How Charter Schools Won D.C. Politics

Originally published in Washington City Paper on September 5, 2019

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Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism

Lobbyists mobilized quickly when they learned the D.C. Council would be proposing legislation to subject the city’s charter schools to freedom-of-information laws. The day before the bill was released in mid-March, charter leaders were armed with a list of talking points divided into two categories: “soft response” and “harder-edge messaging.”

The “soft response” included points like: “this bill cares more about paperwork than school performance” and “devoting schools’ resources to yet even more compliance will divert from more important student needs, such as mental health counseling.” The “harder-edge messaging” went further, charging the legislation with “bureaucracy-building and political playback masquerading as watchdogging.”

The legislation is intended to let parents, teachers, and journalists access more information about the schools’ internal operations, and it comes on the heels of a series of scandals that fomented public distrust. But the talking points encouraged charter advocates to tell their councilmembers that it’s insulting to suggest that the schools need additional oversight. “We resent the implication that the hundreds of community and parent volunteers who serve on charter schools’ boards are not putting students’ needs first,” the talking points read. “The real agenda that needs uncovering is the union strategy to force charter schools to behave exactly like the school district bureaucracy.”

This coordinated pushback didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, D.C. taxpayers might be surprised to learn they helped fund the lobbying themselves. Every year D.C. charter schools collectively funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to private organizations that then lobby government agencies against efforts to regulate the schools. Between 2011 and 2017, for example, local charters paid the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools, which calls itself “the collective voice of DC’s Chartered Public School Leaders,” more than $1.2 million in membership dues for its advocacy services, at a rate of $8 per student annually.

While most D.C. charters contribute to the Association, nearly all also pay $8 per student annually to a second group called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, better known as FOCUS. Last year all but three charters kicked over FOCUS’ “voluntary student payments,” totaling more than $340,000.

In return for their contributions, charters have received dedicated advocates in the halls of city government and in public debate. In practical terms, this has mostly entailed keeping local lawmakers off charters’ backs. A July 2018 invoice that FOCUS sent to one charter leader said that the school’s payments “have already had an impact” in 2018, securing a “reduction in unreasonable monitoring and oversight” by “blocking or fixing five major pieces of legislation.” FOCUS’ executive director thanked the school leader for their annual donation, which ensures “a strong, steady, and committed” voice “to preserve your autonomy, increase your funding and improve your access to facilities and government services.”

Documents obtained by City Paper show that these two organizations produced the talking points from earlier this year. But they’re not the only players on the charter advocacy stage, and the D.C. Council’s charter transparency bill is not the first to hit a hard wall of lobbying resistance. Under DC Code Section 1-1161.01, lobbying is defined as “communicating directly with any official in the legislative or executive branch of the District government with the purpose of influencing any legislative action or an administrative decision.” And for more than two decades professional charter school advocates have successfully marshalled powerful arguments about limiting government intrusion into charter school operations, so leaders can better focus on teaching and learning.

For those who envision public-school politics as frazzled parents huddled in middle school gymnasiums, the world of D.C. charter advocacy might come as a strange sight. It’s a place where philanthropic money, revolving political doors, high-dollar galas, and a bevy of well heeled organizations have all been deployed to help charter schools shape their own regulations—or, more preferably, keep regulation away. Now, in the face of questions and community frustration, lawmakers are again under pressure to act. But if city leaders are going to bring newfound transparency to the charter world, they’re going to have to overcome a formidable influence machine with a long history of winning fights in D.C.

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Many factors have aided the local charter advocacy apparatus over the past two decades—from a struggling traditional school district that drove parents away, to a weakened teachers’ union consumed with its own problems, to a conflict-averse Council that largely welcomed the relinquishment of school oversight duties.

But charter advocates’ biggest asset has been the School Reform Act—federal legislation enacted in 1996 authorizing the creation of charter schools in the District. Since its passage, the law has been used to ward off attempts by local lawmakers who sought more control over the public charter schools they were funding.

Congress’ involvement did not happen overnight. DC Public Schools had been declining for decades, as families left the city or turned to private schools. 149,000 students were enrolled in 1970. That number plummeted to about 80,000 two decades later. Academic performance was also a source of embarrassment, and scandal routinely wracked the District’s school administration. In 1995, a federal body created to help restore local public school finances came to the stunning conclusion that “for each additional year that students stay in DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed.” Half of all students dropped out before graduation.

That same year, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), was elected Speaker of the House and soon announced his goal to improve D.C. schools. He pledged to transform the city into “an urban jewel” and tasked another Republican in his inner-circle, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.), with drafting education policy recommendations.

The bill Gunderson put forth originally included both the creation of charter schools and vouchers for private schools, but it soon became clear that vouchers would never garner enough Democratic support in the Senate, and were ultimately stripped. Charters were an easier sell: The nation’s first charter school had launched in Minnesota in 1992, and plenty of Democrats, including then-president Bill Clinton, were enthusiastic supporters of the idea.

Many D.C. residents balked at Congress’ actions. When Clinton signed the School Reform Act into law in the spring of 1996, it was over the strong objection of D.C.’s non-voting Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who protested Congress’ interference in the city’s local affairs.

Josephine Baker, board chair and executive director for the city’s charter authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board, from 1996 through 2011, reflected on this process in her 2014 memoir: “The way [D.C. charters were established] left a terrible taste in the mouths of many life-long and civically engaged Washingtonians. It also represented a selling out of sorts to some community members who felt Republicans in Congress were acting as political imperialists.”

These misgivings over home rule did not stop charters from claiming legal independence, however. Professional advocates worked for years to convince the public and elected officials that D.C. lawmakers were legally unable to regulate their city’s charter sector if doing so conflicted in any way with the letter or spirit of Congress’ law. As Baker put it, “We used the charter law, deemed one of the best in the nation by the Center for Education Reform, as our shield.”

FOCUS, the charter advocacy group, has been the driving force behind these efforts. FOCUS was founded in 1996 by Malcolm Peabody, a Republican real estate developer who had strong political relationships in Congress and the local business community. A quarter-century earlier, Peabody helped pioneer the very idea of housing vouchers for low-income renters, when he served a stint under his brother, the governor of Massachusetts, and then later at HUD under President Richard Nixon. Peabody’s belief in vouchers for housing paved the way to supporting vouchers for schooling, but he understood the lack of political support for the concept in D.C., so limited FOCUS’ focus to charters.

“We were interested in vouchers before Congress passed the law, but when it became clear that charters were a better way to go, we shifted over,” he tells City Paper.

From 1998 to 2015 FOCUS was led by Robert Cane, a former attorney and school principal from Virginia drawn to the nascent charter movement in D.C. “Robert Cane was a force,” says Kathy Patterson, D.C.’s auditor who served as the Ward 3 representative on the Council and chaired its education committee. “[Cane] and Mike Peabody, they were the ones who convinced everyone that there was no authority locally to legislate charters, and I think that’s been a myth that’s been around since 1996. They convinced councilmembers of that, they convinced people in my office [at the D.C. auditor’s] of that. I guess if you just say it over and over and over again for long enough then people will believe it.”

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While FOCUS has long advocated on behalf of nearly all charter schools in the District, its leaders are quick to emphasize that it is not, in fact, a membership-based organization. “We asked charter schools to support our advocacy efforts, but we never wanted to be a membership organization because [they] can’t act as quickly and as decisively as non-membership organizations,” Cane tells City Paper. “And we wanted the freedom to disagree with charter schools.”

But a membership-based charter advocacy organization would eventually come on the scene, with the advent of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools in 2004. Its founders wanted to give black-led charters a more organized voice in city politics, as FOCUS’ leaders were predominantly white. “School founders and school leaders wanted to distance themselves from external advocacy groups that had their own agendas, but they wanted to improve their well-being through democratically arrived at positions,” Ramona Edelin, the group’s executive director, explains.

Still, many charters were active in both groups, and FOCUS and the Association often worked together, sometimes with the assistance of the Public Charter School Board, to fight back on legislative efforts they felt might encroach on charter freedom.

“Autonomy is everything to charter schools, and autonomy is basically nothing to the government, and that’s really the crux of it,” Cane says.

***

From the very start of D.C.’s charter movement there have been concerns about oversight. An inspection of one school in 1999 revealed poor attendance, incomplete student health records, and an “insufficient focus on the core academic subjects.” Another charter provided its students with no textbooks for a full year, with a student explaining that when visitors came in, administrators instructed them to “keep [their] notebooks open” to conceal the lack of books. At another charter closed early for financial mismanagement, officials reported that the principal had “awarded $60,000 in bonuses to himself, his wife and other staff members, and tried to hold student report cards hostage to avoid prosecution.”

In 2001, D.C.’s inspector general and its chief financial officer, Charles Maddox and Natwar Gandhi, respectively, testified before Congress asking for greater authority to oversee local charter school finances. The following year Gandhi turned to the Council to ask for legislative authority over the schools, saying that all charters should be assessed by a single auditing firm, selected by the D.C. government.

“Such legislation is completely unnecessary and is antithetical to the idea of charter schools,” Cane argued at the time. He and other advocates successfully rebuffed the idea.

Politically there were tensions from the get-go, too. During the mayoral election in 1998, one candidate ran on a charter school moratorium, two others ran on platforms to limit the number of new charters issued annually, and a fourth candidate, Anthony Williams, ran on a charter-supportive platform but said there needed to be more careful monitoring. Williams won.

In 2000, the D.C. financial control board authorized Mayor Williams to manage surplus school property, news that charter advocates cheered, as they long suspected D.C. officials had been denying them access to vacant school buildings to stymie their growth. Advocates hoped Williams would be easier to work with.

But it didn’t take long for charter advocates to get frustrated with Williams too, and charge his administration with facility sabotage. “We have a joke we always say [at charter school coalition meetings],” one leader told City Paper in 2001. “You may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

FOCUS leaders decided to take matters into their own hands, by leveraging their power on Capitol Hill. In 2004, at the urging of FOCUS, charter supporter Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) slipped an amendment into the D.C. Appropriations Act requiring D.C. officials to give charter schools a “right of first offer”—instead of a “preference”—to purchase or lease vacant D.C. school buildings at a 25 percent discount. Remarkably, Sen. Landrieu did not consult with any D.C. officials before making this change.

Local leaders—again including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton—were outraged by this federal brazenness.

“We’ve now gotten them very angry at us, and I’m sorry about that, but each one of those councilmembers has been advocates themselves—some of them very successful at it—and I think they would have done the very same thing in our position,” Peabody told the Washington Post at the time. Perhaps predictably, the maneuver set up future conflicts. When the city opted to hang on to some empty properties for future use rather than quickly sell or lease them to charters, charter advocates responded by accusing D.C. officials of violating the law that the charter advocates themselves helped re-write behind city leaders’ backs. Such criticisms continue to this day: A video released this past summer by the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools featured Edelin, the group’s director, condemning city leaders for failing to give charters a “right of first offer” to buildings.

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D.C. lawmakers have tried to regulate the charter sector over the years but are usually unsuccessful, like in 2006 when the majority of the Council backed legislation to improve open meeting laws. These laws dictate what exactly regular residents can access when it comes to the decision-making of public bodies.

“In our estimation, the District of Columbia has the most outdated, ineffective open meetings statute in the country,” the head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press testified at the time, urging D.C. “to catch up with the rest of the country.”

