Progressive Democrats’ surprise wins in N.Y. primaries leave charter school advocates in limbo

PHOTO: Geoff Decker/Chalkbeat
N.Y. State Sen. Jeff Klein, seen at the right at a 2015 charter rally in Albany, lost his primary election in 2018.

A longstanding threat to charter school growth could become more pressing this year now that progressive Democrats are poised to claim more seats in New York’s State Senate.

More than half a dozen incumbent senators who have supported charter schools lost their primary challenges Thursday, leaving charter advocates without key allies in Albany at a time when lawmakers will have to act if many more of the publicly funded, privately managed schools are to open.

If Republicans retain control of the senate in November’s general election, the shift might not matter much: Democratic critics of charter schools won’t have the power to control legislation affecting the sector.

But if, as many observers consider probable, Democrats take control of the chamber, the ascendance of progressive candidates could spell trouble for efforts to lift limits on charter schools, known as the charter cap. While the Democratic senators who were defeated on Thursday largely backed lifting the cap, their replacements are unlikely to do so.

Right now, 28 more charter schools can get permission to open in New York City, according to the New York City Charter School Center, and those approvals are likely to happen by early 2019. If lawmakers don’t lift the cap in their next legislative session, no new charter schools will be able to get permission to open in the city unless other schools are closed. (The law allows for more schools to open in other parts of the state.)

Charter advocates were optimistic that the current legislature would raise the cap. Now, they’re concerned that next year’s lawmakers might instead grind the sector’s rapid expansion to a halt.

“Charter schools are clearly working, students are learning, parents want their kids in them,” said James Merriman, the charter center’s CEO. “We — the center and the sector — are not going to change our message or our push to eliminate the cap.”

Six of the Democratic incumbents unseated on Thursday were part of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that voted with Republicans on many issues, including those related to charter schools.

And many of them had received major donations from charter school supporters, including hedge fund executives Daniel Loeb and Paul Singer and the advocacy group StudentsFirstNY.

The lawmaker who led the breakaway group, Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Westchester County, appeared at charter school rallies and was considered a reliable counterweight to fellow Democrats who are critical of charter schools. He lost to Alessandra Biaggi, a former aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo whose platform includes a vow to “stop siphoning money to privately run charter schools.”

Jose Peralta of Queens and Martin Dilan of Brooklyn (who had not voted with Republicans) got donations this year from StudentsFirstNY, a charter advocacy group.

Dilan was defeated by Julia Salazar, whose platform explicitly includes “maintaining the charter cap, making sure our school system remains publicly governed and controlled by all of us.”

Peralta’s challenger, Jessica Ramos, does not mention charter schools in her official platform, but she said she opposes them during a debate with Peralta, according to a Queens newspaper.

StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said in a statement that the group would keep pushing its agenda with the newest crop of lawmakers.

“It’s clear that voters are passionate and engaged, and we are working to mobilize that energy to improve public schools and expand opportunity to more kids,” she said in a statement. “We look forward to working with electeds on all ends of the political spectrum to benefit children.”

But gaining any traction with the latest crop of state senators is likely to be a challenge for the group. Other winners of the competitive races have opposed charter school growth in New York City in the past.

John Liu, the former city comptroller, will be the Democratic nominee in the Queens district that Tony Avella has represented since 2010. As a mayoral candidate in 2013, Liu said he would charge rent to charter schools in city space — at the time considered a potentially crippling threat to the sector.

And then-City Council education chair Robert Jackson, who beat Marisol Alcantara in the senate district that includes Harlem, in 2011 sued the city to stop charter schools from opening in district buildings.

The primary winners in the State Senate are considered likely to win in November’s general election because they come from districts that have recently elected Democrats. That leaves charter advocates relieved that Cuomo, a longtime charter supporter with significant power under the state’s lawmaking process, easily fended off a challenge from actress and education advocate Cynthia Nixon — but also in limbo as they await a potential reorganization of power in Albany.

“I hope this transcends politics and who’s in and who’s out,” Merriman said. “But we’re going to have to see.”

First Person

We’re college counselors in Chicago. We want our district to stop steering students to colleges where they probably won’t graduate.

