Puerto Rico partnership

Top school choice group advising Puerto Rico on controversial efforts to expand charters and vouchers

English class teacher Joan Rodriguez talks to one of her 6th grade student at the Sotero Figueroa Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 6, 2017. The school reopened its doors without electricity to receive students 46 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

EdChoice, a group that backs school vouchers, is preparing to help Puerto Rico officials expand school choice, or what critics there have called “privatization.”

Robert Enlow, the group’s president, told Chalkbeat the request came from Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, and that EdChoice would “provide some technical assistance.”

“They’re brand new at this and we’re trying to help them understand what’s been going on in other states, how states have run [choice programs], what the rules are, what the benefits and the challenges have been,” said Enlow, who spoke to Chalkbeat in Austin at SXSW EDU. “It’s really around policy advice and fiscal expertise.” (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

Keleher said in an interview that she had spoken with people from EdChoice in a call, but that they were just one of many groups, from a variety of perspectives, whose advise she has received. She said during the conversation EdChoice mentioned their statistical staff, and Keleher was interested in learning more, but said there’s no formal agreement.

Keleher also said she is looking at different states that have implemented school choice programs. “I don’t want to make mistakes that people have made before,” she said.

Keleher said she’s open to a variety of policy views. “I don’t think there’s one way to solve a complex problem,” she said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which rocked Puerto Rico schools and prompted thousands of residents to leave the island, Keleher and Governor Ricardo Rosselló have proposed closing 300 of its 1,100 traditional public schools. Rosselló also introduced a bill to Puerto Rico’s legislature that would allow for charter schools and vouchers.

This has sparked fierce pushback from Puerto Rico’s teachers union and prominent U.S. Senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“The school privatization proposal in Puerto Rico would pull much-needed money away from public schools,” said Sanders at a recent event at the Albert Shanker Institute, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “The proposal at hand would completely disrupt and destabilize the existing public school system already struggling to rebuild.”

The involvement of EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation, is sure to stoke the controversy even further. Puerto Rico’s governor has also met with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Jason Botel, a department official, has been in “close communication” with Keleher.

Enlow rejected criticism that choice advocates are taking advantage of a natural disaster. “If there’s a tragic situation … it’s about whether you’re doing it well and doing it with good intentions,” he said.

This story has been updated with comment Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.