Part of the reforms would have subjected charter school boards to the city’s open meetings law. The then-chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Vincent Orange, argued that given how much public funding the schools receive, and because they would not exist without government-issued charters, they should not be exempt.

As The Common Denominator, a now-defunct local news organization, reported at the time, advocates like Edelin and Cane were some of the most ardently opposed to the bill, and ultimately succeeded in getting the government to back off open meetings for charter schools.

Charter advocates succeeded again two years later in 2008, when two councilmembers, Chairman Vince Gray and Ward 6 representative Tommy Wells, introduced legislation to increase government oversight over the city’s charters, and add new rules restricting how easily new schools could open or expand. Existing law has grown “outdated and proven ineffective to ensure the Council’s ability to provide effective oversight,” Gray argued back then. Wells stressed that there was too little coordination between the Council and the charter sector, which spends public funds.

FOCUS launched a robust campaign against the proposed legislation, recruiting parents, teachers, and students to lobby local lawmakers and deliver a pro-charter petition signed by nearly 6,000 people. The bill died, and it marked one of FOCUS’ biggest political victories to date.

“It’s hard to say exactly why it failed because so much of this stuff goes on behind closed doors,” says Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for D.C. schools. “My guess is there were all sorts of big time business people involved.”

***

Whoever killed the 2008 bill, things were only about to ramp up for D.C. charter advocacy. That year, largely thanks to the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation, FOCUS started raising a lot more money. At the turn of the century, FOCUS’ budget stood at $287,000, according to tax filings. A decade later, it would hit $2 million, and it reached nearly $3 million in annual revenue by 2016. Between 2008 and 2017, the Walton Family Foundation gave FOCUS more than $7.7 million. And with the infusion of new funds came greater capacity, with the organization taking on new efforts like data analysis, school support services, and consulting.

As FOCUS’ budget went up, so did its lobbying expenses. In 2008, the organization reported $39,000 in total lobbying expenditures. Two years later,  FOCUS hired Michael Musante to be its new director of government relations. According to city ethics disclosures, FOCUS reported $120,000 in lobbying expenses in 2013, $130,000 in 2014, $145,000 in 2017, and $165,000 in 2018.

In addition, according to congressional disclosures, Musante also spent $206,000 since 2016 lobbying Congress on behalf of American Federation for Children, a national organization that supports private school vouchers.

Another major force aiding D.C’s charter sector has been CityBridge, a foundation headed by local philanthropist Katherine Bradley. A 2015 City Paper cover story detailed Bradley’s unique influence over school policy in Washington, though the full extent of her advocacy is hard to track, as she has never registered lobbying activities with the city. “CityBridge is very familiar with D.C. lobbying laws, and our attorneys have told us that we—like hundreds of other charitable organizations in the District—do not need to register,” Bradley says.

“The threshold for registering is quite low. If you’re aware of anyone making lobbying contacts the odds are very high that they should be registered,” says Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit that advocates for consumer protections.

Yet another player entered the charter advocacy scene in 2015, with the founding of Democrats for Education Reform DC, or DFER-DC. Democrats for Education Reform, a major national backer of charter schools, is actually a constellation of different entities: a political action committee, a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Education Reform Now, and a second 501(c)4 nonprofit—controlled by the same people—called Education Reform Now Advocacy. This split structure enables the group to lobby and spend vast quantities of money in elections. The national organization is further divided into state chapters, of which DFER-DC is one.

Most of DFER-DC’s political spending comes in the form of independent expenditures—hiring paid canvassers, sending political mailings, and running TV, radio, and digital ads. In 2018 alone, DFER-DC raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in such funds, including nearly $200,000 from Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress tied to the Walton Family Foundation. By the time the June 2018 primary rolled around, the group had already spent $300,000, and would go on to spend at least $150,000 more during the general election.

The Washington Teachers’ Union, by contrast, spent just $2,100 in direct campaign contributions in 2018, and nothing in independent expenditures.

A woman named Catharine Bellinger directed both DC Education Reform Now, and its PAC, DFER-DC, for its first three-and-a-half years. Despite frequently engaging lawmakers both in and outside the Wilson Building, she never registered as a local lobbyist.

In one email dated May 2016 with the subject-line “DFER’s top priority this budget cycle,” Bellinger wrote to At-Large Councilmember and education committee Chairman David Grosso asking him to press Council Chairman Phil Mendelson on increasing funds for charter school facilities. “I’d like to ask you to consider personally urging Chairman Mendelson to make this [2.2%] increase,” Bellinger wrote. “My sense is that a call from you, as Ed Committee chair, would really make the difference. Is that something you might consider?” In another email sent in June 2018, a month before moving to Texas, Bellinger wrote Grosso to say, “I’d love to get together with you for breakfast or a coffee to hear about your priorities as Ed Committee chair for the next session as well as share some thoughts we have on the proposed education research entity”—referring to legislation the Council was considering at that time.

“All of my advocacy efforts on behalf of ERN [referring to Education Reform Now] were in compliance with DC Code for nonprofit organizations,” Bellinger tells City Paper.

Josh Henderson, a political consultant and the former government relations liaison for the public charter school board, then took over as acting DFER-DC director. Despite also engaging lawmakers over legislative issues, he too never registered as a city lobbyist. When asked about this, Henderson cited a provision of the DC Code—noting a lobbying exemption applicable to nonprofit social welfare organizations—to explain why DFER’s (c)3 activities would not need to be registered.

Yet it’s not clear this provision is meant to exempt DC Education Reform Now from disclosure. “This is an obviously inaccurate reading of the law,” says Public Citizen’s Holman. “All of us regular nonprofits who spend $250 or more on lobbying the D.C. government must register and disclose our activities.” Other (c)3 organizations that register their lobbying include Jews United for Justice, the Nature Conservancy, and even FOCUS. “As nonprofits, we are given a break in the lobbyist registration fee,” Holman adds.

Henderson tells City Paper that their (c)4 arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, is a registered lobbying entity in D.C. and they hire the firm Arent Fox to lobby on specific legislation. Records show that the registration occurred in 2018, and between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2018, Education Reform Now Advocacy paid Arent Fox $72,919.00 for the “promotion of policies benefiting public education, particularly charter schools.” Arent Fox earned an additional $63,150.00 during the first three months of 2019.

In July, DFER-DC hired Jessica Giles to serve as its next deputy director. Giles came directly from Grosso’s office, serving the last four years on the education committee.

Outside of Wilson building lobbying and campaign expenditures, DFER works to cultivate relationships with political leaders by hosting them at upscale private events. For example, public records requests made by City Paper reveal that DFER invited Grosso and his wife to sit at one of its two “VIP tables” at a Howard Theatre gala in 2016. “[We] are assembling a small group of education, civic, and philanthropic leaders to join us,” Bellinger wrote in her invitation.

The next year DFER invited Grosso and his wife to another gala, this time at the Ritz-Carlton, where they had a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. Bellinger likewise invited Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to join her for a dinner event in 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton, again at a table sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation. And in April 2018 she extended yet another invitation to Mendelson for a Walton-sponsored table, this time at a gala hosted at the Newseum.

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In D.C., the entity that directly oversees charters is the Public Charter School Board. Publicly funded through administrative fees charged to each school’s annual budget, the agency is the sole authorizer for D.C. charters—meaning it’s tasked with opening, closing, and monitoring the schools. But the board has also embraced a significant advocacy role, fighting back against regulatory efforts it thinks may hurt charter school operations.

Sometimes this means D.C.’s charter school board coordinates with private advocacy groups in unusual ways. In 2015, for example, according to a public records request, the board’s general counsel emailed Irene Holtzman—who had recently taken over for Cane as FOCUS’ executive director—to strategize about securing changes in a language access bill the Council was considering. “Since we still have two bites at this, in my opinion, what would be helpful now is for the Council to hear from FOCUS and more charter schools,” the general counsel wrote. She encouraged FOCUS to submit testimony, “citing its position on autonomy as it has in the past on issues such as this that try to loop charter schools in with DCPS.”

A subsequent fight over school discipline reform reveals a more extraordinary example of charter board advocacy. In the fall of 2017 Grosso was gearing up to introduce legislation that would set legal limits on how schools could discipline students. Among other things, the bill would ban most suspensions through eighth grade and cap the number of days a child could be suspended in a year.

In October 2017, according to an email obtained by City Paper, charter board executive director Scott Pearson emailed representatives from every charter school with an urgent warning to protest this forthcoming bill. Pearson also copied his director of government relations, Drew Snyder, and Holtzman from FOCUS.

“As drafted, this bill would substantially interfere with your exclusive control over school operations, and would create major reporting burdens for your school,” Pearson wrote. “We hope you can join the discipline discussion so that we can protect the foundations of the School Reform Act.” (Bold lettering matches Pearson’s original email.)

He urged charter leaders to contact Grosso’s office. “Many of you are busy with the day-to-day operations of your school but we need you to share your perspective during any and all meetings or in writing if necessary,” he wrote, adding that Snyder and Holtzman are both available to provide “information, or assistance in preparing testimony, talking points, or written submissions.”

If the call to action were not explicit enough, Pearson ended his email by requesting charter leaders “let Drew or Irene know” if they can submit testimony or attend the next Council meeting on the legislation.

Pearson acknowledges that as the city’s sole charter school authorizer, making such requests could place undue pressure on the schools he’s charged with regulating. He also notes that not all charter schools opposed Grosso’s legislation like he did.

“I don’t think I’ve ever button-holed a single school and said, ‘You need to do this,’” he tells City Paper. “Because to me that would go beyond what’s appropriate given I’m the authorizer and I know schools might feel like they need to do that to please me.” It would cross a line, he says, if he asked an individual school leader to testify, or “if I was somehow showing that we were keeping track, like here’s a list of the leaders who signed up [to speak].”

While Pearson says there have been in-person meetings where he’s encouraged school leaders to “make their voices heard” on other legislative matters, the school discipline bill is the only example he can think of where he sent an email out like that. He thought the bill represented a “five-alarm fire.”

When City Paper asked Holtzman why she didn’t just send that advocacy blast herself, she explained she felt charter leaders would be more likely to open the email and act if it was sent by Pearson. “I think Scott’s intent was to amplify my message because the truth is … I’m their friend, maybe a critical friend, but I’m not their auth[orizer],” she said. “And I said to Scott… I didn’t think at the time we were going to get a ton of traction, I think Scott was like, ‘If I send out an email, they open emails that come from Scott Pearson.’”

The lines between the two organizations have been close in other ways. The charter board’s  second-in-command from January 2012 up until this past June, Naomi DeVeaux, had come from FOCUS. “She was my right-hand person,” Cane says. Other FOCUS alums would go on to lead different parts of D.C.’s educational establishment, like Erika Wadlington, who led advocacy and outreach at FOCUS and later went on to direct the Council’s education committee.

Cane emphasizes that there were times when the charter authorizer took positions that FOCUS felt encroached on charter autonomy, and FOCUS would make their concerns known. Still, Cane “was very close” with Pearson. “I would say there’s an attempt on both sides to cooperate, a close working relationship, because both PCSB and FOCUS are interested in the survival of the public charter school movement,” he says.

Holtzman agrees there have been times when FOCUS and the charter school board were not perfectly aligned, but says she thinks “Scott and the PCSB are like the authoritarian dad … and I might be like the cool aunt … But we’re all part of one family and we all play really different roles.” (Holtzman abruptly left FOCUS at the end of June.)