Chicago Public Schools recently unveiled personalized “College Readiness Guides” for high school sophomores and juniors. The district hopes the reports will help continue to boost high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

Andrew Johnson

As college and career advisors at Chicago high schools, we hope the guides will help, but we’re less optimistic. Some critical blind spots might make them a significant missed opportunity.

Ryan Kinney

For one, there are a number of data problems in these new reports. Student grade point averages and number of credits earned are eight months out of date — a period long enough for high schoolers to get off track or regain momentum. The reports also don’t account for whether students have even had the opportunity to meet some of the graduation requirements yet, unwittingly creating the impression that some of our students are off track when they may be doing just fine.

But perhaps the most glaring omission is not about students’ current performance, but about the success rates of the colleges they are on track to attend.

Students examining the reports will see the names of several dozen colleges color-coded according to whether each school, based on their GPAs and test scores, should be considered a “match,” a “reach,” or “unlikely.” That tells students what schools they could go to, but by itself is little help for determining which colleges a students should go to. The missing ingredient is specific guidance about identifying and comparing the colleges’ graduation rates.

Read more about Chicago’s new “College Readiness Guides.”

The significance of considering institutional graduation rates in college advising was cemented by groundbreaking research from the University of Chicago in 2008, and CPS has been wise to partner with the University’s school research arm ever since. This partnership makes it all the more surprising that the new reports fail to capitalize on the researchers’ key finding: Regardless of high school GPA, students graduate from college at higher rates when they attend more selective institutions. In other words, generally speaking, the harder it is to gain admission to a school, the more likely students are to succeed there.

So the absence of colleges’ graduation rates on CPS’s new reports represents a troubling missed opportunity. Graduates of Chicago Public Schools have been enrolling in college at increasing rates over the last decade, but there hasn’t been a meaningful increase in students’ college graduation rates since at least 2011. A powerful response to this phenomenon would be to examine more closely where CPS graduates have been enrolling, to identify colleges where our students have been less successful and where they might continue to be less successful in the future. Instead, the reports replicate the list of CPS graduates’ recent college destinations, threatening to reproduce the pattern of college enrollment without graduation.

Meanwhile, the guides place such a wide range of colleges in a student’s “match” category that they obscure the meaning of the concept. A “match” in college counseling refers to a college that is appropriately selective given a student’s academic profile. It helps a student distinguish what’s possible, but also, just as crucially, what might be ill-advised.

Yet the district’s new report often lumps together both the University of Illinois at Chicago and, for example, Harold Washington College, as “matches.” This implies that the two schools might be roughly equivalent options. Yet most college access professionals could quickly tell you that UIC admits students with an average GPA of 3.25 and has a six-year graduation rate of 58 percent, just under the national average. Harold Washington College, on the other hand, requires entering students only to have a high school diploma, and its students graduate at a rate of 18 percent.

For most students who qualify for UIC, then, it could be critical to their success to see Harold Washington as being not a “match” but an “undermatch” — a school less selective than they should aspire to. And while students and families may ultimately have valid reasons for choosing either one of these institutions, a conversation about graduation rates is critical.

Such an absence also explains why the report can list obviously high-risk opportunities like Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis as a “match” for almost every student receiving this report. While this institution reports an average GPA for incoming students of 2.69, it also maintains the dubious honor of a graduation rate of 5.6 percent. The presence of this college’s name on a district publication, and its accompanying label of “match,” clearly suggests that CPS thinks that Harris-Stowe can be an appropriate destination for our students. Given the price and the risk involved, we would never recommend such a school to our students.

The nonchalance with which CPS has presented 40,000 students with a troublesome list of college options is disappointing. While much productive work has been spent over the years in supporting our students’ college enrollment, it is clear that we must pay more attention to where we are helping students enroll than ever before. We know the district can do better, and we hope it will.

Andrew Johnson is a National Board-certified social sciences teacher. Ryan Kinney is a professional school counselor who has previously served as a CPS master counselor. Both are credentialed college and career access advisors at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park.


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent come from families with incomes so low that they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”