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.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year