Pearson recognizes that his predecessor, Josephine Baker, was less engaged in advocacy, but suggests that was easier to do when the charter sector’s market-share was smaller. Today nearly half of all public schools students in D.C. attend charters.

Pearson says he personally sees political advocacy as an essential part of his job. “To be an effective authorizer doesn’t just mean doing a great job of oversight of schools, it also means being an advocate so the schools are operating in an environment that allows them to thrive,” he explains. And unlike the DC Public Schools chancellor, who works for the mayor, Pearson and his colleagues can publicly criticize the executive branch.

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Traditional public schools have advocates too, but they’ve struggled and have very little money.

“I remember the charter board as kind of a non-entity,” says Gina Arlotto, who in the mid-2000s led an advocacy group for D.C.’s traditional public schools, called Save Our Schools Southeast/Northeast. “They left the heavy lifting to FOCUS.” Arlotto’s now-defunct organization took a critical stance on charters. It formed around 2003, and Arlotto says many community members were not receptive to their efforts. “It was sad we couldn’t get more people to just see what we were trying to do,” she says. “We wanted people to look at charters and be a little skeptical to protect the public investment.”

In the fall of 2004, their group filed a lawsuit alleging that top city officials had neglected their duty to the traditional public schools and were violating their constitutional obligations by spending so much money to advance school choice. “Robert Cane hated us, we got into it with him a bunch of times,” recalls Arlotto. “He’d call us ‘losers,’ ‘racist,’ tell us we’re never going to win.”

They didn’t win, as their case was dismissed in 2006 for lack of standing, and the group stopped organizing in 2009. And unlike in other cities, where teacher unions have played an active role in slowing charter school growth, the Washington Teachers’ Union has been politically weakened for years, following an embezzlement scandal where union leaders diverted more than $2.5 million in membership dues.

“They had scandals, they were in disarray, we were lucky in that sense that we didn’t have to spend time on them,” says Cane.

These groups form a stark contrast with education reform-backed parent advocacy. One of the newest groups to emerge on the charter advocacy side is Parents Amplifying Voices in  Education, or PAVE, which trains local parents to advocate for school reform. It has quickly grown into a powerful force with deep pockets in the city.

PAVE was founded in 2016 by Maya Martin Cadogan, through an education reform-backed “entrepreneur-in-residence” program. She had previously worked at two local charter schools, and served on the DFER-DC advisory board.

With a first-year budget of $450,000, PAVE had the early financial backing of groups like CityBridge, the Walton Family Foundation, and DFER. By 2018, its budget had increased to $1.2 million, and today has 11 full-time staffers. While charter parents were its sole focus in year one, it’s since expanded to parents in both sectors.

Last December, the group held its inaugural PAVE Parent Power Gala at District Winery in the Navy Yard, where Grosso was awarded the “Parent PowerED Policymaker Award.” The event had many high-dollar sponsors, including Katherine Bradley and her husband who contributed $25,000, the Walton Family Foundation, which gave $10,000, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $5,000, and Pearson of the charter school board, who donated $2,500.

Since its founding, PAVE has also organized an annual “Parent Voice and Choice Week” where it hosts catered meetings between advocates and lawmakers at the Council. This past year parent leaders met with 11 elected officials and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn. Advocates ended the week with a reception co-sponsored by PAVE, DFER, FOCUS, and the Bradleys.

In June 2018, Valerie Jablow, a DC Public Schools parent and charter critic, filed a complaint with the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, raising concerns that PAVE staff were engaged in unregistered lobbying; she noted they join parents in their meetings with lawmakers. “My complaint is not to indict the work of PAVE or anyone else for that matter, but to ensure that our laws are followed for lobbyists,” she wrote in a subsequent email to the agency. “In this case, pretending PAVE is just a group of parent volunteers specifically disadvantages actual volunteer parents like me, who approach elected officials on their own or as the unpaid representatives of groups, like PTAs, that are also unpaid and 100 percent volunteer. This is why, in fact, we have lobbying laws that define who a lobbyist is—to level the playing field to ensure those with money do not have disproportionate power.”

Holman, of Public Citizen, explains that one of the more difficult aspects of enforcing lobbying laws—both in Congress and on the local level—is monitoring who should be registered in the first place. “If you don’t register no one is going to know what you’re up to, and the way this is policed is often through self-policing,” he says. “So when I realize that I’m in a lobbying meeting with other people who aren’t registered, it’s up to me to file a complaint so the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability can pursue an investigation and even levy fines for violating the law.”

This past April, the agency’s director Brent Wolfingbarger wrote Jablow to say they had conducted a preliminary investigation and were dismissing her complaint as they found insufficient evidence to support the claim that PAVE staff should register as lobbyists. Wolfingbarger emphasized that all PAVE staffers did was set up meetings between parents and lawmakers, but never communicated with lawmakers about legislative issues themselves.

Yet emails unearthed from a public records request paint a different picture—one in which PAVE staff also meet and converse with lawmakers and their staffers alone. In one email dated Aug. 6, 2018, Kerry Savage, PAVE’s associate director of policy and advocacy wrote to the Council’s education committee director, Akeem Anderson, to say, “As we discussed, I’d love to grab coffee to learn more about you and your work. I know Councilmember Grosso shares many of PAVE’s policy priorities, including mental health supports and transparent funding, and I’d love to discuss potential opportunities to partner together.” Emails show Savage and Anderson scheduled a meeting at the Wilson Building on Aug. 8.

About two months later, Anderson emailed Savage to say, “We should grab [sic] catch up soon. Are you available Friday or sometime next week?” The next month Savage emailed Anderson asking him to “let me know if there are any good days for you to chat in the next couple weeks and I’ll compare with my schedule.” Roughly a month after that, Anderson sent an email connecting Savage with Katrina Forrest, the deputy chief of staff in Grosso’s office. “I want to connect you with Katrina in our office to discuss School Based Mental Health and our budget priorities as we move into the next Council Period,” he wrote. “Hopefully you two can find time to connect soon.” Savage wrote back to both staffers and said, “Katrina, I’d love to talk soon about our shared priorities. Is there a good time for you this week? Otherwise happy to connect after the holidays.”

“No PAVE staff have discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one with [council] staff, and our staff, myself included, do not engage in lobbying,” Cadogan tells City Paper over email.

City Paper asked Anderson if he ever discussed specific legislative priorities one-on-one during his meetings and conversations with Savage. “Councilmember Grosso and staff met with and provided all relevant information about our meetings with parent advocates and staff of PAVE to the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which has concluded its report,” spokesperson Matthew Nocella wrote in response.

In July, Jablow attended BEGA’s monthly board meeting to raise her concerns, and call for a continued investigation. Wolfingbarger insisted again that all PAVE staff has done is schedule meetings for parents—nothing more. “PAVE does the organizing of the meetings, but doesn’t actually present arguments or try to persuade,” he said, in an audio recording of the meeting.

Wolfingbarger tells City Paper his team found no evidence that PAVE met one-on-one with councilmembers or their staff. He did not respond to a voicemail and three follow-up emails with City Paper’s questions regarding details about their investigation, including the time period BEGA’s team studied, and whether their search involved a review of Council communications, like email.

***

The School Reform Act has protected charter schools against city interference for years, but signs are emerging that this legal armor is starting to corrode.

That’s in part due to a failed federal lawsuit brought in 2014 alleging D.C. had illegally underfunded charter schools by hundreds of millions of dollars, in violation of the School Reform Act. The Association and two local charter schools were named plaintiffs, and FOCUS helped finance the litigation.

D.C.’s then-Attorney General Irvin Nathan argued the case should be dismissed on the basis that “these are distinctively local decisions.” He emphasized that the School Reform Act does not “relieve the Council of its Home Rule Act authority” to determine school funding.

A federal judge denied Nathan’s dismissal request, but in 2017, she ruled against the plaintiffs. The charter groups appealed, and this past July, the D.C. Circuit dismissed the case for lack of federal jurisdiction.

“I think the winds have changed,” says Patterson, the auditor. “I think the litigation is informing sitting policymakers that they can do what they think is right and not run into legal problems because Congress enacted it.”

“I think for a long time the Council just really drank the Kool-Aid about charters being self-regulating and the market taking care of problems,” adds Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an advocacy group for school facilities.

Aside from the lawsuit, Grosso has also been more willing than past lawmakers to test the limits of the School Reform Act. In 2014, before he was committee chairman, Grosso introduced legislation to restrict the number of suspensions and expulsions for preschool students. The charter sector fought the bill, leveraging their federal supremacy arguments, but Grosso went forward anyway. It passed in 2015, the year he was named committee chair. In 2017, again over the strong objections of most charter advocates, Grosso introduced his next school discipline bill to restrict suspensions and expulsions for all public school students.

“I focus the work of the Committee on Education from a perspective of what is best for students and how can I put every student in D.C in the position to succeed in school,” Grosso tells City Paper. “We always set out from that framework. When we have a priority—like [the school discipline bill]—I do a legal analysis with my office and general counsel to make sure that it’s something we can move forward with.” Since becoming committee chair, Grosso says he’s been “able to get my priorities through.”

***

Gathered on the fourth floor of the Wilson building this past June, at a Council hearing for bills to track the flow of funds to the city’s most vulnerable students, dozens of public witnesses turned out to testify about a different matter: increasing transparency in D.C.’s public charter schools.

Unlike most other cities and states, D.C.’s charter schools are not subject to public records requests, and a proposed piece of legislation, not due for a hearing until Oct. 2, seeks to change that. Supporters of that bill feared the late date was selected to neutralize their momentum, and so they came out earlier to make their case.

This local political battle comes on the heels of a recent fight in California, where advocates had also long sought to bring charters under the state’s sunshine statutes. At the end of 2018, California’s attorney general issued a sweeping opinion around charter transparency, rejecting the idea that nonprofit charters should be exempt from public record requests, and this past March the state’s governor signed a bill bringing all California charter schools under the same open meetings, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws as traditional public schools.

Grosso has already stated his interest in subjecting charters to open meeting laws, something he and other councilmembers rejected back in 2015 when government watchdogs last pushed for it.

With reform chatter in the air, D.C.’s network of charter advocates is gearing up to go to battle once again.

They call the push for public records and other transparency rules an effort by unions and charter opponents to undermine the schools, by draining charter resources and hobbling them with bureaucracy. They say that just because other states successfully apply sunshine laws to their charters does not mean D.C. would see similar success.

This past spring, Education Reform Now, DFER-DC’s affiliate, funded a text-message campaign against the proposed transparency bill, using the same internal talking points endorsed by FOCUS and the Association. “The D.C Council is considering legislation that would divert resources in quality public charter schools away from helping students achieve to completing onerous paperwork and bureaucracy,” one text read. Another encouraged recipients to click on a link, which provided them with a pre-drafted email to send to their local representatives opposing the legislation. “I am writing to express disappointment in your recently introduced bill to unfairly target public charter schools,” the form email read. “Our kids need teachers and resources not more legal burdens.” DFER-DC did not answer City Paper’s inquiries regarding how many residents received the texts.

At the June hearing some charter leaders made similar points against additional oversight.

“I see this Council and others moving in a direction that troubles me, treating public charter schools as public agencies,” testified Shannon Hodge, the executive director of Kingsman Academy, a charter located in Ward 6. “We are not public agencies and we are not intended to be.”

Royston Lyttle, an Eagle Academy principal, agreed. “We don’t need more bureaucracy and red tape.”

