One thing that went under the radar during the nonstop news cycle of the last few weeks is a sizable data dump from the Department of Education, which for the first time released statistical reports about the 11 organizations that support the city's schools. The reports went online last week to inaugurate the period when schools can choose which organization they want to affiliate with. The organizations, called School Support Organizations, or SSOs, have provided support services to individual schools for the last two years in place of the traditional school-district bureaucracy. This is the first time that the DOE has allowed schools to change the affiliation they originally selected back in 2007. The new reports include a chart (above) comparing the SSOs according to their schools' progress report scores, quality review evaluations, and principal satisfaction survey results. The result is the public evaluation that Eric Nadelstern, the DOE's chief schools officer who formerly ran the Empowerment organization, said back in January was being cooked up the department's accountability office. The comparison, which takes into account school data from the 2007-2008 school year, shows that the SSO run by the City University of New York did the best, followed closely by the Empowerment organization. The reports are available on the DOE's Web site only in PDF format, and there is a different one for each organization. A DOE spokeswoman told me that the department had not made available a database compiling the data, so I went ahead and made one, available here or after the jump. I also went one step further and added some calculations of my own, based on the DOE's data: The percent change in progress report and quality review scores from 2007 to 2008. Among my first impressions: Schools either improved their internal operations significantly between 2007 and 2008, or else they figured out how to look like they had improved, because the percentage of schools receiving top ratings on their Quality Reviews jumped in every organization. If you have more statistics knowhow than I do and some extra time on your hands (like during this school vacation), take a look and note what you see. Leave your observations in the comments.
Today's New York Post includes two stories about the story GothamSchools first broke on the UFT's lobbying of City Council members. The story I broke yesterday morning about the United Federation of Teachers sending City Council members pre-scripted questions on charter schools is now filling the pages of the New York Post and the Daily News. As Philissa pointed out in the morning roundup today, each paper (A) covered the story and (B) editorialized about the shameless things it says about the teachers union. They both also (C) did not give credit to GothamSchools for breaking the story, despite happily quoting the card text that only I obtained. C'est la vie. The important thing, of course, is to keep our eyes on the ball. One take-away here is pretty obvious. The teachers union peddles its influence in pretty clever ways! Equally important, I think, is another point that shouldn't get lost in this tangle. That's the fact that, on the question of charter schools, the union is walking an astoundingly precarious tightrope.
Charter school principal Eddie Calderon-Melendez, right, speaking to parents and students at his schools' admission lottery. (<em>GothamSchools</em>, Flickr) The conventional wisdom about charter schools is that they allow families a way out of their zoned schools. But for soon-to-be high school students, charter schools actually provide the nearest alternative to a zoned option, according to one school operator. The high school admissions program run by the Department of Education is citywide, meaning that students can apply to any school in the city. But the state law governing charter schools treats high schools just like schools serving younger students: They are required to give priority in admissions to students living in their school district. Because many charter schools have more applicants than seats, charter high schools necessarily end up with mostly students from their district. For that reason, "we're actually a throwback to the zoned school," Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the principal of Williamsburg Charter High School, told me last week at the lottery for the three schools in his Believe Network.
Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget. Staff at a Queens charter school that is represented by several city labor unions are growing frustrated with the unions, which they worry sat quietly by while state lawmakers slashed charter school budgets two weeks ago. The school, Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, is expecting a cut of between $500,000 and $600,000 from what was projected for next year after state lawmakers froze planned funding increases to charter schools two weeks ago. Charter school activists have said that they're hopeful that Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who founded another unionized charter school in Queens, will yet restore the extra funds to charter schools, but no deal has been struck yet. That leaves teachers at Renaissance planning for possible teacher layoffs and big program cuts. (The $500,000 cut from the increase the school was expecting is especially hard to shoulder given that pension costs are skyrocketing by $300,000 next year and teacher salaries are slated to go up.) A main frustration, a Renaissance administrator said, is that the unions to which Renaissance's staff belong did not give them a heads up about the cuts — even though staff repeatedly asked union leaders if they should expect a cut. "Our members here feel shafted," Nicholas Tishuk, Renaissance's director of programs and accountability, said. "We were told that this charter school cut was mentioned two months ago, and it hasn’t been on anyone’s lips. And then we find out the Sunday night before the vote on Tuesday that not only was it on everyone’s lips; it’s actually happening." Most charter schools in New York City are not represented by teachers unions, since the schools operate outside of the Department of Education and therefore do not see their staffs unionize automatically. But the union has fought to bring charter schools teachers into its fold. Their slow but steady inclusion has put the union in the tricky position of on the one hand lobbying for limits on charter schools, while, on the other hand, representing some charter school staff.
Council Member Simcha Felder displays one of the cue cards a teachers union representative handed him. At today's education committee hearing, City Council members took turns questioning Department of Education officials on the rise of charters schools. Their questions were passionate, specific, and universally accusatory. They may have also been scripted. Just before the hearing began, a representative of the city teachers union, which describes itself as in favor of charter schools, discreetly passed out a set of index cards to Council members, each printed with a pre-written question. One batch of cards offered questions for the Department of Education, all of them challenging the proliferation of charter schools. "Doesn't the Department have a clear legal and moral responsibility to provide every family in the city guaranteed seats for their children in a neighborhood elementary school?" one card suggested members ask school officials. "Isn't the fundamental problem here the Department's abdication of its most important responsibility to provide quality district public schools in all parts of the city?" another card said. (View more of the cards in a slideshow here.) Several council members picked up on the line of thought. "Shouldn’t we aspire to have every school in the city good enough for parents to feel comfortable sending their children?" Melinda Katz, a Council member from Queens, said in questioning school officials. "I remember when Joel Klein became the chancellor," the committee chair, Robert Jackson, said. "Back then, he used to talk about making every neighborhood school a good school where every parent would want to send their children. I don’t hear him talk about that anymore." Asked about the cards, union president Randi Weingarten provided a statement saying that she regretted the tactic. "We are often asked by the council for information and ideas about various issues. Additionally, when I am available, I often respond to what others testify to. In this instance, I was in Washington and couldn’t be at City Hall," she said in the statement. "I am proud of the testimony we gave today, but I regret the manner in which our other concerns were shared."
Elizabeth reported last week about Comptroller William Thompson's claim that the Department of Education overspent on some of its contracts with external vendors. At the time, the department argued that Thompson's analysis overstated the difference between projected and actual costs, sometimes “wildly." In a strongly worded letter of his own sent to Thompson this weekend, Klein elaborated on the department's defense, saying that the comptroller disregarded information about how the department structures contracts and pays for services when he put together his report. One example of the "distortions and misrepresentations" in Thompson's claims, Klein wrote, was that a contract with the Xerox Corporation had cost the city 6700 percent more than it was supposed to: The Xerox contract was actually registered for $31 million. We originally registered the contract for $20 million in 2002, and later extended it twice, once by $10 million and a second time by $1 million. It appears that you cite the amount of this last extension as if it were the entire registration amount. Klein's entire letter to Thompson is posted after the jump.