flip sides

Charter schools take PEP meeting as chance to launch PR blitz

Charter school parents packed into last night's Panel for Educational Policy meeting to call for more city building space for charter schools.

Last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting was the second in as many months to be packed to the gills with parents and teachers passionately pleading their case.

But this time it was charter school parents, not teachers and parents at closing district schools, who drove to the meeting in busloads.

“What we are pleading for this evening is space,” Trevor Alfred, a parent at Explore Empower Charter School, told the panel. “We deserve it.”

At first blush, the level of passion, and sometimes anger, directed towards the panel could seem odd. Although 16 school space proposals were up for a vote, the board had never voted down a city proposal, and none of the charter school proposals on the agenda yesterday was defeated.

But charter school advocates, stung by what they felt was a bruise at last month’s PEP meeting on school closures, which was dominated by charter school opponents, decided to take the opportunity to launch a new public relations offensive.

“I think this is the defining moment for the charter school movement, as an advocacy movement, to wake up,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, who leads Democracy Prep Charter Schools’ political organizing.

Other charter schools in attendance included the Harlem Success, KIPP, Explore, Girls Prep and Achievement First networks, some of whom had never rallied parents to a public meeting before.

Girls Prep supporters raised their banners each time one of their parents or teachers spoke before the panel.
Girls Prep supporters raised their banners each time one of their parents or teachers spoke before the panel.

“As demand for charters has increased, so has the opposition,” said David Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools. “People realize that now, and are making their voices heard.”

Meanwhile, many of the most outspoken opponents of charter siting plans at individual school hearings were notably absent. And union officials, who last month called for the city to stop giving city building space to charters until district schools reach their class size targets, sat out the meeting altogether.

“It’s a sham; why come?” said Lisa Donlan, the president of a Lower East Side parent council and one of a few vocal critics who did speak.

(The board did fail to pass one proposal last night: a contentious plan to site an all-boys district school, Eagle Academy, at I.S. 59 fell one vote short of the seven votes needed for passage because of the absence of one mayoral appointee to the PEP, Jim Whelan, and the abstention of another, Linda Lausell Bryant.)

Charter school supporters point to opposition from elected officials as evidence that they are under siege. By launching a public relations offensive, they argue, they can persuade lawmakers that they’re on the wrong side of the issue.

As if proving their point, today a top target of charter school supporters, Harlem’s State Senator Bill Perkins, announced plans to hold hearings questioning charter schools starting in March. Although Perkins helped start the city’s first charter, he has since become an outspoken opponent of their growth.

Chancellor Joel Klein is championing this new wave of activism. He told reporters last night that he called charter school principals, at the request of the head of a charter network, to encourage them to bring parents to the meeting. And in a Daily News op-ed yesterday, Klein forecast a strong charter school presence.

Skeptics of Klein pointed out an irony: he’s trumpeting a system that works because parents want to flee the district schools that he manages.

As the proposals came to a vote close to midnight, one of the few charter critics on the board, Manhattan Borough President appointee Patrick Sullivan, voted “no” on the plan to let Girls Prep expand, saying that he questioned the school’s success.

The measure passed anyway, but afterward, a tearful Miriam Lewis Raccah, the head of Girls Prep, made clear that Sullivan’s criticisms had reinforced her view that charters need to put up a strong show against their critics.

“I feel a little bit of relief,” she said, “but it’s also a little bit infuriating.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.