“We have seen the playbook of the [National Education Association] for how to act against charters, and unfortunately some of what is happening right now, it’s coming straight out of the playbook,” says Edelin, executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. Peabody echoes her comments, saying the transparency bill is “part of what the national union is proposing to improve the charter schools, but what they’re really saying is if you weaken, surround them by red tape, then they won’t be as good as they are now.”

About three hours into June’s eight-hour hearing, At-Large Councilmember Robert White suggested that charter advocates try another approach going forward. “The biggest opposition to the FOIA piece from charter schools that I’ve heard is that it’s this huge burden. I don’t have a position on this right now, it’s something I’m still listening to, but if the strongest argument from the charter schools is that this is a burden—I don’t think that’s a strong enough argument,” he said. White invited advocates to share “more reasons, other reasons” as to why charter schools believe they should be exempt.

“Yeah it’s a burden, but is it an insurmountable burden?” he asked. “No, it’s not.”

The Charter School Primary

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 15, 2019.
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When Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, released his wide-ranging education plan in mid-May, most of the media coverage focused on his proposals around charter schools. Commenters specifically focused on his calls to ban for-profit charters, which represent about 15 percent of the sector, and to halt federal funding for new charter schools until a national audit could assess the impact of charter growth in each state.

Many education policy experts suspect that such an audit would eventually lead to banning all new charters, but the Sanders campaign says they are just taking their cues from the NAACP. In 2016, the civil rights group called for a moratorium on new charters until existing ones were brought under the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, told The New York Times that his organization loves that Sanders’s plan adopts their language around charters. “If we have a problem with the delivery of our education system, you don’t create ancillary systems for some of the children and not address the comprehensive problem,” he said.

To fight back, many charter supporters have sought to cast Sanders as uniquely extreme on the issue, especially in his efforts to link charter schools with segregation. But it’s hard to target Sanders as extreme when the entire 2020 field has joined and even surpassed Sanders on the issue. The charter school movement’s complete loss of clout in the Democratic Party is one of the more surprising stories of the election cycle.

At the start of July, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released an open letter, imploring Sanders to withdraw his call for a moratorium and “back away from calls for additional regulations that are not in the best interests of schools or students.” The 244 signatories defended the results from charters, citing a 2015 report from the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes, and stressed that charters are in high-demand among families of color. “District-operated public schools have systemically failed students of color for generations,” they wrote.

While the letter didn’t specifically cite Sanders’s call to ban for-profit charters, the signatories included Fernando Zuleta, the president of the for-profit charter management company Academica, and seven board members of National Heritage Academies, another for-profit charter company that operates over 80 schools across nine states.

Sanders isn’t the first mainstream Democrat to criticize charter schools—while campaigning in 2016, Hillary Clinton came out against for-profit charters, as did the Democratic Party platform for the first time. Even many charter leaders, including the president of the Democrats for Education Reform, have condemned for-profit charter schools in recent years.

The pressure to ramp up the rhetoric against charters stems not only from a fierce competition to court teacher unions—an influential Democratic constituency long hostile to charters—but also due to dwindling support among white Democratic voters. According to polling from Education Next, 50 percent of white Democrats now oppose charters, and support among white Democrats fell from 43 to 27 percent between 2016 and 2018. By contrast, charter support among black and Hispanic Democrats remained steady over those two years, and more of both groups support charters than oppose them.

Similar results were found in a recent poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform. The group found that 58 percent of black Democrats are favorable towards charters, while 31 percent are opposed. Among Hispanic voters, 52 percent supported charters, while 30 percent opposed. But among white Democrats, 26 percent were favorable, and a whopping 62 percent were opposed.

The candidates’ critical positions seem to be responding in part to this new political landscape. And as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remains a staunch champion for both school vouchers and charters, Democrats see distancing themselves from education reform as an easy way to contrast themselves with the deeply unpopular Trump administration.

Earlier this month, at a presidential forum hosted by the National Education Association (NEA), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came out swinging against charters, which educate 10 percent of public school students in his city. While de Blasio has long been known as a charter school skeptic, and has battled with Eva Moskowitz, the leader of New York City’s largest charter network in the past, he also has sought to assure voters that he does not outright oppose charter schools, and can negotiate compromises with them.

At the forum he made clear he was no longer seeking such nuance or compromise. “I am angry about the privatizers,” he told the crowd. “I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.” When asked a question about standardized testing, he responded, “Get away from high-stakes testing, get away from charter schools. No federal funding for charter schools.” His last point goes beyond what what Sanders has called for.

Meanwhile, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, released his education plan this month, which also called for an end of federal funding to new charter schools. He made no mention of a study or even a moratorium. Inslee also called for improvements in charter accountability and transparency, and bolstering diversity at existing charter schools.

Inslee has been critical of charters in his home state, where just a dozen currently operate. In 2012, when he first ran for governor, he opposed a ballot initiative to allow the creation of charters and in 2015 he emphasized that his position remained unchanged. “I opposed the initiative that created charter schools because I did not believe that public money belongs in schools that lack public oversight and accountability,” he said.

Hours after Sanders’s education plan was released, Elizabeth Warren told reporters that she agreed for-profit charters are “a real problem.” She has not yet released her own K-12 plan. While the Massachusetts senator has supported charter schools in the past, in 2016 she came out against a high-profile ballot initiative that would have allowed charters to expand much more quickly in her state. The measure ended up failing, with 62 percent of voters siding against it.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also came out to say he supports Sanders’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools, though he affirmed a month earlier that charters “have a place” in the education landscape “as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated.”

Beto O’Rourke, who opposes a national moratorium on new charters, told the NEA presidential forum that “There is a place for public nonprofit charter schools, but private charter schools and voucher programs—not a single dime in my administration will go to them.” O’Rourke has supported charters in the past, and his wife is a former charter school leader who now sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charters in El Paso.

Kamala Harris has not yet released any plan on charter schools, though in January a spokesperson for her campaign told me that the senator is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” California lawmakers passed a ban on for-profit charters last fall, and passed new transparency measures this year. As attorney general, Harris launched a probe into K12 Inc., a for-profit charter school company, alleging it used false advertising, saddled its California schools with debt, and inflated its student attendance numbers to collect additional state funds. K12 ended up settling with the state for $168.5 million.

Even Joe Biden has made unusually critical comments about charter schools, notable as the Obama administration was very supportive of them and the former vice president generally seeks to align himself closely with Obama on the campaign trail. “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period,” Biden said at a Houston town hall hosted by the American Federation of Teachers. He also added that “there are some charter schools that work.” His education plan does not actually mention charters.

Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate most closely associated with supporting charter schools, has also tamped down some of his charter rhetoric. While he continues to defend the educational reforms he led in Newark, including an expansion of charter schools, on the campaign trail he’s also sought to distance his hometown from charter experiments elsewhere.

“I’ve seen charter school models that are outrageous and unacceptable. I’ve seen charter laws propagated by Republicans that just outright dangerous. And so I understand those people, I’m one of them, that wants to stop those kind of movements,” he told the Washington Examiner in response to a question about Sanders’s education plan. “But I’ve also seen in places like Newark, New Jersey, and other places where local leaders are making decisions that elevate the best educational possibilities of their children, and local leadership should be allowed to do that.”

The turn against charter schools within the Democratic primary does not offer the industry an easy way to separate Sanders or Warren from the rest of the 2020 field. It’s part of a larger sea change on education within the party, though one that’s unevenly reflected so far across racial groups.

On Beto O’Rourke and Charter Schools

Originally published in The Intercept on March 27, 2019.
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WHEN BETO O’ROURKE ran for Senate in 2018, he highlighted the importance of public education and consistently said that he stood squarely in support of teachers. Given that his opponent was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, that was more than enough to secure endorsements from both the Texas State Teachers Association and its parent union, the National Education Association. Teachers across the country helped fuel his small-dollar donor machine.

There was little reason, then, to probe Beto O’Rourke on charter schools. In the Democratic presidential primary, he is unlikely to get the same gentle treatment — particularly given his wife Amy O’Rourke’s deep ties to the charter community.

Education in general was not a top priority for O’Rourke on the Texas campaign trail, nor did he have a robust record of tackling education issues during his three terms in Congress. Voters had a general sense of where he stood on K-12 education issues: He supported a rollback of standardized testing; he opposed the advent of private school vouchers and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; he believed teachers should be paid more and that the federal government should fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

But O’Rourke stayed conspicuously silent on the topic of charter schooling during his Senate campaign, and his backers in the education establishment decided not to press him on it.

This is not because charter schools are not a growing issue in the state of Texas. Just this year, the Texas American Federation of Teachers called for a pause on the publicly funded, privately managed schools until the state legislature agrees to pass a series of reforms. “We’ve always been against charter expansion and school privatization, but this is the first time we’ve said, ‘Let’s take a time out,” said spokesperson Rob D’Amico.

Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, told The Intercept his union is “very concerned” about charter growth in Texas, “especially the national charter chains that have been zeroing in on the state.” A recently commissioned TSTA poll found 73 percent of respondents statewide said there should be a halt on charter expansion until there’s more evidence of success. The two state teachers unions also filed a lawsuit last summer against a Texas law that encourages school districts to turn struggling schools over to charters or outside operators. That case is pending.

FOR THE LAST couple of years, the Democratic Party has been grappling with voters’ changing views on charter schools. In 2016, the party’s platform, which maintained its support for providing parents with “great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools” articulated, for the first time, an opposition to for-profit charter schools, which are a small but politically powerful segment of the movement. Other elected officials, and presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, also began that year adopting this compromise-seeming position.

In 2016, charter advocates also suffered an expensive loss in Massachusetts, when voters across the blue state rejected a ballot initiative to lift the state’s charter school cap. The measure failed 62 percent to 38 percent, and while the initiative was being led Democrats for Education Reform, the state’s Democratic party had come out against it.

In 2017, with Donald Trump in office and GOP mega-donor Betsy DeVos appointed to lead the Education Department, the politics around charters continued to grow more thorny for liberal school choice supporters, many of whom who had long been hostile to teacher unions. That year, Gallup reported a growing partisan divide on charters, with Democratic support at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support held steady over the five years, at 62 percent. Public support for unions, meanwhile, continued to climb — climbing from 56 percent in 2016 to 61 percent in 2017, and reaching 62 percent — a 15-year high — in 2018.

Charters were further thrust in the spotlight in the 2018 midterms, as many Democratic candidates campaigned on reserved or qualified support for charters. Newly elected Democratic governors in Illinois, California, and New Mexico all said they’d back a pause on charter school expansion, and other Democratic officials grew more forthright with their critiques. The teachers strikes that swept the nation also elevated concerns around charter schools, particularly when Los Angeles educators went on strike for six days at the start of 2019.

While most Democratic candidates are likely to face questions about charter schools on the trail to the White House, that likelihood is greater for Beto O’Rourke’s than most, given his wife’s stature in the charter school movement. Amy O’Rourke is a former charter school leader and currently sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charter schools in El Paso.

“Amy is free to work wherever she chooses, that’s her choice, but I think at some point Beto is going to be asked about that and he’s going to be asked about his position on public schools and charters,” said Norma De La Rosa, the president of the El Paso Teachers Association. “He was asked during his campaign about the more pressing issues like immigration and the wall, but I can assure you, he will be asked about charters now.”

