End of the line

Before Families for Excellent Schools’ sudden implosion, waning influence and a series of stumbles

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A pro-charter school rally in Albany that Families for Excellent Schools helped organize in 2015.

Years before its public implosion this week, Families for Excellent Schools stood at the center of New York’s charter-school sector and the rough-and-tumble politics surrounding it.

At its peak in 2014, the pugnacious charter-school advocacy group deployed thousands of parents and teachers to Albany to flex the sector’s political muscle and promote charter-friendly legislation. It launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign slamming New York City’s new charter-skeptical mayor, Bill de Blasio. And it helped secure a major policy victory that provided public space or rent money for the city’s new charter schools.

Now, four years later — and over a period of just a few days — Families for Excellent Schools has come crashing down.

Its demise was hastened by a series of recent blowups, including the organization’s decision last week to fire its founder and CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, following an investigation into “inappropriate behavior.” That led its closest ally, Success Academy Charter Schools, to cut ties with the organization. And in September, the group’s political arm was forced to pay a record-breaking fine and to reveal its donors, following a disastrous political campaign in Massachusetts.

But well before its sudden collapse, the group’s influence had been waning as it became more politically isolated, observers said — in part because of its combative style and deep ties to Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy’s polarizing leader. As Moskowitz and Families for Excellent Schools kept up their relentless attacks on the de Blasio administration, other charter groups that had adopted a more diplomatic approach questioned its efficacy.

“Did it get the attention of the administration? You bet it did,” said Steven Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which brings together independent charters based in New York City. “But in the long run, what does that do?”

When it launched in 2011, the organization’s mission was less controversial: To tap the political power of charter-school families by converting them into advocates, leading get out-the-vote efforts, and coordinating political efforts among the city’s charter-school networks.

But its leaders soon found that training parents on how to organize politically and show up at local community meetings was painstaking work. At the same time, the group was growing closer to Moskowitz: At one point, some Families for Excellent Schools staff members worked out of Success Academy’s offices. Soon, it was attacking de Blasio, who had singled out Moskowitz for criticism during his campaign.

After the mayor blocked three of Moskowitz’s schools from opening or expanding, Families for Excellent Schools helped stage a 2014 rally in Albany that drew 11,000 attendees — among them many families and students from Success, which cancelled classes so they could attend. The rally, which featured fiery pro-charter remarks from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, overshadowed one that de Blasio held at the same time to promote his prekindergarten plans.

In a short span, the group had shifted from parent organizing to the flashier, more combative politics favored by Moskowitz and its pro-charter donors.

“The idea that a small group of parents met with a legislator is just not as sexy as 17,000 parents marching across a bridge,” said Sharhonda Bossier, who co-founded Families for Excellent Schools with Kittredge and now works for an unrelated education non-profit. “There was a ton of pressure from the philanthropic community to behave that way.”

In 2014, Families for Excellent Schools spent $9.6 million on lobbying — more than any other group in the state. With backing from a deep-pocketed board and donors including the Walton Foundation (which also provides funding to Chalkbeat), the group expanded into a $20 million operation by 2016. It also established a political arm outside New York, which helped pour $15 million into the pro-charter Massachusetts ballot measure.

But as it grew, the political combat it specialized in was becoming less in demand. State legislators passed laws to help charter schools expand and operate, and tensions eased between New York City’s charter sector and de Blasio.

“It has been less of an us versus them and more finding opportunity to work together,” said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini.

Families for Excellent Schools did not join in the detente. Instead, it expanded its assault on de Blasio to include issues not directly related to charter schools. It used controversial state data to paint the city’s district schools as chaotic and violent, and denounced de Blasio’s expensive school-improvement program.

“It had really become about fighting [with] a mayoral administration that most people [in the charter sector] actually agreed with” on a range of other issues, said Bossier, the Families for Excellent Schools co-founder.

In a statement, a Families for Excellent Schools representative said the group advocated on behalf of a “a diverse coalition of public charter schools and families.”

“The accomplishments we’re most proud to be a part of — the landmark school facilities law and a series of increases in per-pupil funding for charter students — benefitted public charter schools that work closely with the de Blasio Administration and those that are more skeptical of the Mayor’s agenda,” said the statement.

Meanwhile, Families for Excellent Schools had developed ambitions outside New York. It expanded to Connecticut and Massachusetts, where it poured resources into the ballot measure in favor of charter expansion. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

And echoing their counterparts in New York, some Massachusetts charter groups worried that Families for Excellent Schools’ no-holds-barred tactics hurt the sector’s public image.

“The bipartisan coalition that was strongly in support of charter schools — equally Republican, equally Democrat, equally independent — has been shattered through this campaign and the tactics employed by Families for Excellent Schools,” Marc Kenen, who ran the organization that filed the state’s ballot initiative, told WBUR.

Adding to Families for Excellent Schools’ bruising defeat, the group was slapped with a $426,500 fine for failing to disclose campaign donors and was barred from election-related activity in the state for four years. The high-profile failure, as well as a settlement that forced the disclosure of its donors, created new fundraising challenges, some observers said.

Back in New York, some of the charter networks the organization once courted — such as KIPP — had been developing their own advocacy and parent-mobilizing operations since well before last fall, leaving the group with fewer allies to fall back on.

Those former clients “stopped being willing to pay for [Families for Excellent Schools’] services as parent organizer or trainer,” said one charter school observer, “which meant, also, that Success was increasingly the organization’s only major validator.”

As a result, the group was left reeling last week when Success Academy announced — after Kittredge’s public firing — that it was parting ways with Families for Excellent Schools.

“Success Academy ended its relationship with FES last week, upon learning of the investigation into Jeremiah Kittredge’s actions and his termination,” said Ann Powell, a spokeswoman for the charter network.

