back in town

Back in Memphis, founding superintendent of Tennessee’s turnaround district says the effort needs more time

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chris Barbic (left) speaks at panel alongside Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership and Mary Seawell of the Gates Family Foundation. Barbic returned to Memphis for a forum on K-12 philanthropy.

The founding superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District says the next few years will tell whether the school turnaround initiative is on track to succeed.

In Memphis this week for a philanthropic event, Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat that he expects low-performing schools absorbed by the ASD to see more progress in the next two to three years.

That’s significantly slower than he envisioned when the charter school leader was recruited from Houston to lead the school turnaround program that launched in 2012 with federal money from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award. At the time, Barbic set the goal of moving schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years. Most of those schools continue to struggle academically, however.

When he left the ASD in 2015, Barbic acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and said the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change. However, he’s now hopeful that gains will come as ASD educators become more familiar with teaching to Tennessee’s new academic standards and standardized test.

“I have all the belief in the world in folks that are running schools,” said Barbic, now a senior education fellow with the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which supports the portfolio model of school governance.

Barbic was in Memphis for a two-day forum of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of charitable donors meeting with grantmakers to discuss strategies in education-related giving. Memphis is also home to the bulk of the ASD’s work, and Barbic was a frequent visitor during his tenure as superintendent from 2011 to 2015.

The state-run district is markedly different from those years when its charter-driven model was Tennessee’s highest-profile school turnaround tool. Now the district — which takes over low-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators to turn them around — is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

The state is also seeking new leadership for the district, naming four candidates this week. Barbic’s successor, Malika Anderson, stepped down last fall after the state restructured the district’s central office.

“I hope to see someone hired who believes in the vision,” said Barbic, adding that the state’s role is “less about directly operating [schools] and more about finding great operators and giving them the opportunity.”

Barbic said a change in state standards and tests made it difficult for the ASD to track academic progress early on. After Tennessee shifted to new tests aligned with the standards, the first batch of results for the ASD were not promising. Students in its schools scored below the state averages in both elementary- and middle-school and high-school.

“It feels like to be fair, we’ve got to give folks to give a few years and rounds with new assessment,” he said. “We’ll see what happens over the next two to three years, and at that point, the schools that are doing well should get the opportunity to grow.”

Barbic spoke at the forum about the ASD, as well as his work with the Arnold Foundation to invest in cities pursuing strategies like common enrollment systems, expanded school options for families, and improved systems of accountability.

Memphis is among seven cities reaping some of those investments, Barbic said. The foundation has been working with the Memphis Education Fund, the city’s primary philanthropic organization to improve schools. (The Memphis fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

“It’s great to see how different communities have approached school quality and talent —  things people are working on here in Memphis,” Barbic said. “Folks in other cities are looking here to both what we got right and where we learned some lessons.”

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”