Amy O’Rourke began her education career as a kindergarten teacher in Guatemala, where she worked for one year after graduating college. When she returned to El Paso in 2004, she connected with a local community organization, Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, and helped them launch a dual-language charter. She served as superintendent of the school, La Fe Preparatory School, from 2007 to 2012. In her application to open the school, she wrote that the local school district “failed to create an educational system that can generate true success for all students in the community” and promised to offer “a drastically different educational experience” for Segundo Barrio children. She also noted that “innovation and creativity are the backbone of charter schools” and praised other Texas charters for their commitment to “seeing the underprivileged succeed through hard work.”

Now, Amy O’Rourke serves on the board of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, a business-backed organization that launched in 2014 to help push education reform initiatives in El Paso. Amy O’Rourke also directs CREEED’s “Choose to Excel” initiative, aimed at boosting college-readiness and which focuses, in part, on expanding charter schools in El Paso. In 2017, CREEED hosted a two-day summit, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to strategize on how to advance education reform. Several days later, a local philanthropic group, the Hunt Family Foundation, donated $12 million to CREEED, specifically to help boost charter school enrollment El Paso. The foundation’s chair, Woody Hunt, who also serves as vice chair on CREEED’s board, told the El Paso Times that he hoped the big donation “will show large charter school backers, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that the education community in El Paso is committed to school choice.”

The donation was slammed at the time by local teacher unions, and De La Rosa of the El Paso Teachers Association told The Intercept that her organization has been upset with the way CREEED has operated in the city. “If they are as concerned about public education and the kind of education we are providing for our students, then why did they not get involved within the public school system and work with administrators and teachers to see how they could help us change direction here in El Paso and providing those resources we desperately need?” she asked. “We’ve made it clear that their philosophy does not mesh with our philosophy of what a good public school and a good public education for all our students looks like.”

One of CREEED’s focuses over the last several years has been to bring the fast-growing charter network IDEA Public Schools to El Paso. IDEA is one of the largest nonprofit charter networks in the country; it opened 18 new schools this past fall. It’s a “no excuses”-style network, with school uniforms, longer school days, a focus on enrolling in college, and strict discipline rules.

According to Chalkbeat, the IDEA charter network hopes to educate 100,000 students in the next four years and to hit 250,000 students in the next 10. In El Paso specifically, IDEA aims to run 20 schools by 2023, with the first two campuses having opened this past year. CREEED has pledged at least $10 million to help IDEA meet their growth goals.

The Intercept contacted CREEED to speak with Amy O’Rourke about public education and charter schools, and a spokesperson said they forwarded the request to the Beto O’Rourke campaign, which did not return request for comment. Beto O’Rourke’s spokesperson, Chris Evans, also did not return multiple requests for clarification on the candidate’s position on charter schools.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, met with the O’Rourkes recently in Texas. In an interview with The Intercept, Weingarten said Beto O’Rourke asked her “some really good questions” about schools and emphasized that the “value statements he’s been saying and said during the campaign [about schools] are important.” Weingarten said they discussed the educators he met on the campaign trail who had to use their own personal funds to pay for classroom supplies and that they discussed the importance of community schools with wraparound social services.

She demurred on whether they talked about charter schools specifically. “I’ve been very careful to not repeat the content of conversations I’ve had with the candidates,” she said. “But the whole context of how austerity and competition have really hurt public school opportunities is something that he was very aware of, let’s just put it that way.”

Weingarten acknowledged that education issues weren’t so central to the 2018 Senate race, but she expects things to be different in the months ahead. “A lot of issues did not get the same kind of airing that they will in the 2020 presidential,” she said. “And education issues will get an airing.”

New Bill Would Subject Charters to Same Transparency Rules as D.C. Public Schools

Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 13, 2019.
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On Wednesday morning, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen led a press conference for a bill he will introduce next week, the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. This bill would bring D.C. charter schools under the same transparency requirements as traditional public schools, and comes on the heels of the DC Public Charter School Board proposing its own transparency reforms for the charter school sector. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman have joined Allen in co-sponsoring the legislation.

Allen’s new bill would subject all D.C. charter schools and their boards of trustees to public records requests and open meetings laws, and require that the DC Public Charter School Board help individual charters comply with these new rules. The charter sector currently receives more than $800 million in taxpayer dollars annually.

“This is not exactly a cutting-edge idea,” said Allen on the front steps of the Wilson Building. “Thirty-nine states already include both our traditional and public charter schools under their open government laws. D.C. is frankly playing catchup with the rest of the country.”

He pointed to California, where just earlier this month, the state’s new governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would subject all of California’s 1,300 charter schools to open meetings laws and public records requests. Allen also pointed to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which both endorse charters complying with these rules. Last month a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the Washington Post that D.C’s charter sector was unusual on this front compared to the rest of the country.

Allen said one of the most common arguments he hears from charter schools is that complying with FOIA would be a significant administrative burden. In light of this, he wrote into his bill that the DC Public Charter School Board would serve as a resource to help individual schools handle requests, and the legislation would also require the PSCB to report to the Council how many FOIA requests were received by individual charter schools, and how much it cost them to comply. Allen emphasized the bill could be adjusted in future years if schools do in fact encounter major challenges. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re respecting that concern and understanding that,” he said.

As it stands now, the DC Public Charter School Board is not being flooded with FOIA requests. Between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018, according to the city’s annual FOIA report, the DC Public Charter School Board received 74 requests for information, with 59 processed within 15 days, eight processed in 16 to 25 days, and two processed in over 26 days. The total cost for the agency to comply with FOIA requests last year was $22,600.

Other items in Allen’s bill include requirements that a charter school’s annual report include the amount of money donated by anyone who contributes more than $500, that schools publish all employees’ names and salaries, that each charter school include two teachers on its board of trustees, and that a student representative serve on the board of a charter high school or adult learning charter. Lastly, the bill would require a charter’s annual report to list all contracts awarded by the school, regardless of amount, as is required for D.C. Public Schools.

The bill was developed in close consultation with EmpowerED, a D.C. teacher activist group, which has been leading, over the last nine months, a campaign on public school transparency and increasing teacher, parent, and student voice in school decision-making. In January, EmpowerEd launched an online petition to bring charters under the same transparency requirements as D.C. Public Schools, which as of Wednesday had garnered 545 signatures. Scott Goldstein, the executive director of EmpowerED, says the majority of those signatures have come from D.C. charter school teachers and charter school parents.

“Nothing in this bill should be controversial,” says Goldstein. “Far from being a burden, community engagement is what makes schools stronger and more sustainable.”

Allen’s bill is likely to face opposition from some leaders in the charter school sector.

Last month, Irene Holtzman, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local charter advocacy group, testified before the Council against the kind of measures proposed in Allen’s bill, and defended the level of transparency currently existing in the charter school sector.

Josh Henderson, the executive director of the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, tells City Paper that Allen’s bill “prioritizes paperwork over performance” and notes that D.C.’s charter sector is “already one of the most tightly regulated, and importantly, highest-performing in the country.” He says he hopes the Council will focus on issues like mental health supports and suitable facilities, “rather than adding additional layers of bureaucracy.”

DFER DC, Henderson adds, would support new measures like the Council requiring charters to hold at least two open meetings per year, “including the meeting at which they set their budgets and any meeting that would close, shrink or otherwise reconfigure a school’s campuses.” He also says his group would support requiring charters to report data about teacher tenure and attrition, which is currently only reported on a voluntary basis.

Education Committee Chairman David Grosso was not at the press conference and his spokesperson says Grosso does not have any comment on the bill at this time.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who announced in late December that he would be joining Grosso in leading oversight on the Education Committee, tells City Paper that he understands charter schools are not in support, and that he plans to “look at the bill carefully and understand why we have always treated the charter schools differently.” He says he does worry that FOIA can be a burden on agencies, noting that the amount of money the Council had to spend on answering FOIA requests jumped significantly last year.

In 2015, some local advocates tried to push for greater charter school transparency measures, but charter leaders successfully blocked their efforts, and the Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act included only modest reforms. Allen said at Wednesday’s press conference that he’s hopeful the Council will have a hearing and pass this bill, and he hopes even more co-sponsors will join them in the next few days.

The DC Public Charter School Board, meanwhile, has been deliberating on some of its own transparency policy changes. The PCSB first opened its transparency rules to public comment in December, and extended the comment period for another month given the high volume of feedback it received. In February during the extended public comment period, this reporter submitted a comment in favor of bringing charters under FOIA and open meetings laws, and publishing board meeting minutes online.

On March 18, board members will be voting on the DC Public Charter School Board’s proposed transparency changes, which would require individual schools to publish, among other things, which meetings are open to the public, board meeting minutes, the salaries of the five highest-compensated individuals, employee handbooks, and funding plans for at-risk students. Some of the information that the DC Public Charter School Board is proposing schools publish on their own websites is already available on the DC Public Charter School Board’s so-called Transparency Hub, which launched last April.

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, calls Allen’s legislation “misguided” and says it “fails to take into account the extraordinary transparency measures already taken by the Public Charter School Board.” Pearson criticized the bill for not addressing issues like closing the achieving gap, reducing the number of students living in poverty, or reducing truancy.  “We support a smart, reasonable approach that provides the transparency parents need, but does not divert school efforts, attention, and funds away from educating students,” he says. “We urge the D.C. Council to include parents, local board members, students, and school leaders in this process.”

The Charter School Movement Weakens in California

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 8, 2018.
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Charter school politics in California have been changing very quickly.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles held a special election for a school board seat that had been vacated in 2018. Ref Rodriguez had been elected in 2015 with the support of the charter school movement, and in 2017, two more pro-charter advocates won seats on the seven-person school board, giving charter supporters a slim majority for the first time. Their victory was short-lived, however, because Rodriguez was soon charged with money laundering, and eventually pled guilty to conspiracy and resigned.

The contest to fill Rodriguez’s seat was, thus, high-stakes: Would someone like Rodriguez replace him on the board, and thereby keep the board’s pro-charter tilt?

While the election is not over, the answer increasingly looks like it will be no. In a crowded field of ten candidates, 74-year-old Jackie Goldberg emerged with 48 percent of the vote, and heads into a May runoff with a strong likelihood of winning. The next-highest challenger received only 13 percent. Goldberg, who was endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles, did not hide that she was running for the seat mainly to prevent charter advocates from controlling the board. “I don’t want four votes for the charter people,” she told me in January. “I’m not anti-charter, but I’m anti the current charter law.”

Goldberg has been a well-known figure in local progressive politics for decades. A veteran of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and later a public schoolteacher, she was elected to two terms on the Los Angeles school board from 1983 to 1991. After that, she served six years in the state assembly and eight as the first openly gay member of the Los Angeles City Council, where in 1997 she authored and passed what was effectively the nation’s first living-wage ordinance. This earned her the reputation as a real darling of the progressive left in the city. Goldberg was also a strong supporter of the recent Los Angeles teachers strike, and the teachers union spent roughly $660,000 to elect her.

The politics around charter schools in California has evolved in ways that stretch beyond the composition of L.A.’s school board, too.

In late December, before the strike, UTLA called for a moratorium on new charter schools. (L.A. has 224 charters, more than any other city in the country.) California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, and its new state schools superintendent, Tony Thurmond, have also both said they support temporary moratoriums on new charters.