A few days later, Families for Excellent Schools said it planned to shut down.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

Find your school

How many students apply to Chicago’s most competitive high school programs? Search by school.

PHOTO: Hero Images / Getty Images
CPS released school-by-school results from its new GoCPS high school application system

How many students ranked each public high school program among their top three choices for the 2018-2019 school year? Below, search the first-of-its-kind data, drawn from Chicago Public Schools’ new high school application portal, GoCPS.

The database also shows how many ninth grade seats each program had available, the number of offers each program made, and the number of students that accepted offers at each program.

The district deployed the GoCPS system for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year. The system had students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Through the portal, applicants had the choice to apply separately to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand, selective enrollment programs. Before the GoCPS system streamlined the high school application process, students lacked a common deadline or a single place to submit applications.

A report released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium of School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that the system is mostly working as intended. The majority of students who used GoCPS ultimately got one of their top three choices. But the study also disclosed problems that the district now faces: There are too many empty seats in high schools. Main findings of the report are here.

School choice

New data pulls back curtain on Chicago’s high school admissions derby

PHOTO: Joshua Lott / Getty Images
Chicago's new high school application system has provided a centralized inventory of school-by-school application data

Before the online portal GoCPS system streamlined the high school choice process, Chicago schools lacked a common deadline or single place portal to submit applications. Some students would receive several acceptances, and others would get none. But a new report shows that the new, one-stop application system is working as intended, with the majority of students ultimately getting one of their top three choices.

But the study, released Thursday by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, also lays bare a major problem with which the city’s public schools must wrangle: There are too many empty seats in high schools.

And it shows that demand varies by income level, with students from low-income neighborhoods casting more applications than students from wealthier ones and applying in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools. Click here to search our database and see demand by individual school. 

The report leaves unanswered some key questions, too, including how choice impacts neighborhood high schools and whether a streamlined application process means that more students will stick with their choice school until graduation.

Deployed for the first time in advance of the 2018-2019 school year, the GoCPS system let students rank up to 20 choices from among 250 programs in 132 high schools. Separately, applicants can also apply to, and rank, the city’s 11 in-demand selective enrollment programs through the GoCPS portal.

The data paints a never-before-seen picture of supply and demand for seats at various high school programs across Chicago Public Schools. One in five high school options is so popular that there are 10 applicants for every seat, while 8 percent of programs fall short of receiving enough applications, according to the report.    

CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the new data presents a full, centralized inventory and will help the district “have the kind of conversations we need to have” with communities. The district is facing pressure from community groups to stop its practice of shuttering under-enrolled schools. Asked about what kind of impact the report might have on that decision-making, Jackson said that “part of my leadership is to make sure that we’re more transparent as a district and that we have a single set of facts on these issues.”

As for declines in student enrollment in Chicago, “that’s no secret,” she said. “I think that sometimes, when when we’re talking about school choice patterns and how parents make decisions, we all make assumptions how those decisions get made,” Jackson said. “This data is going to help make that more clear.”

Beyond selective enrollment high schools, the data spotlights the district’s most sought-after choice programs, including career and technical education programs, arts programs, and schools with the highest ratings: Level 1-plus and Level 1.

“What that says to me is that we’re doing a much better job offering things outside of the selective schools,” said Jackson, who pointed out that 23 percent of students who were offered seats at both selective enrollment and non-selective enrollment schools opted for the latter.

“Those [selective] schools are great options and we believe in them, but we also know that we have high-quality schools that are open enrollment,” she said.

Programs in low demand were more likely to be general education and military programs; programs that base admissions on lotteries with eligibility requirements; and programs located in schools with low ratings.

Other findings:

  • Chicago has far more high school seats than students — a dynamic that’s been clear for years and that the report’s authors stress is not interfering with the admissions process. About 20,000 freshman seats remain unfilled across CPS for the upcoming school year. At least 13,000 of those empty seats are a consequence of plummeting enrollment at CPS.
  • It’s still not clear how neighborhood schools, which guarantee admission to students who live within their boundaries, affect demand. About 7,000 students are expected to enroll at their neighborhood high schools. When CPS conducts its 20th day count of enrollment at district schools, more complete details will be available. Lisa Barrow, a senior economist and research advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one of the things researchers weren’t able to dig into is the demand for neighborhood programs, because students didn’t have to rank their neighborhood schools.
  • The report suggests that the process would be more streamlined if students could rank selective enrollment programs along with other options. “If students received only one offer, there would be less need to adjust the number of offers to hit an ideal program size,” the report says.
  • Students don’t participate in the new process evenly. The report shows that students from low-income neighborhoods were more likely to rank an average of 11.7 programs, while students from the wealthiest neighborhoods ranked an average of 7.3. The authors said it was not clear whether that meant students from wealthier neighborhoods were more willing to fall back on their neighborhood schools.  
  • Students from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods were also more likely to rank a charter school as their top choice (29 percent), compared to students from the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods (10 percent). The same was true of low academic performers (12 percent), who chose charter schools at a percentage considerably higher than their high-performing peers (12 percent).
  • While the new admissions process folded dozens of school-by-school applications into one system, it didn’t change the fact that schools admit students according to a wide range of criteria. That means the system continues to favor students who can navigate a complicated process – likely ones whose families have the time and language skills to be closely involved.

Barrow, the researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said one final question the report cannot answer is whether better matching students with high schools on the front end increases the chance that they stick around where they enroll as freshmen.

“If indeed they are getting better matches for high schools,” Barrow said, “then I would expect that might show up in lower mobility rates for students, so they are more likely to stay at their school and not transfer out.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the excess capacity in Chicago high schools does not interfere with the admissions process.