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.”

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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.

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.

Don’t Trust Jeff Bezos’s Preschool Philanthropy Scheme

Originally published in In These Times on September 19, 2018.
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The CEO of Amazon and the world’s richest man declared this month that he’ll be wading into the waters of philanthropy. In a high-profile announcement, Jeff Bezos described his vision for a “Day One Fund”—a $2 billion investment in organizations that provide homelessness assistance, and a new network of nonprofit preschools in low-income communities. This charitable gift will amount to just 1.2 percent of his net worth.

Bezos joins fellow tech billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Reed Hastings in championing corporate-style reform of American education. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos said of his future preschool chain. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

Preschool is a particularly appealing area for those who like conceptualizing problems in terms of market potential. Several years ago, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate reported that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education yields savings “from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead.” University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman published research in 2009 finding high-quality preschool can yield a 7-to-10 percent annual return.

Preschool is also one of the most popular target-areas for champions of “Pay for Success”—a branch of so-called impact investing which took off under the Obama administration. Under Pay for Success, private funders front money for social programs, and the government pays the investors back with interest if certain predetermined goals are met. Chicago launched a Pay for Success preschool program in 2014, funded by Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation. These private groups aim to roughly double their investment over the next 18 years.

It’s not clear at this point how Bezos’s Day One Fund will be structured; whether it will be a traditional family foundation like the Gates Foundation, some sort of limited-liability company like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, or perhaps one of the increasingly controversial “donor-advised funds” that other tech titans have embraced. CNBC reports that between thirty to fifty percent of Bezos’s gift could be tax-deductible.

It’s also not clear why exactly he chose this month to announce his plans, but it’s possible that Bezos is trying to improve his image, which has taken a public beating over the past year. This past June, the Seattle City Council rolled back its so-called “Amazon tax” which councilmembers had passed unanimously four weeks earlier. The tax, meant to generate new revenue to address the region’s growing homeless crisis, would have required Amazon to pay about $12 million per year in new taxes. The company helped fund an aggressive, unpopular, and ultimately successful campaign to repeal it.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has also been targeting Bezos, specifically on the gulf between the CEO’s ever-increasing wealth and the low-wages of Amazon’s many thousands of employees, who rely on all sorts of government aid to supplement their income. This month, just days before Bezos made his philanthropic announcement, Sen. Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna introduced new federal legislation to force large companies to help shoulder the cost of social services for low-paid staff. More than anything, though, the bill is understood as a vehicle to spotlight the issue of inequality between rich owners and their workers. It’s unsubtly named the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, or “Stop BEZOS” for short.

While he’s offered little detail as to how he’d treat the educators in his forthcoming preschool network, Bezos’s other businesses offer some hints. The median compensation of Amazon’s more than 566,000 global employees at the end of 2017 was $28,446. Thousands of Amazon workers in Europe launched a strike this past summer to protest their working conditions, following an exposé of a journalist who had toiled undercover at an Amazon warehouse. Workers in Minnesota also demanded safer Amazon conditions this past summer, alleging dehydration, injuries and exhaustion on the job. A spokesperson for the company dismissed the employees’ complaints, calling theirs a “positive and accommodating” workplace.

The national median income for preschool teachers in 2016 was $28,570. While a growing number of education policy experts have called for increasing salaries as a way to attract and retain better teaching talent, there’s no guarantee that Bezos’s “customer” focused-model will prioritize competitive wages.

And to put Bezos’s gift in perspective, Head Start, the federal government’s high-quality early-childhood education program which serves nearly one million low-income children every year, runs on a strained budget of more than $9 billion annually. Bezos’s Day One Fund, meanwhile, is $2 billion, to be divided amongst both pre-K and homelessness.

Let’s be clear about the scale of the problem. In 2016, just 42 percent of 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in preschool programs, and these figures were not measurably different from the percentages enrolled in 2000. Demand for early childhood education far exceeds existing capacity in this country, and the cost to change that will require significantly more than what Bezos has so far offered to contribute.

The world’s richest man may sincerely view his new philanthropic project as a way to positively impact the world, but what we know is that Bezos has built up his company and personal fortune by aggressively avoiding taxes for years. In 2017 alone, Amazon paid literally nothing in federal income tax, while reporting $5.6 billion in U.S. profits.

Instead of creating his own new private network, which might run in direct competition with Head Start and other existing state programs, Bezos could help the government expand its proven models: A combination of higher taxes and philanthropy could help early childhood educators cover the cost of school supplies, help program providers extend their school days, construct and refurbish school buildings, supplement teacher salaries, and improve teacher training programs. There are even Montessori-inspired Head Start programs, the progressive pedagogical model Bezos seems most interested in expanding on his own.

Giving more kids access to good schools can be an uncomfortable thing to criticize. But we have to be able to recognize when something even seemingly generous is nowhere near enough. Last year Bezos said he wants his philanthropy to help “people in the here and now.” This month he said he wants to ensure our great-grandchildren have “lives better than ours.” Whether he means it or not, it’s on all of us to push for more.