Following UTLA’s six-day strike, where opposition to charters was a central point of the teachers’ advocacy, the L.A. school board approved a nonbinding resolution in support of an eight-to-ten-month moratorium on new charter schools, pending a study on California’s charter laws. The vote was part of the bargaining agreement between UTLA and Los Angeles Unified School District chief Austin Beutner. Getting the board to even take such a vote was a huge win for the union, let alone receiving a unanimous vote, including from the board’s charter supporters.

public opinion survey of Los Angeles County residents taken during January and the first two weeks of February found that 75 percent of respondents said they wanted to focus on improving existing public schools, and just 25 percent said the focus should be on giving families more school choices. The results were similar when broken down by race, though black and Latino families were slightly more likely to favor school improvements than other groups.

Further north in California, teachers in Oakland went on strike in late February, ending with an agreement that included, among other things, a moratorium on charter schools. Oakland currently has 44 charter schools, enrolling more than 15,600 students.

Keith Brown, president of Oakland Educators Association, said teachers will push for further regulation of charter schools on the state level, and already some bills have gained traction. Last week, the California Assembly approved a bill that would subject all charter schools in the state to the same open meetings, public records, and conflict-of-interest laws that traditional public schools are subject to. The transparency bill passed on a 63-to-9 vote and Governor Newsom is expected to sign it.

And that’s likely not all. Other bills that have been introduced would place a cap on charter schools, limit where charter schools could open, and create new ways to deny charter school applications. About 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million public-school students currently attend charters.

Eric Premack, the executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, told CalMatters that the new bills are “the policy equivalent of an extended middle finger.”

California’s charter advocates are still reeling from two major political losses last year. In the gubernatorial primary, charter supporters spent $23 million backing Antonio Villaraigosa in a failed bid, and more than $36 million on another candidate’s unsuccessful run for state superintendent of public instruction.

After losing those statewide races in 2018, the California Charter Schools Association, the movement’s main political arm, took a gamble, announcing in late December that it would not be endorsing a candidate in the school board special election in Los Angeles. (The lobbying group declined to answer questions in January about whether it would run any independent expenditure campaigns or financially support any pro–charter school board contenders despite not giving an endorsement.)

Given the many candidates vying for the seat, most political observers suspected the CCSA would jump into the fray with an endorsement for the anticipated runoff, where they had been successful in the past.

But now it looks like their strategy failed, and their prospects to take back control of the board are slim. Not only did Goldberg command a formidable lead, but the next two candidates to trail her aren’t reliable charter advocates either. The most outspoken charter proponent in the field—Allison Bajracharya—finished fifth, earning less than six percent of the vote. That catastrophic mistake by the charter school movement could precipitate its further slide into political irrelevance.

The Teachers’ Movement Goes Virtual

Originally published in The Atlantic on April 11, 2018.
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When West Virginia teachers initiated a nine-day labor strike this past winter, they secured national attention and a 5 percent pay raise. Oklahoma and Kentucky educators followed suit, with Arizona teachers threatening to do the same. Amid all this organizing was another strike threat, not previously reported, last week in California: between teachers in online classrooms and the organization that employs them.

Students enrolled in virtual schools (sometimes called “cyber schools” or “virtual academies”) take their classes online. It’s a small phenomenon, representing less than 1 percent of students, but a fast-growing one. According to the National Education Policy Center, about 279,000 students enrolled in virtual schools in 2016, up from roughly 200,000 in 2012. Education experts have been concerned by the growth of virtual K-12 education, especially virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has touted virtual charter schooling as a particularly ripe area for expansion, emphasizing its flexibility and potential to offer courses that a student’s traditional school might not have. But, in practice, virtual schools, especially charters, have tended to deliver significantly lower academic results than brick-and-mortar ones. “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” wrote the authors of a 2015 report from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

While some teachers gravitate to virtual charters because of the flexibility it offers, salaries can be low, and class sizes are, on average, much larger than in brick-and-mortar charter schools or traditional public schools. (Though virtual teachers don’t have to manage physical classrooms, large class sizes still equate to a heavier workload.) The overwhelming majority of virtual teachers are not unionized. But in 2014, educators at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), California’s largest network of online charter schools with more than 10,000 students and about 450 teachers, decided to create a union, California Virtual Educators United, under the umbrella of the California Teachers Association. After two years of legal battles, CAVA recognized the teachers’ union, and starting in September 2016, the parties began negotiating their first contract over salaries, class sizes, and other issues.

The negotiations represent an important test case of how educators might wield power in a future where online education becomes even more common. According to Brianna Carroll, a high-school social-science teacher in Livermore, California, and president of the teachers’ union, bargaining had been slow-going, especially in recent weeks, when negotiators hit an impasse over class size. Educators said the number of students under their supervision had spiraled out of control, with some teachers stuck overseeing virtual classrooms exceeding forty students, and demanded class sizes be capped. “Either you have teachers who are burning themselves out because they’re trying to meet the needs of everyone, or you aren’t meeting the needs of everyone,” Carroll told me. “It’s really one or the other.”

April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, declined to comment on many details of the negotiations. “CAVA is dedicated to working together with CVEU to reach a fair and equitable settlement so that we may continue to build upon CAVA’s unique and special achievements in support of the students and families across California,” she told me in an email.

While virtual schools across the country face some of the same struggles roiling traditional public schools, namely decreased state funding per pupil even after local economies have rebounded since the recession, virtual teachers also have to reckon with a newer threat: the involvement of for-profit companies that seek to deliver profits to their investors. CAVA, for instance, is a nonprofit network, but its operations are deeply intertwined with K12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia. K12, founded in 2000 by William Bennett, the education secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Packard, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charters. The company, according to Education Week, has built a powerful lobbying operation in more than 20 states.

While CAVA describes its schools as independent, Jessica Calefati of San Jose’s The Mercury News, who investigated the arrangement back in 2016, found tax records showing that K12 employees themselves had established more than a dozen online schools in California. CAVA contracts with K12 for all sorts of services: The company provides the schools’ curricula, oversees their budgets, trains teachers, offers technical assistance, and even handles media communications. Calefati wrote, “Accountants and financial analysts interviewed by this newspaper, including several who specialize in school finance, say they’ve never seen anything quite like the arrangement between K12 and the public online academies.” (A CAVA official called The Mercury News investigation a “gross mischaracterization” of the organization’s work.)

CAVA teachers say they organized a union in part to push back on K12’s corporate influence over their schools. “For so long it’s been focused on how to use this charter-school concept to turn a dollar, rather than how to use online tools to support more students,” said Carroll, the union president. “We’re really using the union to push CAVA to have different goals.”

The virtual charter network might benefit from some new goals. In 2016, then-state Attorney General Kamala Harris alleged that K12 and CAVA had used false advertising and inflated their student-attendance numbers to collect extra state funds. Harris also alleged that K12 had trapped the network in debt by saddling cava with an unfair contract. CAVA and K12 agreed that year to settle with the state for $168.5 million. K12 emphasized it had admitted no wrongdoing, and said the attorney general “grossly mischaracterized the value of the settlement just as it did with regard to the issues it investigated.” In an email to The Atlantic, the K12 spokesperson Michael Kraft disputed the AG’s characterization of the schools as indebted. Also in 2016, The Mercury News reported that fewer than half of  CAVA’s high-schoolers earned diplomas, and almost none were qualified to attend the state’s public universities. (K12 disputes this, noting the state does not always have reliable data for nontraditional schools with higher student mobility rates.) CAVA was also hit with a nearly $2 million fine in 2017 after California’s Department of Education found continued issues with attendance reporting and other practices. (CAVA disputed this, releasing a statement that CAVA schools “demonstrated they were consistently operating in full compliance with all state laws and regulations” and planned to appeal the financial penalty.)

Last fall, faced with a stalemate with CAVA over salaries, workday length, and class size, the teachers authorized a strike: More than 90 percent of the 450-member union voted to back their bargaining team if it called for walking off the job. Shortly after that, CAVA administrators tentatively agreed to some new concessions, according to copies of signed agreements provided by the union: a pay raise, a shorter work year, and fewer employment duties, among others.

Still, the fight around class size remained unresolved. CAVA teachers argued that class-size limits would improve academic quality. Carroll said the charter network maintained during negotiations that caps would hinder their needed flexibility. (CAVA declined to comment on its position on class sizes.) When they were still unable to reach an agreement, following a two-day fact-finding mediation last week, union leaders announced they were preparing for a first-of-its-kind strike. A virtual-charter strike would have meant that all online classes would be canceled, and teachers would meet in person to picket at locations such as the CAVA offices in Simi Valley. The strike was to be held in late April or early May.

But the day after the teachers’ strike announcement, April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, proposed a compromise resolution: Classrooms could be capped at about 30 students, according to a copy of the signed agreement provided by the union, and if a classroom were to exceed that threshold, the teacher would be compensated accordingly. The teachers agreed. “I think the strike played a huge role in helping us resolve this, because that’s what CAVA was constantly saying—‘well, we don’t want a strike,’” Carroll said. Warren declined to comment on the strike threat, but on Monday, she confirmed the parties had reached a tentative agreement and were “working on a timeline for full ratification.” A spokesman for K12 declined to comment.

Carroll says teachers at other virtual charter networks have been reaching out to her, intrigued by her and her colleagues’ union work. While the West Virginia and Oklahoma teacher strikes demonstrate how educators at traditional public schools can still assert formidable collective power, just 11 percent of charters in the United States are currently unionized, and among virtual charters, that number stands at 9 percent. There are several reasons for this: Most charter-school backers and funders take a relatively anti-union stance, asserting that unions will impede a school’s flexibility, and therefore its ability to deliver the best education possible for students. Unions have also been slow to organize charter-school teachers, long viewing them as scabs who threaten their livelihoods. Labor groups have softened their stance towards charter teachers in recent years, but tensions remain as unions continue to work politically to halt charter-school growth.

A successful contract negotiation for cava teachers, though, could help ignite similar efforts elsewhere. The anything-goes approach to virtual education has made it alluring to operators trying to cut costs or make a buck. But if their workers have any say in the matter, online charters’ freewheeling days may be numbered. That would be good not just for educators but for the students entrusted to them.

Will America’s Schools Ever Be Desegregated?

Originally published in Pacific Standard on December 5, 2017, co-authored with Will Stancil.
——

Only a few years ago, school desegregation was a topic confined to history books—a tumultuous chapter of the civil rights era, starting with Brown v. Board of Education and ending, ignominiously, with the backlash of white parents in the 1980s and ’90s. But over the past three years, thanks to the renewed efforts of advocates and researchers, a surprising resurgence has taken shape. Authors and activists are once again highlighting America’s failure to successfully integrate its schools as a root cause of educational inequality and a driving force behind the nation’s persistent racial divides.

As concerns over unresolved segregation have picked up steam, so too has recognition of the hard practical obstacles to educational integration. Is desegregation a feasible goal? Even some self-described integrationists voice skepticism—potentially slowing, or even derailing, momentum for integrated schools. History threatens to repeat itself, with frustrated advocates accepting segregation as inevitable and refocusing, as many did in the ’90s, only on providing better education in racially isolated environments. But this would be a mistake.

No obstacle to school desegregation is greater, or has been more frequently cited, than racially divided housing patterns. The basic issue is simple: Segregated neighborhoods tend to produce segregated schools. If most of a school district’s population is black or Hispanic, most of its schools probably will be too.

