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.

More autonomy

These Denver schools want to join the district’s ‘innovation zone’ or form new zones

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual Middle School students at a press conference about test scores in August 2017. The school has signaled its intent to be part of a new innovation zone.

Thirteen Denver schools have signaled their desire to become more autonomous by joining the district’s first “innovation zone” or by banding together to form their own zones. The schools span all grade levels, and most of the thirteen are high-performing.

Innovation zones are often described as a “third way” to govern public schools. The four schools in Denver’s first zone, created in 2016, have more autonomy than traditional district-run schools but less than charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Denver Public Schools recently released applications for schools to join the first zone, called the Luminary Learning Network, or to form new zones. The school district, which at 92,600 students is Colorado’s largest, is nationally known for nurturing a “portfolio” of different school types and for encouraging entrepreneurship among its school principals.

The district is offering two options to schools that want to form new zones. One option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen not by the district but by a nonprofit organization. That’s how the Luminary Learning Network is set up.

Another, slightly less autonomous option is for schools to apply to form a zone that would be overseen by the district. “Some additional autonomies would be available to these schools, but many decisions would still be made by the district,” the district’s website says.

One tangible difference between the two: The principals of schools in zones overseen by the district would answer to district administrators, while the principals of schools in zones overseen by nonprofit organizations would be hired and fired by the nonprofits’ boards of directors.

Schools in both types of zones would have more control over their budgets. A key flexibility enjoyed by the four schools in the Luminary Learning Network has been the ability to opt out of certain district services and use that money to buy things that meet their students’ specific needs, such as a full-time psychologist or another special education teacher. The zone schools would like even more financial freedom, though, and are re-negotiating with the district.

The district has extended the same budgetary flexibility to the schools in Denver’s three “innovation management organizations,” or IMOs, which are networks of schools with “innovation status.”

Innovation status was created by a 2008 state law. It allows district-run schools to do things like set their own calendars and choose their own curriculum by waiving certain state and district rules. The same law allows innovation schools to join together to form innovation zones.

The difference between an innovation zone and an innovation management organization is that schools in innovation zones have the opportunity for even greater autonomy, with zones governed by nonprofit organizations poised to have the most flexibility.

The deadline for schools to file “letters of intent” to apply to join an innovation zone or form a new one was Feb. 15. Leaders of the three innovation management organizations applied to form zones of their own.

One of them – a network comprised of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools – has signaled its intent to join forces with an elementary school and a high school in northeast Denver to form a new, four-school zone.

Three elementary schools – Valdez, High Tech, and Swigert – submitted multiple intent letters.

Amy Gile, principal of High Tech, said in an email that her school submitted a letter of intent to join the Luminary Learning Network and a separate letter to be part of a new zone “so that we are able to explore all options available in the initial application process. We plan to make a decision about what best meets the needs of our community prior to the application deadline.”

The application deadline is in April. There are actually two: Innovation management organizations that want to become innovation zones must file applications by April 4, and schools that want to form new zones have until April 20 to turn in their applications.

Here’s a list of the schools that filed letters of intent.

Schools that want to join the Luminary Learning Network:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College High School
Valdez Elementary School
High Tech Elementary School

Schools that want to form new innovation zones overseen by nonprofits:

McAuliffe International School
McAuliffe Manual Middle School
Northfield High School
Swigert International School
These four schools want to form a zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone.

McGlone Academy
John Amesse Elementary School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Montbello Children’s Network.

Grant Beacon Middle School
Kepner Beacon Middle School
These two schools want to form a zone called the Beacon Network Schools IMO I-Zone.

Schools that want to form a new innovation zone overseen by the district:

High Tech Elementary School
Isabella Bird Community School
Valdez Elementary School
Swigert International School
DCIS at Ford
These five schools want to form a zone called the Empower Zone.

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”