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.”

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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.
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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].”

Authorities Close in on Pro-Charter School Nonprofit for Illicit Campaign Contributions

Originally published in The Intercept on September 19, 2017

A NEW YORK-BASED education reform nonprofit funneled nearly $2.5 million to a related group in Massachusetts, according to new disclosuresunearthed as part of a legal settlement.

The Massachusetts operation, called Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, a pro-charter group, was hit with a record $426,500 fine for failing to disclose its donors related to a 2016 Massachusetts ballot campaign — a race that became the most expensive ballot measure in state history.

FESA is a 501(c)(4) offshoot of the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, a 501(c)(3). That connection raises the stakes for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has jurisdiction over Families for Excellent Schools in New York and has made clean campaigns a centerpiece of his agenda.

In exchange for their tax-exempt status, federal law bars 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political activity, and some are calling on Schneiderman to investigate why Families for Excellent Schools made a multimillion-dollar contribution, now that the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance has acted.

“This group spent $2.5 million on a Massachusetts ballot initiative. That is a screaming siren, a flashing red light,” says Michael Kink, executive director of the union-backed Strong Economy For All Coalition in New York.“I think it’s something the AG absolutely should look into. A number of other groups are aware of this potential violation, and we’re talking to each other. A substantive investigation is clearly needed.”

A spokesperson for Schneiderman’s office declined The Intercept’s request for comment.

“I’d be willing to bet my serious money that Mr. Schneiderman will look into this,” says Marcus Owens, the former director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations division from 1990 to 2000. “He’s an aggressive attorney general when it comes to charity money.” Earlier this summer, Schneiderman’s office announced it would be looking into the financial practices of Eric Trump’s charitable foundation.

On November 8, 2016, when Massachusetts voters went to the polls, the most hotly contested vote was not the presidential one (Hillary Clinton’s victory there was all but assured). The real political battle for Bay State voters was a ballot initiative known as “Question 2,” which proposed lifting the state’s charter school cap.

It was easily the most expensive ballot measure in Massachusetts history, with more than $40 million raised by both sides. Teachers unions provided nearly all the money to fight the measure, while Boston’s business community and out-of-state donors gave most of the money in support. In the end, the measure came nowhere close to passing, with cities all over Massachusetts, including Boston, voting against it.

The $426,500 penalty — which was the amount of cash FESA and Families for Excellent Schools had on hand as of August 21 — represents the largest civil forfeiture negotiated by the OCPF in the agency’s 44-year history. The OCPF charged that FESA violated state campaign finance laws by receiving individual contributions and then funneling those funds to Great Schools Massachusetts, a ballot committee that supported Question 2. Ballot committees are required to disclose their donors, but with FESA acting as an intermediary, individuals could shield their names and contributions.

“A review of bank records showed that FESA’s transfers to the ballot question committee closely followed FESA’s receipts from individuals,” the OCPF said in a press release. “Additionally, the money received by FESA significantly increased during the four months before the Nov. 8 election, and then dropped significantly afterward, further suggesting that FESA solicited or received contributions with the intent to give the money to the ballot question committee.”

As part of the settlement, in addition to the fine, FESA agreed to disclose its donors, to dissolve as a 501(c)(4), and for Families for Excellent Schools to avoid fundraising and participating in any election-related Massachusetts activity for the next four years.

“OCPF is a real beacon to the state. What they did was heroic,” says Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who tracked dark money during the 2016 election. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen in many places.”

Adam Smith, communications director for Every Voice, a campaign finance group, says the new Massachusetts OCPF settlement really points to the importance of state elections enforcement agencies having teeth. “With so much shady money sloshing around politics these days, it’s critical that watchdogs have what they need to defend election and campaign finance laws and hold violators accountable,” he says. “Nobody ever expects the FEC (Federal Election Commission) to do anything, and you don’t want that same expectation at the state-level.”

FESA gave $15 million to the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee. According to their recent donor disclosures, most came from wealthy Boston individuals — notably Seth Klarman, a billionaire hedge fund investor who contributed $3.3 million; co-chair of Bain Capital Josh Bekenstein and his wife Anita, who together gave $2.5 million; and Jonathon Jacobson, CEO and managing director of the Highfields Capital Management hedge fund, who gave $2 million. Other large donations came from Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who gave $750,000, and Paul Sagan, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, who gave $496,000.

