friendly fire

As 12 early community schools face funding cuts, advocates question city’s long-term commitment

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña (middle) and Chris Caruso (right) visited East Flatbush Community Research School in 2016.

In New York City, an unexpected fight has flared up between proponents of social service-filled “community schools” and the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of those schools.

The skirmish centers on a dozen community schools that used state grants to finance after-school programs, tutoring, and student health services over the last three years. The city has not yet promised to pick up the tab for the schools when their $6 million expires at the end of June — even though state officials said Monday that the city could use a pool of state funds to do so.

That has frustrated advocates who say those 12 community schools, whose programs date to 2013, were at the forefront of an approach that de Blasio is now trying to establish in nearly 130 other schools across the city. It also has stoked fears that his administration might let the funding lapse at other community schools in the future just as new programs are taking root.

On Tuesday, they wielded a new weapon to make their case: a just-published report that pulls together multiple studies showing that school-improvement programs require between five and 10 years to take hold. The implication is that if the city fails to renew the funding for those dozen schools, it will be ignoring clear research that says the schools need time for their reforms to flourish.

Schools with some future funding in question
  • The Heritage School (Manhattan)
  • P.S. 36 (Manhattan)
  • P.S. 154 (Bronx)
  • MS 376x (Bronx)
  • Fannie Lou Hamer Middle and High School
  • Boys and Girls High School
  • Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School
  • P.S. 503 and P.S. 506 (Brooklyn)
  • M.S. 72 (Queens)
  • Bushwick Leaders High School

“It takes longer than three years — and the research supports that,” said Yolanda McBride, director of public policy at The Children’s Aid Society, which works with six of the schools. “We’re pushing the [de Blasio] administration to acknowledge that.”

The funding fight is just the latest instance of tensions arising between community-school advocates and an administration that has promoted that education model.

After de Blasio unveiled in 2014 his “School Renewal” program to help academically struggling schools partly by flooding them with services for students and their families, some advocates expressed doubt about using the community-school model as a turnaround strategy. And last fall, they staged a rally where they (successfully) called for the city to publish a clear policy to guide new community schools.

The current funding dispute touches on a deeper concern among advocates that the city will treat the community-school approach as a quick fix for struggling schools rather than a permanent model for all its schools.

Their fears are rooted in the Renewal program’s timeline: The 94 schools that were originally part of it were given just three years to make significant academic gains or face closure. (In fact, the city has already announced plans to shutter three of the schools.)

That requirement, and a parallel one at the state level, “reflect maybe political eagerness and expediency, but they don’t reflect research on how school improvement works,” said Megan Hester, a staffer at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and an organizer of the Coalition for Community School Excellence, a new alliance of dozens of advocacy groups and social-service agencies in New York City that work with community schools. The group formed last fall partly to ensure that the community-schools initiative is sustained beyond this administration.

The report commends the city for adopting the community-school model, which it says is an effective strategy for improving schools. But researcher Michelle Renée Valladares said that demanding those gains happen too quickly can undermine a school’s transformation by tempting teachers to focus on test prep. When schools make more structural changes, like overhauling their teaching, they typically see their test scores rise after five years, she said.

“If New York City is saying they have to show gains on their math and English test scores in three years, that’s absolutely bad science,” said Valladares, associate director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which published the report.

But the de Blasio administration faces enormous pressure from critics, lawmakers, and state educational officials to show that its massive investment — the Renewal program is projected to cost nearly $839 million over five years — is having an impact.

In response, the city education department says that its efforts will result in short-term academic gains by next year but also lasting changes at the troubled schools.

It has replaced the principals at many of the schools, given them new classroom materials, and provided additional training for its teachers, a spokeswoman pointed out. It has also paid for each school to partner with a social-service agency, hire a full-time community school director, and add an extra hour of instruction — though those reforms are more tenuous, since they rely on funding that could vanish when de Blasio leaves office.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.