charter chatter

Mayor de Blasio almost proposed a universal enrollment system for district and charter schools, emails show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

Just days before Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the backbone of his education agenda in 2015, the education department’s top strategist chimed in with a surprising suggestion.

“I’d like to propose that that we offer to include charter schools in our central enrollment system,” Josh Wallack wrote in an email to several other senior officials that September.

“It’s a nice ‘tip of the cap,’” Wallack said. “It also allows us to settle, once and for all, the question of whether the charters are operating with any selection bias because all families would use exactly the same admissions process. Equity. One system.”

Common — sometimes known as “universal” — enrollment systems exist in cities from Newark to Indianapolis. Backers of the approach argue it can simplify the often complex and time-intensive process required to apply to either district or charter schools in cities that allow parents to choose among both. Streamlining the process can put parents on equal footing instead of allowing those with more time, knowledge or resources from automatically getting a leg up.

Early in de Blasio’s administration, emails show, the idea was initially met with approval from other senior officials, including Karin Goldmark, an education advisor to de Blasio who now serves as a deputy chancellor responsible for overseeing partnerships with charter schools among other programs.

De Blasio’s aides quickly worked the idea into a draft of his 2015 speech, according to records released by City Hall in response to a lawsuit filed by NY1 and the New York Post. But standing in the auditorium of Bronx Latin just a few days later, the mayor made no mention of the potential overhaul of the city’s enrollment process, focusing instead on a slew of new initiatives known as his “equity and excellence” agenda.

Common enrollment systems have gained traction in recent years as some cities have embraced a “portfolio model” of schools, a new way of organizing school districts that has developed strong backing. This enrollment approach is central in New Orleans and Denver, which received input from Neil Dorosin, who created and once ran New York City’s high-school application system.

But unified enrollment also depends on a degree of trust and goodwill between district leaders and charter operators or advocates, which has sometimes appeared lacking in de Blasio’s New York.

That’s why the revelation de Blasio previously considered including charter schools in a common enrollment system is somewhat surprising. Even before de Blasio became mayor, he campaigned on the idea that charter schools have a “destructive impact” on traditional public schools.

And while he has at times softened that rhetoric and supported district-charter collaborations, the mayor recently said that charter schools should not be allowed to expand. (The state cap on the number of charter schools could prevent new ones from opening if the state legislature doesn’t act soon.) Pro-charter groups have also been unafraid to push back against his agenda.

Yet common enrollment can be seen as a kind of compromise, said Betheny Gross, who has studied the model in multiple cities and is a researcher with the Center for Reinventing Education.

“Everybody is asked to give something up,” Gross said. “Charters are asked to give up a lot of their direct control over enrollment, which is important to them because they get paid by the student.” Districts, meanwhile, have to cede the possibility that a simplified process may mean more students will consider and choose charters, taking per-pupil funding with them.

Under the plan briefly entertained by the de Blasio administration, families looking for an elementary school would have been able to select 12 options on a single application, regardless of whether the choice was a traditional district or charter school.

Families would have then been matched with their highest-ranked school that had space for them, as determined by a complex algorithm. Such systems also sometimes take into account other criteria, including siblings already attending the school or a certain proportion of low-income students. (Importantly, a unified application system does not necessarily mean all students can be admitted to a district school only via a lottery. Schools could conceivably still use screens or require students to clear academic bars for entry, which has led to intense academic and racial segregation among the city’s high schools.)

It’s unclear how seriously the administration considered the plan. Multiple charter leaders said the prospect of a unified enrollment system had been raised under the charter-friendly Bloomberg administration. But they did not have detailed conversations with de Blasio administration officials about the proposal.

“It was an idea that was floated before the speech, but it wasn’t the subject of a full policy analysis,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a de Blasio spokeswoman. “It obviously wasn’t the route City Hall eventually took.” She did not answer questions about whether the mayor is still considering the approach.

Any such plan would face logistical hurdles, including the need to revise state charter school laws. It’s also unclear whether the sector would line up behind a universal system, which would likely depend on charter schools opting in.

James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there is “a lot of support from charter leaders” for a common enrollment plan. The Charter Center runs a separate common application system that includes most of the city’s charter schools, which educate over 100,000 students and is itself larger than Denver’s entire school system.

“We’d be very interested in seeing it,” Merriman said. “It’s embarrassing that New York City is behind in a process” that other cities have adopted. A spokeswoman for KIPP, which operates charter schools in several cities with common enrollment, said the network supports the idea in New York City.

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter School in Queens, said a universal enrollment system could help charter schools avoid a common critique: that the city’s most vulnerable students may not know about the application process, or that schools dissuade certain students from enrolling. “It might take away some of the questions about who [charters] accept and who they don’t accept,” she said.

But Gauthier and others in the charter sector were less enthusiastic about the idea without first seeing all the elements of such a plan.

A spokeswoman for Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, said their support would “depend on the details.”

And Derrell Bradford, executive director of the pro-charter group NYCAN, said it does not make sense to trust the de Blasio administration to take control of the enrollment process for charter schools, given its historic antagonism toward the sector.

You should never let your competitor be your regulator,” he said.

money matters

In first meeting since November election results, the board of Regents eyes budget for New York schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
New York State capitol

New York’s education policymakers, gathering in Albany this week, are expected to decide how much money they will request for school funding from the state legislature.

Members of the state Board of Regents have spent the past several months discussing where state education dollars are most needed next fiscal year. And while their request will help guide lawmakers as they hash out a spending plan by the April 1 deadline, the final dollar amount is out of the hands of the Regents or other state education department officials.

Last budget cycle, the board requested a funding increase of $1.6 billion, which was lower than what they had asked for the year before. State lawmakers subsequently passed a budget that included a $1 billion increase for education — still significantly short of what the Regents had called for.