While it was long suspected that these wealthy individuals provided most of the money behind efforts to lift the charter school cap, the $2.5 million donation from Families for Excellent Schools was a genuine surprise.

In the OCPF legal settlement, FESA and Families for Excellent Schools denied all “wrongdoing, fault, or liability” under Massachusetts state law. Families for Excellent Schools did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment.

To bolster their case that Schneiderman should pursue an investigation, activists point to one that former Attorney General Kamala Harris launched to unmask secret donations that poured into California’s 2012 election. In 2013, after Harris’s investigation concluded, California levied a record $16 million penalty on groups linked to the Koch brothers that had secretly funneled money to two California ballot initiatives. The improperly disclosed funds went toward fighting Proposition 30, which would have hiked taxes on the wealthy to fund schools, and Proposition 32, which would have limited unions’ political power. Though California’s campaign finance laws prevented the groups from revealing their donors, some names were unearthed, among them Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, a prominent education reform backer. Broad had donated $1 million to a Virginia-based group, that then transferred funds to an Arizona-based nonprofit, which then transferred money to a California political committee working to oppose the tax hike. Broad had said publicly that he supported the tax increase.

How and whether the four-year ban on Families for Excellent Schools will affect education reform politics in Massachusetts remains to be seen. Liam Kerr, the Massachusetts state director for Democrats for Education Reform, had no comment on the OCPF settlement or its implications for the group’s work.

In February, following the 2016 election, a new education group called Massachusetts Parents United launched, which claims to be “the independent voice of parents in the Commonwealth.”

Keri Rodriguez Lorenzo, who founded the group, served as the former Massachusetts state director for Families for Excellent Schools, and also serves as an advisory board member for DFER Massachusetts. Massachusetts Parents United receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Longfield Family Foundation, both known for supporting education reform efforts.

“To some extent, the [Families for Excellent Schools] suspension could be whack-a-mole — they can form new groups,” says Cunningham, the political science professor. “But what’s going to chill anyone in Massachusetts is that the OCPF has shown it will be very aggressive in following the law.”

A Charter Union Case Heads to Federal Court

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 5, 2017.
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In May 2016, teachers at International High School (IHS)—a charter school in New Orleans—voted 26-18 in favor of forming a union. Yet more than a year later, school administrators are still refusing to bargain, insisting that the teachers do not fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. (There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana.) In February 2017, the NLRB voted 2-1 against IHS’s challenge, concluding that the teachers are indeed private workers under their purview rather than public employees.

Yet IHS, still refusing to bargain, is now taking its case to the Fifth Circuit—the first time a federal appellate court will rule on such a challenge. The outcome of this suit could affect labor law for charter teachers not only at IHS, but throughout all the Fifth Circuit states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Last summer the NLRB issued two decisions concluding that charter school teachers are private employees. In both cases, the NLRB ruled that charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB found that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, since governments provide the funds but do not create or control the schools.

These two decisions were important because they helped clarify whether charter school teachers fall under the legal jurisdiction of their state’s labor boards (which only exist in those states that have enacted laws granting public employees collective bargaining rights) or the NLRB. Charter operators have been known to challenge efforts to unionize under either jurisdiction, depending on which board their staff petitioned for the right to unionize.

To make its determination, the NLRB relied on NLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, a 1971 Supreme Court case where the justices found Hawkins County to be “political subdivision”—and therefore public—by looking to see if it was created directly by the state, or administered by individuals responsible to public officials or the general electorate. Applying this “Hawkins test” to charter schools, the NLRB concluded in 2016 that the publicly-funded privately managed schools do not qualify as political subdivisions.

But IHS (represented in court as Voices for International Business and Education, Incorporated) argues that the NLRB’s previous charter school rulings are not applicable to them, citing specific characteristics of Louisiana’s charter school law, and the unique reality that nearly all public schools in New Orleans are charters.

In court filings, IHS says it should be considered a political subdivision under the “Hawkins test” because their charter school is closely regulated by Louisiana, and has a board of directors that can be removed by state officials. Moreover, IHS says that since the overwhelming majority of public school students attend charters, this demonstrates that “[IHS] is a public school functioning as a political subdivision of Louisiana” since the state is obligated to provide public education.

