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.

breaking

A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:


A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”