“So what they ask is really a matter of their public position, having nothing to do with what the ultimate delivery is going to be from the governor and the legislature,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Once again this year, a core priority for the Regents is increasing funding for “foundation aid,” which is a formula that sends extra dollars to high-poverty school districts and contributes about a third of the state education funding for New York City.

Other budget priorities include focusing on high-quality early childhood education, English language learners and the implementation of the state’s plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, which will determine how the state will support and evaluate schools.

The meeting is the first since the results of November’s election, which shifted control of the New York state legislature to Democrats. Given that many newly-elected state senators are political progressives who campaigned on boosting school funding, the Regents could see an opening to press for more money for schools than they have in the past. But how quickly lawmakers can or will deliver on these promises remains to be seen.

In other business, the Regents will look at a proposal Monday to extend the moratorium that excludes state English and math test scores from metrics used to evaluate New York teachers. Chancellor Betty Rosa announced last month that state education officials want to continue speaking with teachers, principals, and others who may wish to weigh in on the issue — which has long been politically charged — before making any final decisions about the state’s teacher evaluation system.

portfolio push

The City Fund’s next steps: These 7 cities are the focus of the biggest new education player

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Buses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

A new group that’s raised millions to promote its brand of school reform has begun spending that money in seven cities — and its staff may be planning to try to influence elections, too.

The City Fund has already given grants to organizations and schools in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Newark, Denver, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Nashville, according to one of the group’s founders, Neerav Kingsland. Those grants amount to $15 million of the $189 million the group has raised, he told Chalkbeat.

City Fund staffers have also founded a 501(c)(4) organization called Public School Allies, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat, which Kingsland confirmed. That setup will allow the group’s members to have more involvement in politics and lobbying, activities limited for traditional nonprofits.

The details — some first reported by The 74 on Sunday — offer the latest insight into the ambitions of The City Fund, which is looking to push cities across the U.S. to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy.

The $15 million that’s already been spent has mostly gone to local groups, Kingsland said.

In Denver, the recipient is RootED, a nonprofit that launched about a year ago. RootED’s head Nate Easley said his organization has issued roughly $3 million in grants, partially based on money from The City Fund. Some of that has gone to community groups that organized parents to speak out about the city’s superintendent search. Other money has gone directly to charter schools and district schools that are part of Denver’s innovation zones, which mean they are overseen by a nonprofit organization and that teachers can vote to waive parts of the labor contract.

Easley’s approach is consistent with The City Fund’s favored policies, sometimes called the “portfolio model.” In their ideal scenario, parents would be able to choose among schools that have autonomy to operate as they see fit, including charter schools. In turn, schools are judged by outcomes (which usually means test scores). The ones deemed successful are allowed to grow, and the less-successful ones are closed or dramatically restructured.

A version of that strategy is already in place in Denver and Indianapolis. Those cities have large charter sectors and enrollment systems that include both district and charter schools In others, like San Antonio, Atlanta, and Camden, struggling district schools have been turned over to charter operators.

The City Fund’s Newark grant is more of a surprise. Although the district has implemented many aspects of the portfolio model, and seen charter schools rapidly grow since a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Newark hasn’t been a magnet of national philanthropy recently. That may be because the changes there sparked vehement community protest, and the district recently switched to an elected school board.

Charter advocates in Nashville, meanwhile, have faced setbacks in recent years, losing several bitter school board races a few years ago. A pro-charter group appears to have folded there.

Kingsland said The City Fund has given to The Mind Trust in Indianapolis; RootED in Denver; City Education Partners in San Antonio; the Newark Charter School Fund and the New Jersey Children’s Foundation; The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis; and RedefinED Atlanta. In Nashville, The City Fund gave directly to certain charter schools.

The seven cities The City Fund has given to are unlikely to represent the full scope of the organization’s initial targets. Oakland, for instance, is not included, but The City Fund has received a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for work there. The presentation The City Fund made for potential funders earlier this year says the organization expects to reach 30 to 40 cities in a decade or less.

“We will make additional grants,” Kingsland said in an email. “But we don’t expect to make grants in that many more cities. Right now we are focused on supporting a smaller group of local leaders to see if we can learn more about what works and what doesn’t at the city level.”

Chalkbeat previously reported that the Hastings Fund, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were funding the effort. The Walton Family Foundation and the Ballmer Group are also funders, Kingsland said. (The Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

The organization had told prospective donors that it had raised over $200 million. Kingsland said Sunday that $189 million is the correct figure.

As the group expands its influence, it will have to contend with the fact that the portfolio model approach has proven deeply controversial, especially where it has led to the closure of traditional public schools and the expansion of non-unionized alternatives.

It’s gained particular traction in a number of cities, like Newark, Camden, and New Orleans, while they were under state control. In Denver and Indianapolis, cities where the approach has maintained support with elected school boards, supporters faced setbacks in recent elections. Public School Allies may work to address and avoid such political hurdles.

The academic success of the approach remains up for debate. Supporters point to research showing large gains in New Orleans, as well as evidence that in many cities, charter schools outperform district counterparts. Critics note that gains in New Orleans also came with a huge infusion of resources, and that results elsewhere have been more tepid.

Kingsland told The 74 that other approaches to school reform might also have merit — but he’s prepared to stand by his strategy.

“It’s possible that personalized learning, early childhood education, increased public funding, or a deeper focus on integration could be the best way to make public education better. Or perhaps the best way to increase student learning is to address poverty directly by giving poor families more money,” he said.

“While I don’t think our strategy is at odds with any of these approaches, it is possible that our effort is just not the right focus. I don’t think this is true, but it could be.”