family feud

Unified against Trump, the country’s would-be Democratic governors are divided on education

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Coming to a Democratic primary near you: a clash over education issues.

In several big states, governors who have supported charter schools are on their way out or facing a re-election fight in 2018. And while the party is united in its distaste for President Donald Trump, candidates vying for state leadership from California to Georgia are split on key education issues.

To simplify: In one camp are those who favor charter schools and accountability policies based in part on test scores, exemplified by the group Democrats for Education Reform. In the other camp are those — most prominently teachers unions — who emphasize greater investment in schools and are skeptical of solutions that focus on charters and choice.

Those tensions are growing, as the current president and his unpopular Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos make education reform a tougher sell than it was under President Obama, who supported charter schools.

“I do expect this fight to play out to some degree in Democratic primaries up and down the ballot,” said Shavar Jeffries, the DFER president. “The old-line forces see an opportunity to use the historically toxic Trump-DeVos brand to reverse progress we’ve made under Presidents Clinton and Obama.”

The National Education Association did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesperson for the American Federation for Teachers declined to comment on Democratic primaries.

So far, few candidates are publicly hashing out differences on education, and Jeffries said it’s too early to discuss specific races. But candidates’ past records and recent statements suggest that education will play an important role, particularly in the jockeying for endorsements from monied players like DFER and local unions. Meanwhile, Democratic supporters of charter schools are increasingly being linked to DeVos.

Here are five upcoming governors’ races where education could be a key issue in the Democratic primary.

In California, Newsom knocks Villaraigosa on schools

Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom (Photos: David Starkopf / Office of the Mayor, Brian Kusler / Creative Commons)

It’s southern versus northern California: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is facing former San Francisco Mayor (and current lieutenant governor) Gavin Newsom in the race for governor of the country’s most populous state.

Villaraigosa has been a staunch supporter of charter schools and a frequent critic of teachers unions. Newsom has less of a record on education, but has hinted at differences between the two.

“I believe in public education and will fight like mad for our public schools,” Newsom said earlier this year. “This is not the case of every Democrat running for governor.”

California’s unusual primary system — in which all candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ticket and the top two vote-getters face each other in the general election — means it’s possible Villaraigosa and Newsom will face each other in the November 2018 general election.

California state treasurer John Chiang and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin are also running for the Democrats, though they trail in recent polls.

The next governor will replace Jerry Brown, who had started two charters of his own before taking office and has been a strong supporter of the privately managed, publicly funded schools. Brown even recently vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters, though many charter school advocates have supported such a change.

Colorado candidates tote hefty education résumés

Jared Polis, Michael Johnston, and Cary Kennedy ((Photos: Third Way Think Tank / Creative Commons, Nic Garcia, City Energy Project / Creative Commons)

In John Hickenlooper, Democratic advocates of charter schools have had a staunch ally in the Denver statehouse. They’re hoping to keep it that way, as Hickenlooper exits and a number of prominent Democrats, all with extensive education backgrounds, vie to replace him.

The field includes two long-time supporters of charter schools.

One is Jared Polis, a congressman who helped start a network of charter schools (and who once got into a Twitter spat with education reform critic Diane Ravitch). Then there’s Michael Johnston, a former state senator and school principal who authored the state’s controversial teacher evaluation law, which relies heavily on student test scores. Johnston, who spearheaded a failed statewide ballot initiative to increase school spending, has already drawn significant support from the education reform world, inside and outside Colorado.

Neither has emphasized traditional education reform issues so far, though: Polis has focused on expanding pre-K; Johnston has emphasized tuition-free college.

Another prominent Democrat, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, also seems likely to focus on education issues besides charter schools, including increasing teacher pay and reducing the number of standardized tests.

“I want all our kids to be thinkers and creative problem-solvers, not just good test-takers,” said Kennedy, who wrote a 2000 state constitutional amendment that required regular education funding increases.

Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne is also considering jumping in, and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who founded a youth apprenticeship organization, is running.

Whoever wins will likely face a hard-fought general election in this perennial swing state.

Georgia candidate linked to DeVos at progressive conference

Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans

Term limits mean that Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a big charter-school supporter, will leave office next year. Two Democrats are running to replace him: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both state representatives.

Evans recently came in for criticism at a progressive conference for her support of charter schools and a tax-credit scholarship program, which functions like a school voucher program. Some attendees held up signs that read “Evans = DeVos.”

Abrams, who is vying to be the nation’s first black female governor, responded with an implicit jab. “Activists in Atlanta peacefully protested this morning on the critical issue of preserving public education for every family in our state,” she said.

The nominee will likely face an uphill battle in this red state.

New York’s Cuomo under pressure on charters, education funding

Cynthia Nixon, Andrew Cuomo, and Stephanie Miner (Photos: Syracuse City Schools, MTA, Diana Robinson / Creative Commons)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is planning to run for a third term, but his record on education has left some progressives wary.