IHS also makes a few arguments beyond the Hawkins test, such as saying that exempting the school from the NLRB’s jurisdiction “honors congressional purpose” because it would ensure that “vital public services like education are not disrupted by labor disputes.”

Although IHS is focusing specifically on its own school within the context of New Orleans, charter operators throughout the Fifth District have also weighed in to support IHS’s case. The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Texas Charter Schools Association filed an amici curiae urging the federal court to find all public charter schools in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. According to the legal brief, Louisiana has 146 charter schools, enrolling 84,000 students, Texas has 761 charter schools, serving 315,000 students, and Mississippi has three charter schools, enrolling 400 students.

But which side of the public-or-private controversy charter schools come down on seems to vary with political geography. While in the IHS case, the state charter associations insist that all charter schools should be considered political subdivisions (and therefore public) under the “Hawkins test,” when charter teachers at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy filed for union representation with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board in 2010, the school responded by saying its teachers fell under the purview of the NLRB, because their charter was a privately incorporated nonprofit, governed by a corporate board. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the most prominent national charter advocacy organization, filed an amicus brief in support of CSMA’s position, arguing that “charter schools are intended to be and usually are run by corporate entities that are administered independently from the state and local governments in which they operate.”

The difference, of course, is that in Illinois, a state where public employees have collective bargaining rights, charter teachers will more likely be able to win unionization campaigns as public employees. In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, where most public employees have no such rights, a court ruling that the teachers are public employees and not under the jurisdiction of the NLRB will mean that management is under no legal obligation to enter into bargaining with them.

The National Alliance for Public Charter schools did not return The American Prospect’s request for comment on the IHS case and how it relates to the Alliance’s CSMA brief.

IF IHS’S ARGUMENTS SUCCEED in court, there are a number of different ways the Fifth Circuit could rule. At its narrowest, the appellate court could say that this particular charter school does not fall under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Going a bit further, the court may instead say that the NLRB does not apply to this type of charter school; Louisiana has five different categories of charters, and IHS is designated a “Type 2” school. The Fifth Circuit could go even broader, ruling that no charter school in the state of Louisiana falls under the NLRB’s purview. Or at its most broad, the appellate court could rule that no charter in the entire Fifth Circuit (Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) falls under the NLRB’s jurisdiction, which is what the state-level charter groups are pushing for.

When courts have overturned an NLRB ruling, they have generally tended to tailor their decision narrowly. Still, the Fifth Circuit is hardly a left-leaning court, so it’s hard to predict how the judges might rule.

Legal battles aside, many of the teachers who voted for the union in May 2016 no longer work at IHS, citing harassment and intimidation they experienced during the subsequent school year.

One teacher, Chvonne Simmons, left IHS at the end of May, after teaching science there for four years. “I was not offered a contract to return, and it blew me away because the year before I was the science department chair,” she says. Simmons felt the 2016-17 academic year was very hostile, and she believes that union-supportive teachers were singled out for punishment. “In all my years of teaching and my years at IHS I had never been written up, and all of a sudden I was getting in trouble,” she says.

Another pro-union teacher, Jennifer Boyce, left IHS on her own last month, saying she had felt targeted, and ostracized. “After voting ‘yes’ for the union I was written up three times, after having taught for 13 years and never receiving a corrective action,” she told me.

There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana, but collective bargaining is still legal (unlike in other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina). Some public school teachers in Louisiana—such as in St. Tammany Parish and Jefferson Parrish—have negotiated contracts, but that’s because there were union-friendly school boards willing to do so. There is nothing in state law that can compel a Louisiana school board to bargain if it doesn’t want to.

So in some ways, charter school teachers in Louisiana actually have more legal protections right now than traditional public school teachers, since falling under the NLRB’s purview means the federal labor board can compel schools to bargain with unions. If IHS wins its court, charter teachers at that school, and perhaps across the state, would still be allowed to bargain contracts, but would no longer have the federal labor board’s help in compelling their employer to do so. In other words, it gets a lot harder.

A representative from International High School told The American Prospect they do not have any comment, as the court case is open.

“On the surface, this case is about an arcane question of federal agency jurisdiction; in reality, it is about union busting, plain and simple,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and I am hopeful that the court sees through the administration’s bullying and acknowledges the educators’ right to bargain a fair and flexible contract, just as their peers have done at hundreds of other charter schools in New Orleans and around the country.”

It will be several months before the Fifth Circuit issues its decision.