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.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.