family feud

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

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

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

Berrick Abramson to lead education work at Colorado think tank, Keystone

Berrick Abramson (Courtesy Keystone)

Berrick Abramson, a national expert on school accountability and the teacher workforce, is joining the Colorado-based Keystone Policy Center to lead its education work, the organization announced Tuesday.

Abramson, who lives in Jefferson County, joins Keystone after a long stint at TNTP, an education nonprofit formerly known as The New Teacher Project. There, he managed state and federal policy research, among other responsibilities.

“Keystone has worked with teachers, students, and policymakers — from classrooms to state Capitols — to improve public education,” Keystone’s President and CEO Christine Scanlan said in a statement. “We’re excited to bring Berrick’s expertise to Keystone to accelerate this work and help us continue to inspire leaders to reach common higher ground addressing the challenges students, teachers, and families face today.”

Abramson has advised state policymakers on a variety of education hot topics such as educator licensure, evaluation and school turnaround work. Most recently, he’s been studying and writing about the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

“With ESSA granting states greater autonomy, and the pitched debates over education in recent years, now more than ever we need leaders to do the hard work of building bridges and consensus,” Abramson said in a statement. “Those leaders, in my experience, need partners to help them navigate the challenges and effectively engage stakeholders. Keystone has a clear history doing just that and I’m excited to build on their 40-plus years of leadership as we grow the education practice.”

Earlier this summer, Keystone released a statewide plan for Colorado for blended learning, which combines online and traditional classroom instruction. It also has helped Colorado, Louisiana and Massachusetts find better ways to prepare teachers for success in the classroom.

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.