change over time

Charter school advocates look for an opening on City Council

As charter schools proliferated during the Bloomberg years, local elected City Council officials remained a reliable foe at rallies and protests against the sector’s growth.

But with at least 20 of the council’s 51 seats sure to turn over at the end of the year, many of the press conference standbys are retiring. The vacancies open the door to a new crop of candidates who have matured politically at a time when charter schools enroll increasing swaths of children — including some of their own.

The possibility of a shift on the council has charter advocates opening their checkbooks and making bold predictions.

“A largely new City Council won’t be hampered by past fighting and fears over charter schools being experimental,” said David Golovner, vice president of policy and advocacy at the New York City Charter School Center.

“With the exponential growth in demand and enrollment by parents for charter schools, the likelihood of elected officials having positive relationships with charters in their districts has increased dramatically over the years,” Golovner added.

The forces are most detectable in Central Brooklyn, where tens of thousands of families apply to charter schools each year. At least three candidates in the area have attracted the attention of charter advocates.

Hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson, who helped Wendy Kopp launch Teach for America, recently sent an e-mail to friends asking them to support two Brooklyn council candidates, Kathleen Daniel and Christopher Banks.

Daniel is a charter school parent and former organizer for Families for Excellent Schools, a nonprofit that works with charter school parents to get them involved in education policy. She is running in District 41 to unseat a two-term incumbent, Darlene Mealy, with the help of thousands of dollars in donations from charter advocates.

While Mealy — who has the UFT’s endorsement — has expressed openness to charter schools in the past, she has more recently criticized co-locations in her district and has not made education a prominent issue in her campaign. A third contender in the race, educator Stanley Kinard, is running on a platform that includes opposition to charter schools; he has not raised any funds.

Banks is running against Inez Barron in the race to succeed Barron’s husband, Charles Barron, in nearby District 42. Charles Barron has been among the most vocal critic of charter schools on the council, and Inez Barron is campaigning on a platform that includes opposition to the “two-tiered system” that she says charter school co-locations create.

In District 36, which includes Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, Robert Cornegy, a Democratic party leader with three children in charter schools, is running to fill the seat that will be vacated by Al Vann, a longtime staunch UFT ally. In a sign of the shifting political tides, Cornegy has Vann’s support even though the teachers union is throwing its weight  behind another candidate, Kirsten John Foy.

And on the Upper West Side, where charter school operator Eva Moskowitz ruffled feathers by opening a Success Academy school, Tilson has also urged his friends to support Ken Biberaj, who is seeking to fill the seat that will be vacated by Gale Brewer. “The other candidates are toeing the teachers union line,” Tilson wrote in June in his email newsletter.

Dabbling in local races at a time when attention is fixed on who will occupy City Hall could feel a political concession for charter advocates, who initially had hoped to play a larger role in the mayor’s race. But they hope their influence in races where advocacy is often a powerful lever could strengthen the chances of charter-friendly candidates at a time when leading mayoral candidates have all pledged a new approach to the co-location policy that has allowed the sector to grow. Even if the charter sector’s preferred candidates do not win, advocates hope that others might arrive on the council with a more moderate approach to charter schools.

“I think you’re going to see more people who are open to the discussion about charters without placing a finger of blame,” Daniel said. “You have more of what I call people on the ground that are running instead of people whose children have been out of the system for some time or have only been in private schools.”

“It is my sincere hope that we change the discourse on education as a whole and that we stop the grandstanding of politics and demonizing the options for parents,” she added.

That’s just what charter advocates want to hear.

“We want to get to a place where parents don’t have to navigate through anti-choice protestors or feel intimidated when they explore educational options for their children,” said Erik Joerss, the charter center’s deputy for government affairs, who has donated $100 to Daniel’s campaign and has also given to Banks and Cornegy.

Not everyone sees things the same way. Noah Gotbaum, a public school parent who is running in the same race as Biberaj, fought against co-locations in his district when he was a Community Education Council member and said he would do the same thing on the City Council. He said he anticipates having many allies.

“My assessment is the new council is going to be far more progressive and far more pro-public education than the current council without any question,” said Gotbaum, who said that to him, public schools do not include charter schools. (The Upper West Side race is one of just three where the UFT has so far declined to make an endorsement.)

Robert Jackson, the outgoing education committee chair who is leaving the council because of term limits and who has sued the city to stop charter schools from opening in school buildings, said he expected that as long as education remains the top line item in the city’s budget, debate over education policies would remain strong. He also said he thought council members would continue to want to investigate issues related to charter schools, such as ongoing concerns about the schools’ discipline practices.

“There’s enough out there to hold hearings,” he said.

Besides including the right to require city officials to testify at hearings, the council’s role on charter school issues is largely symbolic. Under mayoral control, the council has no authority over how school buildings are used or who is allowed to run schools. And while the council does have to sign off on the city’s budget each year, using the budget to promote or diminish charter schools — or any other single issue — would require throwing the city’s finances into uncertainty.

“It’s probably irrelevant as to what a given council member thinks about charter schools,” said David Bloomfield, a CUNY education professor. “It’s basically a state and [Department of Education] — and therefore mayoral — issue.”

But Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said he thinks the council is poised to have more impact on education than a lot of people think.

“The next mayor is not going to have quite the independent power that Bloomberg did and will therefore need to cultivate the council,” Henig said. “Because of that, the council will be able to exert influence across issues including education.”

The council might respond as Gotbaum predicts, with a repudiation of Bloomberg’s approach to charter schools and other education issues, Henig said. But it might well not.

“There’s a group of folks who see charters as innovation within public education rather than a threat to public education,” he said. “And it would be realistic to expect public officials over time to gravitate toward that position.”

Of course, one downside to increasing familiarity in political circles with the city’s charter sector is that policy makers will understand the downsides as well as the promises of charter schools.

That’s already happening in Cornegy’s case. Three of his six children attend charter schools, but he said he has determined that charter schools wouldn’t be an option for one of his children who has special needs.

“As it stands now, my children who are benefiting from a charter education … it’s working well for them,” Cornegy said. “But I’m acutely aware that there’s a segment of society that can’t benefit from it.”

He also said that he recognizes that pushing for better schools across the city might not always mean doing what the charter sector wants.

“Will I champion progressive education and our children’s ability to compete globally? Absolutely. Unequivocally. I’m your man for that,” Cornegy said. “Does that mean I’m going to carry the water of the charter movement? I don’t know.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.