This relationship between school and housing segregation has long been the bugbear of integration efforts, though for slightly different reasons than today. During the 1970s, when courts across the country tried to dismantle segregated districts, education officials pointed to housing patterns as a reason they couldn’t be held legally responsible for the demographics of their schools. The Supreme Court agreed, in part. It called school segregation that arose out of living patterns “de facto segregation,” and argued that it represented private activity that shouldn’t be corrected by government action. The role of the courts, it said, was to eliminate the effects of officially sanctioned discrimination, not to engage in racial balancing for its own sake.

But recent work has helped expose the government’s pivotal (and heretofore frequently overlooked) role in the creation of housing segregation. In 2014, as part of an explosive Atlantic cover story, Ta-Nehisi Coates traced how the government redlined black neighborhoods and denied their inhabitants good mortgages, trapping residents in place. This year, Richard Rothstein followed up on Coates’ work with The Color of Law, a book that takes aim at the myth that racialized living patterns are the result of individual choices. Instead, he shows, they are mainly the product of government policies developed to maintain the racial character of neighborhoods.

With these developments have come a subtle shift: Where housing segregation was once cited as a legal defense excusing districts from the obligation to integrate, it is now raised as a practical obstacle that makes integration impossible. Skeptics say that, until cities address their legacy of discriminatory housing, little can be done to ameliorate school segregation. This argument was notably deployed last spring, when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio suggested his options were limited on school integration, given that “we cannot change the basic reality of housing” across the city.

Undoubtedly, segregated housing complicates school integration. But residential patterns can’t become a scapegoat for racially divided education either.

For decades, school districts have exploited arguments about housing to attack court-enforced desegregation plans. Critics still maintain that any form of proactive school integration will result in white flight, intensified housing segregation, and, ultimately, greater racial isolation in schools.

Experience shows, however, that segregated neighborhoods are not inherent barriers to integrated education. Following a 1996 state supreme court decision, the racially fragmented region of Hartford, Connecticut, established a school desegregation program by funding the creation of diverse magnet schools in Hartford and expanding an interdistrict choice program in the suburbs. Today nearly half of all Hartford public school students attend integrated schools, and parents are clamoring for more.

There is no secret method of school integration that works best. Magnet schools, careful boundary drawing, even the much-maligned practice of busing students to integrated schools instead of just the closest—all seem to work under the right conditions. New York City just announced it will be launching its first-ever district-wide integration plan, using “controlled choice“—a model used in cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Champaign, Illinois, that balances racial diversity with parental preference. Families rank their top school choices and the district assigns students to schools taking those considerations into account, but also considers the demographics of each school.

And, besides, neighborhood diversity alone will not always guarantee that schools integrate. In the absence of proactive desegregation plans, it isn’t unusual to find diverse communities served by segregated schools.

Consider the school districts surrounding Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several of the city’s major first-ring suburbs have experienced a rapid demographic transition over the past few decades as the region’s non-white population has quickly grown. Over 30 years, these cities—formerly monolithically white—have become highly diverse.

But change in the cities’ schools has outpaced change in their neighborhoods, and tipped into the realm of outright segregation. In 2010, for example, 50 percent of residents in the large suburb of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, were white, but only 26 percent of the students in its schools were white. In nearby Richfield, which is served by a citywide school district, the mismatch was even greater: The city was 63 percent white while its schools were 32 percent white.

Despite the diversity of the areas they serve, districts like Richfield’s and Brooklyn Park’s are caught in a trap: There’s little to prevent white parents, skittish about the effects of integration, from finding alternatives to their neighborhood school. In Minnesota, that means parents can always place their kids in a charter school, or move their child to a neighboring district under the state’s broad open enrollment rules.

There’s an essential lesson in the plight of these districts. Regardless of whether housing is integrated or otherwise, successful school desegregation requires a plan strong enough to discourage boundary trolling by parents. Indeed, the thing that unites the nation’s best school integration plans is a broad scope. Plans that extend across entire metropolitan regions can coordinate the activities of many different districts and prevent any area as acting as a haven for white flight.

There is no more compelling example of such a plan than Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville region implemented a city-county school desegregation plan following a court-order in the ’70s. Students still travel between the city proper and its suburbs to attend integrated schools with carefully drawn attendance boundaries. The system has maintained relative demographic balance for decades, even in the absence of quotas.

Of course, the road has been bumpy at times. Desegregation efforts in Louisville faced initial resistance. This is typical: Parents are deeply sensitive to changes in school policy, and adding race to the mix rarely calms things down. Very few cities, districts, or regions have attempted desegregation without some form of parental protest.

But what divides efforts that succeed from those that have failed often isn’t the presence or absence of resistance, but authorities’ patience in overcoming it. Popular dissent over desegregation, it turns out, doesn’t last forever. If changes look inevitable—and can’t be easily escaped by moving to the next town over or enrolling in a different school—parents generally come to accept them. This is what happened in Louisville: resistance gave way to acceptance and even vocal support. The district’s commitment to desegregation has survived multiple attempts to dismantle it—at the Supreme Court in 2006, and just this year in the state legislature. The plan’s resilience exists in large part because it has been embraced by the region’s parents and leaders, most of whom now believe that integration redounds to their benefit.

If anything, research suggests leaders aren’t worrying enough about effects in the other direction: Segregated schools creating segregated cities.

Last year, University of Southern California sociologist Ann Owens published a study examining census data from 100 major metropolitan areas across the United States. She found that large national increases in neighborhood segregation by income—20 percent from 1990 to 2010—were caused almost entirely by families with children, those seeking “good” school districts. Other studies have shown neighborhoods in cities with metropolitan-wide school integration plans are markedly less likely to become segregated over time. (Notably, Louisville’s rate of housing segregation fell more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

Not that the impact of schools on housing is any great mystery: Ask any real estate agent. It’s no coincidence that real estate services like Zillow or Redfin prominently feature metrics of school quality on their house listings—a legal gray area, since realtor discussion of neighborhood demographics is banned by the Fair Housing Act.

Even the Supreme Court’s desegregation cases, which often treated housing patterns as a fact of nature, conceded that the construction of segregated schools “may well promote segregated residential patterns which … further lock the school system into the mold of separation of the races.”

In other words, regions that wait for diversity in neighborhoods to create diversity in schools may quickly find themselves with little of either.

Life Lessons From A Charter School Founder

Originally published in The New Republic on November 9, 2017.
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Picking up a copy of The Education of Eva Moskowitz, you might expect a bildungsroman. You might expect to learn what really motivates the founder of Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter school network. What experiences formed her? What led to her conviction that public education demands radical change?

For over a decade, Moskowitz has led a well-publicized campaign to disrupt—or dismantle—public education. The first Success Academy charter school opened in 2006, with 165 kids in Harlem. Today the network operates 46 charters across the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, with 15,500 public school students, 93 percent of whom are black and Latino. Known for its “high expectations” and strict disciplinary practices, the academic outcomes of Success Academy students have indeed been remarkable. In 2017, among those eligible to take state standardized tests, 95 percent scored proficiently in math, and 84 percent scored proficiently in language arts. The comparable figures for New York City Public Schools were 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Success Academy has earned a mythic reputation in the nation’s education reform movement. It’s proof, reformers say, that low-income, minority children can perform just as well as white, affluent, suburban kids. “Success Academy’s closest peers are the state’s richest school districts like Jericho, Syosset and Scarsdale,” their website proclaims. Critics, in turn, say that Success Academy’s academic outcomes need to be regarded skeptically: The network’s “high expectations” can prevent certain students from enrolling and can push out weaker students who have enrolled. Success Academy schools also have high suspension rates, and, when children leave, they have refused to backfill open seats. All of this, critics say, can help build a test-taking population that may be less representative than the network purports.

By 2024, Moskowitz aims to operate 100 such schools. Not only has the network’s expansion been inextricably bound up in Moskowitz’s rising profile, but her hard-driving style has become emblematic of the city’s—and the nation’s—school reform movement. What shaped this vision?

Moskowitz’s memoir certainly includes some biographical details—we learn about her grandparents and parents, how she fell in love with her husband, her struggles initially to conceive (she’s now the mother of three children). We learn where Moskowitz went to school, her brief stints in academia and documentary filmmaking, her six years on the New York city council. But these personal asides, which seem largely calculated for humanizing effect, don’t shed much light on Moskowitz’s ideas or goals. Because while Moskowitz evidently set out to tell a personal story, the book quickly and primarily becomes a vehicle for its author to relitigate battles with her enemies—namely teacher unions, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the media.


Moskowitz has, she claims, never gotten a fair hearing in the press. “Rule number one of journalism,” she says, “is that trying to get in between a journalist and a story he wants to tell is like trying to stop a herd of stampeding cattle.” From the start to end of her book, she attacks the media, describing reporters as irresponsible, unprofessional, and out of control. She calls out individual journalists, such as John Merrow—PBS’s education correspondent for over four decades—and Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News. The hostility in her critiques is sometimes startling, but what’s really notable is how Moskowitz swings between insults and praise, sometimes in the same paragraph. At one point, she calls Gonzalez “monomaniacal,” and “smart and industrious,” before lamenting a “sad waste of his talents” all in the space of four sentences.

Do most journalists lie? Not exactly, she admits—but they leave out critical context, and spin facts into preconceived, negative narratives. Moskowitz thinks that the New York Times’s education reporter, Kate Taylor, and her editors—Amy Virshup and Wendell Jamieson—publish critical stories about Success Academy “because they just [don’t] understand the need for it given their backgrounds.” Moskowitz suggests the Times writers may have blind spots, given their prestigious educational credentials. (Moskowitz doesn’t explain how she—a graduate of New York City’s most selective public high school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University—has overcome the same blindspots herself.)

Moskowitz comes across most sympathetic when describing how upsetting it feels to be misrepresented. She thinks she is “relentlessly vilified” by the press and her political foes. A New York Times article from 2004 outlined her “aggressive, confrontational style” and said her “ambitions exceed her political skills.” In a 2005 editorial, the Times described her as a “smart and driven … expert on education issues” but noted that her “abrasive” attitude made her ill-suited for the political seat she was campaigning for. The gendered overtones of the headlines are clear enough. “Some believed I favored conflict because it would advance my political career,” she writes, in reference to her Success Academy notoriety. “My detractors claimed that my every action was in service of a Machiavellian plot to become mayor.”

However, Moskowitz doesn’t hold back from relentlessly vilifying her own political opponents—which are many. She paints New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a duplicitous operator, who helps unions mainly to advance his own career. She suggests the NAACP battles with her schools because it receives teacher union money and has many unionized teacher members. Moskowitz even describes American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as “aggressive,” echoing the criticisms that, when lobbed at her, she found unfair.

And for all the education reform rhetoric around trusting and empowering families, Moskowitz depicts parents who protest her plans as having been “shamelessly exploited” and “manipulated” by teacher unions and union-backed groups. (“I think parents are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” she said in an interview about school choice earlier this year.) Moskowitz struggles even to offer compliments without punching at the opposition. “She wasn’t a big fan of charter schools,” she writes of the New York assembly’s education committee chair. “But, unlike some of our opponents, she had common sense and a good heart.”


And yet there’s a distinct sense throughout the book that these are yesterday’s battles. Reading the memoir, one gets the impression that its author longs for the heyday of Obama’s early presidency, when more Democratic politicians tiptoed around Wall Street investors, when Joel Klein ran New York City’s education department, when Waiting for Superman was making a splash.

Moskowitz’s treatment of economic disparities is illustrative. In her memoir she urges the public to approach the income inequality issue “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection”—a warning to not bite the hand that feeds you, lest Wall Street titans decide to pick up and leave New York. She scolds Bill de Blasio’s “class-warfare rhetoric” as “imprudent and dangerous.”