He has been a key ally of the state’s charter lobby, put in place teacher evaluations based heavily on student test scores (a stance he has since backed away from), and supported school-spending increases substantially lower than what funding advocacy groups like the Alliance for Quality Education have called for.

Cynthia Nixon, the prominent actress and long-time spokesperson for the union-backed Alliance, has said she’s considering a run. She has said her campaign would focus on education issues, particularly school funding. Cuomo also risks a challenge from a more conventional candidate: Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, who has polled within striking distance of the incumbent.

That said, a primary against the powerful and well-financed Cuomo is far from guaranteed and if it happens, is likely a long shot.

Tennessee candidates may differ on charters

Craig Fitzhugh and Karl Dean (Photos: Sean Braisted / Creative Commons, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Tennessee Democrats haven’t won a statewide office in over a decade, but that hasn’t deterred two Democrats from running for the state’s top office.

One is Karl Dean, who pushed to expand charter schools as the mayor of Nashville. But local charter advocates have faced a number of setbacks, including the defeat of several favored school board candidates. Dean has said charter schools will not be the centerpiece of his education agenda, though his record on education has already come under criticism from charter school critics.

Opposing Dean in the primary will be Craig Fitzhugh, the minority leader in the Tennessee house of representatives. He has generally been more skeptical of charter schools and drawn more support from unions than Dean.

The winner will likely be an underdog in the general election battle to replace Bill Haslam, the current Republican governor, who has strongly backed the expansion of charter schools.

Movers and shakers

Success Academy COO leaving for another charter network

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

A top official at New York City’s largest charter network is leaving for another network, Success Academy officials confirmed Monday.

Kris Cheung, the chief operating officer at Success Academy, is headed to Texas for an operations job at KIPP. Rob Price, Success’s chief financial officer, is also leaving his post. The moves were first reported by Gothamist.

“As Success scales to 100 schools, we have hired several new leaders this past year — general counsel, chief of technology and head of leadership and human resources,” Success spokeswoman Ann Powell said. “While Kris Cheung, who has spent seven years with Success, is leaving to work in Texas for another charter network, Rob Price will continue as a consultant.”

Cheung was promoted to oversee operations in the shake-up that followed a 2015 school-supply fiasco required network staff to work nights and weekend days sorting boxes and furniture on Long Island.

The moves leave the network, which has ambitions to grow to 100 schools, with key positions to fill. Dan Loeb, Success’s board chair, also stepped down recently (and was replaced by Steven Galbraith); founder Eva Moskowitz lost another key ally in Emily Kim, the network’s former top lawyer, in 2017.

The city’s 46 Success Academy schools are known for their high test scores, strict discipline, Moskowitz’s fights with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and controversies around pushing out students and a much-publicized video showing a teacher ripping student work.

KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini said Cheung’s precise role is still being decided. That network’s well-known co-founder, Mike Feinberg, was fired in February after a sexual misconduct investigation.

One year in

A year after Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, a look back at his application shows what’s changed

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Next week will mark a full year since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, taking on one of the most daunting jobs in American education.

As leader of the state’s largest district, he faced a long list of challenges: hundreds of vacant teaching positions, deteriorating buildings, dismal test scores, a total lack of systems for finances and hiring — the legacy, Vitti says, of the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for years before his arrival.

One year later, it remains to be seen whether Vitti will be able deliver the hopeful turnaround he promised in his 27-page application. It’s far too soon to look for real signs of progress — like higher test scores — because major changes to schools like a new curriculum won’t be implemented until next school year. But enrollment is up slightly, budgets have been balanced, and teacher salaries are on the rise.

Below, we return to his application — his blueprint for the district — to mark the things that have happened, the plans that have been made, and the work still left to do.

Click on the highlighted text to compare Vitti’s words with his actions and read our coverage of his first year in the district.


Candidate File for Nikolai Vitti

DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

COMMUNITY DISTRICT

Superintendent Search

2017-18

Please accept this letter as my official application to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), I am applying for this extraordinary challenge and opportunity because of my deep and unwavering belief in urban public education and my love for my home city of Detroit. The city’s voters have demanded and received an elected School Board, The School Board’s success will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record, experience, commitment, strength, and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future with the Board,

I offer the Board a child-centric and seemingly outside, objective perspective of how we can build the district into the best urban school district in the nation, while simultaneously doing that work with the empathy and sensitivities of a Detroiter. Growing up in Metro Detroit, my family and I have directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism, and foreclosures. My immediate and extended family represents the spirit and diversity of Detroit as we are a collection of ethnic Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Arab-Americans. From delivering the Detroit Free Press at 5 a.m. or parking cars on Michigan Avenue for the Tigers’ game to supplement our family’s income, to my grandmother working for Ford as an hourly cashier or my grandparents and father working in the factory at the River Rouge plant, to my mother earning her GED after dropping out of high school as a teenage mother and working to this day as a hairdresser, to my father eventually graduating from Wayne State University or my family running a pizzeria, Detroit is in my blood and I am eager to return home and serve the city.

