Chanting “suspend Eva,” advocates entered SUNY’s offices last week demanding that its officials punish the Success Academy charter-school network and its founder, Eva Moskowitz.
The activists want SUNY to launch a formal investigation into the network’s discipline policies and stop granting the network more charters in response to a New York Times article which described unruly students being pressured to leave Success schools through suspensions and 911 calls.
“We’re looking for outcomes from that investigation,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization opposed to Success Academy.
It’s the latest in a long line of calls for tighter regulation of the charter school sector from charter critics, who have promised to create an entire lobbying campaign around the media reports about Success.
Experts say SUNY’s intervention specifically is unlikely. Here’s why.
How it works
As one of two authorizers in the state that can approve new charters, the SUNY Charter School Institute is also tasked with renewing successful schools and closing unsuccessful ones. SUNY can reprimand the charter schools it oversees in two ways.
One is during its annual holistic review of each school. The other is through a formal complaint process. That starts with a complaint filed by a parent alleging that the school has violated the law or its charter — the document laying out the school’s mission and its academic goals.
Through either process, SUNY can place schools on corrective plans or probation, revoke a charter, or simply recommend that a school close at the end of its charter term.
But the formal complaint process only reaches SUNY when schools fail to handle violations on their own, according to SUNY materials. Since Success says the “Got to Go” list described in the Times existed for three days and was handled within the charter school network, it doesn’t rise to that level.
One of the last times a formal complaint reached SUNY was in 2013, when a parent’s concern at Roosevelt Children’s Academy Charter School on Long Island caused SUNY officials to recommend the school be put on probation. This year, SUNY officials advised that the school be granted a full five-year renewed charter, with conditions.
Meanwhile, even if SUNY were to take a broader look at Success’ discipline policies, the authorizer’s holistic reviews include many other factors. And though SUNY is known for having strict standards, it also dislikes meddling in school affairs — a reputation that some charter leaders say is in line with the charter sector’s emphasis on autonomy and makes it a preferred authorizer in New York.
“We have confidence that SUNY, one of the most respected authorizers in the country, won’t stop authorizing the highest performing network of charter schools in New York City because one of our 34 principals made a mistake a year ago for which we promptly reprimanded him,” Success spokeswoman Ann Powell said in a statement.
A question of focus
The focus of SUNY, and the state’s other charter authorizers, is primarily on making sure that charter schools are fulfilling their original intent — boosting student achievement.
Academic achievement is the “single most important factor” in their assessments of schools, according to SUNY guidelines. By those metrics, Success Academy schools regularly outperform the city’s district schools and other charter schools as well.
Dirk Tillotson, the executive director of school choices at the New York Charter School Incubator, said that while he would like to see SUNY take a broader look at school discipline, they have been narrowly focused on stringent academic standards in the past.
“Many of the authorizers just haven’t wanted to take this fight on,” he said
Meanwhile, schools are seldom dinged for discipline issues in their holistic reviews, said Leslie Talbot, an education consultant and a leader of the Pathways to Opportunity Project.
SUNY has been in contact with officials from most of the 22 charter schools up for renewal this year in the last few weeks, including from Success Academy, said Susan Miller Barker, the executive director of SUNY’s Charter School Institute. She did not say whether the Institute discussed the New York Times allegations with Success.
What is happening, and other options
Advocates may still seek to force changes to discipline policies in other ways, including lawsuits and through the legislative process.
Achievement First, another prominent charter school network, faces a lawsuit that some schools mishandled special education students. Meanwhile, state legislators have put forth legislation that could ban suspensions for young children for nonviolent infractions and limit the time of suspensions at both district and charter schools.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was circulating an online petition Wednesday calling for the federal education department to conduct its own investigation. And at least one state senator has also pledged to look into Success’ potential legal violations.
“There’s some charges that the Success Academies may be subject to. My office will be looking into that,” said State Senator Bill Perkins. He did not say which specific charges Success could face.
Regardless of this particular case, SUNY is beginning to look more closely at school discipline data. Miller Barker said they had begun asking charter schools up for renewal to provide more detailed information about suspensions.
“We will continue to review this information and as allowed by existing law take into consideration any violations of law or the misuse of discipline by our schools,” she said in a statement.
On Wednesday, a group of Success Academy vowed to continue their work, calling the ongoing criticism of their work a distraction.
“We’re not worried about lawsuits,” said Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem West. “We want to make sure that we addressed what we thought was a mischaracterization of our schools and let it stand where it is.”