanwhile, were particularly underrepresented, comprising 46 percent of total CPS students, but only 25 percent of seats in elementary gifted programs.

Low-income students, more than 82 percent of the district, only comprised 60 percent of gifted seats, according to the report.

The risk of an approach like Chicago’s, which leans on a small number of gifted and classical programs, is that a lot of kids slip through the cracks “and lose their potential,” Calvert said. Then high-ability students who are chronically underchallenged and see school as a waste of time are more likely to underachieve and even drop out.  

Students who are supported in elementary school are more likely to track into advanced coursework in high school, which increases their chances of graduating from college, enjoying more social mobility, and having children who graduate college as well, Calvert said. He pointed out that the largest ethnic group at CPS is Latino students, but that a disproportionately low number of those students are at advanced high schools, and that they matriculate into college at lower rates than their white and Asian peers.

About 65 percent of students at CPS are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools, but the population in those schools don’t reflect the school districts’ racial mix, according to a draft of the school district’s Annual Regional Analysis. Only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.