When it comes to education, she defends her school’s regular use of suspensions—saying they’re equivalent to home time-outs, and help foster safety, community values, and norms. This perspective, too, has fallen out of fashion in recent years. Other statescities, and even some charter networks have worked to reduce reliance on exclusionary school discipline, policies which disproportionately impact poor, black, and Latino students. Moskowitz also dismisses the idea that governments need to spend more on public education, saying “it’s not even clear it would help anyway.” (There’s strong evidence that it does.) Indeed, the biggest barrier to educational success, she tells readers over and over, is not our president, or racial segregation, or the inequitable distribution of resources. No, for Moskowitz the cause has been long clear: It’s teacher unions and their stifling contracts.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Eva Moskowitz does not think very highly of most teachers. Overhauling work rules and job protections for school employees, Moskowitz stresses, is the most critical factor needed to foster academic excellence. She chastises educators for their low expectations and low effort in the classroom. “Most teachers in America could dramatically improve their teaching if they just made every second count,” she writes. She dismisses criticisms that her staff is overworked, even though her own employees responded to a Success Academy-commissioned survey by saying they lacked work-life balance. “[N]obody at Success worked as hard as big-firm lawyers or investment bankers,” Moskowitz asserts. Teaching in her schools, she admits, “wasn’t a nine-to-five,” but she argues “we were seeking to revolutionize urban education and revolutions don’t lend themselves to forty-hour workweeks.” (Leaked documents from Success Academy’s leadership reveal that other senior officials have felt deeply stressed about the network’s high staff turnover, and ambivalent about their CEO’s rapid expansion plans.)

Though charter teachers around the country have started organizing unions for a greater say over their working conditions, Eva Moskowitz does not hide her animus towards the idea. She makes clear that if an educator objects to Success Academy’s pedagogical style, it’s time for them to find a new place to work. “No matter how good a teacher is, if that teacher won’t play as part of the team, you’re better off without her,” she writes.

This “my way or the highway” attitude isn’t reserved exclusively for teachers, either. “Parents who don’t like Success should find a school they do like,” she says. “For someone to enroll their child at Success and insist we change our model is like a person walking into a pizzeria and demanding sushi. If you want sushi, go to a sushi restaurant!” But the analogy doesn’t work. Public schools are democratic institutions where community input is supposed to be valued. Moreover, the whole idea behind the school choice movement is that low-income parents lack quality school options. If they don’t like their local charter, where, exactly, should they turn? It’s a particularly worrying stance since Moskowitz doesn’t treat Success Academy as a bespoke option for a handful of children, but rather sees such schools as the future of urban education.


The last twelve months have proved especially challenging for Moskowitz. Following the 2016 presidential election, she emerged as a prominent ally of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos. Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors have also included Trump donors like John Paulson and Robert Mercer. Moskowitz’s refusal to condemn the administration—even as other education reform leaders were speaking out in protest—cost her greatly within the school reform movement. By August, the president of Democrats for Education Reform—a vocal Trump critic—had resigned from Success Academy’s board. Success’s board chair, billionaire investor Daniel Loeb, was also quoted that month saying that a black state senator who supported teacher unions had “done more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood.” The timing couldn’t have been worse: Loeb’s comments surfaced just days before the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

After Charlottesville, Moskowitz finally took steps to distance herself from the president. She also publicly criticized Daniel Loeb’s remarks, though defended his right to remain as board chair. That same month Education Next, an education policy journal, released its eleventh annual public opinion poll, finding a dramatic 12-percentage-point drop in support for charter schools between spring 2016 and spring 2017. Support among black and Hispanic respondents also fell 9 and 5 percentage points, respectively. A week later Gallup reported diminishing enthusiasm for charters among Democrats, at 48 percent, down from 61 percent five years earlier.

All this chaos notwithstanding, President Trump, Betsy DeVos and the charter movement’s wavering public support are not subjects explored in The Education of Eva Moskowitz. And in the end, that’s Eva Moskowitz as she wants to be seen: as the center of a story that’s about her victories, and her enemies. When she’s the sole author of that story she can render her cause uncomplicated and unimpeachable. Out in the real world, things are looking more complicated all the time.

The Rift Among Charter Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 20, 2017.
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I
t’s a surprisingly challenging moment for the charter school movement. In August, Education Next—an education policy journal published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford—released its 11th annual public opinion poll examining Americans’ views on K-12 education. They reported a stunning 12-percentage-point drop in support for charters from spring 2016 to spring 2017—from 51 percent to 39 percent. African-American support fell from 46 percent to 37 percent, and Hispanic support fell from 44 percent to 39 percent.

A Gallup survey released a week later found growing partisan divides on charters, with Democratic support standing at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support, by contrast, has remained steady over the five years at 62 percent. While Gallup’s senior editor, Lydia Saad, suggested that Democratic support may have declined because chartering has become more closely tied to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, the Education Next staff said they found little evidence of a “Trump effect” because in their survey, support from both parties fell.

“If the decline in support were related to Trump’s support of the concept, I would have expected it to occur primarily among Democrats, and that’s not what we see,” Martin West, Education Next’s editor-in-chief told Education Week. “I would also expect there to be similar changes in opinion about other policies that the president has embraced, especially other school choice policies, which is not what we see.”

How much stock should charter advocates (and politicians) put in one or two national surveys? Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, published a provocative essay this month entitled, “The charter-schools movement needs to stop alienating Republicans.” Citing the new Education Next results, Petrilli argues that charter advocates should focus on regaining GOP support, and suggests doing so by tamping down social justice rhetoric (such as closing achievement gaps and alleviating systemic inequalities), by emphasizing parental choice and personal freedom (i.e., that charters liberate families from their government-assigned schools), and by touting that most charters are non-union. “If we charter advocates want to maintain conservative and Republican support for these life-changing schools, we need to remember who our friends are—and help them remember why they liked us in the first place,” he writes.

Others have looked at wavering public support and pointed to for-profit charters as a model that may be hurting the reputation of the broader movement. “I would distinguish between the role that high-performing public charters can play in a strong public education system as opposed to vouchers and for-profit charters,” John King, the former secretary of education under Obama told Chalkbeat this past summerOthers have suggested that virtual charters—known for producing notably low academic outcomes—could be hurting public opinion. “It’s not fair to the charter school community to have these [test score] anomalies in the mix,” Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told The 74. “In a lot of states the performance of the virtual charter schools are considered outliers when you compare them to the average brick and mortar school.”

And now, in a surprising new development, so-called “independent charters”—freestanding schools not run by networked chains— have also begun to organize collectively. They’re saying their interests and reputations can suffer when they’re lumped in with the rest of the charter movement.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 60 percent of the nation’s charters are independent, down from 69 percent in 2011. Well-known nonprofit charter management organizations (CMOs)—which make up 24 percent of the sector—include Success Academy, KIPP, and Achievement First. For-profit networks (called education management organizations, or EMOs) make up the rest, and include networks such as K12 Inc. and Academica.

Despite comprising more than half of all charters, independent charter schools rarely dominate the press narratives, and seldom attract the same level of enthusiasm from philanthropists and advocacy groups. Independent charter supporters say it’s because their schools aren’t focused on growth, scale, and replication—priorities among mainstream education reformers.

Last week, leaders of independent charter schools gathered together in New York City for the first-ever Independent Charter School Symposium. Amy Shore, of the Center for Educational Innovation, which co-sponsored the conference, emphasized that her group is not anti-CMO, but wants to focus on helping “the mom-and-pop store survive next to Walmart.” Part of the challenge, she explains, is advancing a different idea about what constitutes meaningful reform. “I’d say a lot of the big foundations are looking at how to achieve scale,” she says. “There’s an argument that if it cannot expand, then why would we invest money in it?” But Shore stresses that “there’s a whole other theory of social change” that says if a majority of charters are independent, and there are all kinds of different flowers growing, “why are we trying to make them all roses?”

Steve Zimmerman, founder of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization representing New York City’s independent charters and the conference’s other co-sponsor, says he started his group in response to what he saw as too much focus on standardized testing—a trend he believes stifles innovation, collaboration, and charters’ original promise.

Zimmerman says a turning point for independent charters came with the election of Donald Trump. “Some things became more clear for us, and one of them was that we saw too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration,” he says.

At the conference, held at a hotel in Queens late last week, attendees discussed forming their own national organization of independent charters, to advocate for their interests and challenge the prevailing narrative around education reform. When this group would launch, and what it would actually look like, is not entirely clear. As Zimmerman admits, they’d face an uphill battle for funding, as the major financial backers of the movement prefer supporting charter networks that can grow. “They want to see replication, they want to see leverage,” he says. “We understand that the likelihood is that we will never, ever get money from those guys because we do not represent scale. We represent the kinds of schools that people want to send their kids to.”

As an example, Zimmerman points to Sidwell Friends, the renowned private school in Washington, D.C., that boasts such alumni as Malia Obama and Chelsea Clinton. “We want our schools to be like where the Obamas sent their kids to,” he says. “There is no Sidwell Friends 2, Sidwell Friends 3. They don’t do that. You grow a great school culture, one at a time, and it takes years.”

This year Florida legislators passed a controversial omnibus bill—HB 7069—which revamps many aspects of chartering across the state. One of its most significant provisions involved making it easier for national CMOs to enter communities with low-performing traditional public schools.

At the Independent Charter School Symposium, Christopher Norwood, founder of the Florida Association of Independent Schools—which represents freestanding charters, not CMOs or EMOs—explained how the legislative debates around HB 7069 highlighted problems independent charters face in his state. While Norwood estimates that 80 percent of what his group supports aligns with the Florida Charter School Alliance—the state’s dominant charter advocacy organization—he believes “it’s that 20 percent” that will make or break independent charters. “The way [HB 7069] was written, it was written for outside companies to come in,” he says. “If we had more power in that decision-making, we would not have wanted that to happen.”

Norwood and Zimmerman anticipate pushback to their efforts to form their own organization, but say they have little choice but to push forward.

“The National Alliance truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools…but the truth is they can’t really represent interests of independent charters because their funders really believe in the network model,” Zimmerman says.

Nonetheless, in a statement provided to The American Prospect, Vanessa Descalzi, a spokesperson for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says that the organizers of the Independent Charter Schools Symposium have their full support. “The National Alliance represents all public charter schools—including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites—and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she says. The new group of independent schools “will be a welcomed voice” in the charter movement, she says, while adding that “advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA.”

Ultimately, leaders of independent charters are trying to figure out how to save, or redefine, the brand of the charter school movement, much as Michael Petrilli is when he talks about winning back GOP support, or John King is when he tries to distance the movement from for-profit networks.

In Norwood and Zimmerman’s eyes, extricating independent charters from what they describe as “corporate aspects” of the movement could help restore progressive support for charter schooling. The networked chains and their advocates “win battles but they’re losing the war—if the war is hearts and minds of people, and the war of ideas,” says Zimmerman. Though he acknowledges independent charters align with CMOs on many issues, and cites equitable funding as an example, he says for now that independent charters have to carve out their own space, and create their own national voice.

Norwood expects CMO leaders to push back on their efforts to organize independently. “If you take away independently operated charter schools from a certain organization [like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools], what are they left with?” he asks. “Now they’re exposed. Now they’re all management companies. Now they can’t hide behind [us].”