An unbridled passion and drive to catch up to my peers, along with the work ethic and pride of my family, led me to focus my college experience exclusively on reading, studying, and writing to better understand myself and the world. Despite struggling through my K-12 experience due to undiagnosed dyslexia and a family home structure that did not always feel comfortable advocating for academic excellence, I quickly realized that my college education was a vehicle to my own self-actualization and empowerment. It was there where I also reunited with my father. However, empowerment did not mean more for myself, it meant building my capacity and confidence to empower others. After considering law, medicine, and even film, I decided that the greatest vehicle for social justice and transformation, at scale, was public education. I began that work as a teacher and eventually as a superintendent to assume greater responsibility and ownership for the learning environments that all of our children deserve.

Traditional public education is at a perceived crisis, whether that crisis is truly legitimate or exaggerated for political and ideological reasons, we must conduct our work with greater strategy, efficiency, and transparency in order to produce stronger outcomes. I offer the Board and community an expansive track record of success with transforming some of the most challenged learning environments at the classroom, school, district, and state levels that mirror those in Detroit. This work has occurred as a practitioner in the Bronx, Miami, in several urban communities in Florida, and most recently in Jacksonville, FL. I have only served in traditional public schools because of my deep belief that this is where our work is most important. The only way our nation can meet its professed ethos of equal opportunity is to ensure a strong public education system is ever present. Detroit can only restore its greatness with a strong public school system.

My initial contract in Jacksonville was from November, 2012 to June, 2016. It was renewed early on a 7-0 School Board vote for a three year extension. I am in the first year of that three year extension. I admit that our work in Jacksonville is incomplete but at the same time I can confidently state that I will leave the district in a better place than I assumed it four years ago. This is evidenced through historic achievement levels and improvement in graduation rates, the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), district grade, and post-secondary readiness among several other indicators.

Four years ago Duval County was seven percentage points from the state average, today it is nearly one percentage point away with an improvement of over Ti percentage points. Today our African-American graduation rate leads all large urban school districts in Florida, our achievement gap between White and African-American students is the narrowest in reading, math, and Algebra among the largest districts in Florida and one of the narrowest among the largest districts in the nation according to NAEP. We have increased post-secondary college readiness in reading by 11 percentage points from 73% to 84%, and a 17 percentage points in math from 55% to 72%. African-American post-secondary readiness for reading has improved from 67% to 81%, and in mathematics from 39% to 66% over the past four years. We have been a “B” district for consecutive years for the first time in years. The performance of nearly all groups of students have improved in the vast majority state assessments after the second year of new standards, and performance is due to improve again this year based on mid-year internal assessments.

I would leave Duval County with an infrastructure that has been solidified in the areas of technology, blended learning, budget alignment to a Strategic Plan, art and music programming, data systems, curriculum selection and adoption for the new standards, school programming with an emphasis on STEM, accelerated courses, and Career Academies, leadership development at the school and district level, alternative and over-age schools, schools avoiding state sanction, redesign of low enrolled and struggling schools, and the concentration of stronger leaders and teachers in struggling schools.

I apply for this position knowing that I am returning home and that the School Board and community need leadership sustainability. I have been asked to apply to several superintendent positions, charter networks, and private companies over the years; Jacksonville was the only district in which I applied for my first superintendency and I am now only applying for this opportunity. I fully embrace and would only request a long-term commitment with the School Board to begin the problem solving process to improve the school district.

The School Board is seeking a leader with the capacity, confidence, and experience to work with the State and local communities to turnaround lower performing schools. I have demonstrated this ability as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, state administrator, and superintendent in several large urban school districts throughout the country. As a cabinet member who served three National Superintendents of the Year and as an essential member of a district team that won the Broad Prize in Educational Excellence while being highlighted for turnaround work by the USDOE and FLDOE, I will be able to provide the State of Michigan with the assurance that we can be trusted to improve student achievement and ensure financial transparency. We will regain the right to govern our school district independently.

I envision a school district where all students are college ready or well prepared for high level employment. This will occur because our students will learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. We will support and develop our current and future leaders and teachers, and support them with the right tools, curriculum and data systems, and wraparound services to address our students’ socioemotional challenges. Our students will experience the expansion and exposure of an arts education while gaining a greater appreciation for their culture and community. We will expand business partnerships for internships, while building the capacity of our parents and respecting their voice. Our students will be safe and learn through their mistakes by ensuring a progressive discipline model. We will restore the confidence of parents and their children who will return from charter and private schools.

The resurgence of Detroit is underway. As a School Board and superintendent team we will accelerate that progress and ensure its success.

Read Vitti’s full application, including his resume and references, in the document below.