Betsy DeVos Is Helping Puerto Rico Re-Imagine Its Public School System. That Has People Worried.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 22, 2018.
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Puerto Rico, in the midst of the chaos and instability following Hurricane Maria, is moving quickly forward with plans to institute a wide swath of education reforms, with the help of the aggressively ideological federal education department, helmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Puerto Rico’s governor and education secretary have expressed openness to the concerns raised by parents, teachers and community members, and stress they are not looking to implement an extreme version of privatization. Yet at the same time, they have stoked fears by pushing forward a notably vague charter law that does little to address what people are most worried about. This “trust us” mentality has not been helped by the engagement of DeVos, nor by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s recent visit to a notorious charter chain in Philadelphia last week — a prime example of the kind of low-performing, fiscally reckless charter that school advocates warn about.

At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Ricans worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it — while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.

Puerto Rico’s public school system remains severely ravaged since Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that tore through the island in late September. “The recovery has gone very slowly,” said Aida Díaz, president of the island’s 40,000-member teachers union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico“We still have hundreds of schools without electricity, internet, and many of our teachers and students are having classes just half-day.”

Rosselló delivered a televised address in early February announcing a package of educational reforms he’d like to bring to the island – including charters, vouchers for private schools, and the first pay increase for teachers in a decade. Puerto Rico teachers earn on average $27,000 a year, and would see increases of $1,500 under the governor’s proposal. “The current educational system does not respond to what is needed to train our students to succeed in a world that’s ever more competitive and complex,” Rosselló  declared.

Rosselló’s big announcement came on the heels of a separate plan he outlined in January, to close 305 of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 public schools. Rosselló said these closures would lead to an estimated $300 million in savings by 2022 – and by extension help the island recover from Maria and its long-term debt crisis. Puerto Rican citizens have long worried the government’s interest in shuttering schools would be a first step on the road to privatization.

While Rosselló’s televised address garnered a lot of national attention, little has been paid to the 136-page bill that was introduced several days later, and the vocal debate it has sparked within the territory.

Who helped craft the bill is not entirely clear.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told The Intercept that her members played absolutely no role in drafting the proposals. “They didn’t consider us, they didn’t invite us, we didn’t participate,” she said.

Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, told The Intercept they “were not deeply involved in the bill drafting at all” but that they did have some conversations with people in Puerto Rico’s education department about charter legislation and how other states have handled certain issues. Ziebarth added that while his organization has not done a deep analysis of Puerto Rico’s bill, he thinks “it provides a good start for getting charters up and running.”

DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in “close communication” with Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blogpost published in January, Botelwrote, “We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said that a local law firm helped them craft the bill, two law firms from the mainland that had experience working with charter schools, and a team from the federal department of education. “We did have a series of technical assistance from the U.S education department,” she said. “They didn’t comment on the bill but they did help us think through it, and helped us define what we thought should be the final set of things to include.”

In November, Rosselló tweeted pictures of a meeting he and Keleher held with DeVos and her staff, noting they were “itemizing the areas that need the most attention in order to restore our education system.”

The Department of Education did not return The Intercept’s request for comment, but earlier this month DeVos told a group of reporters that she was very encouraged by Puerto Rico’s leadership for embracing school choice after the hurricane. She praised its approach for thoughtfully “meeting students needs … in a really concerted and individual way.”

In November, In the Public Interest, a research and policy organization focused on privatization and contracting, submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Education requesting all communications between Jason Botel and Julia Keleher between July 1 and mid-November, and all emails sent or received by Botel during that period that mention charter schools or Puerto Rico. The Education Department confirmed receipt of the FOIA request a week later, and granted the group’s fee waiver request on January 12. Shar Habibi, the research and policy director at In The Public Interest, told The Intercept they’re still waiting to receive the records.

ONE CONTROVERSIAL ASPECT of Puerto Rico’s proposed legislation is its language to allow multiple charter school authorizers. Authorizers are entities – such as school districts, state commissions or nonprofits – that grant charter schools the right to exist. They are also then responsible for ensuring that the schools produce sufficient academic results and comply with relevant laws and regulations. If a school fails to do so, an authorizer is supposed to revoke the school’s charter and shut them down. The quality of charter school authorizing ranges widely throughout the United States.

Section 13.04 of the bill states that either Puerto Rico’s education department or a Puerto Rican university can authorize charter schools. This language has raised concerns that Puerto Rico will open the floodgates to many charter authorizers like in Michigan – a state that has earned a reputation for having notoriously lax charter oversight. The more there are, the easier it is for bad charters to shop around for an authorizer that will let them stay open.

Karega Rausch, the interim CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told The Intercept that their group does not have a hard-and-fast rule, or even guiding data, on the number of authorizers a jurisdiction should have – but they have observed that the overall quality of a charter sector can be “diluted” in places with too many authorizers. (Places like D.C., New Jersey and Massachusetts have just one charter authorizer, while states like Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota have many.)

Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said she expects the legislation to be amended to allow for just one authorizer. “I think we’d want to stay away from having two based on what we understand as effective practice,” she said. The island’s senate is still holding public hearings on the bill.

Multiple news outlets this month reported that Puerto Rico aims to start with 14 charter schools, two in each of the island’s seven provinces.

Keleher told The Intercept that this has never been a formal plan, and her off-the-cuff remarks were interpreted by the media as something she never intended. “People were asking me how many we would have, so I was trying to answer the question and suggested maybe two per region,” she said. “The next thing I know people are asking me where I’m going to get these 14 [charter] applications. I just said that number because two per region seemed reasonable to manage, so I thought it was a number that could help calm people down.”

Keleher says the department has no plans to do what New Orleans did following Hurricane Katrina, and that it should develop a formula to limit the number of charter schools in Puerto Rico. But, she said, that formula needs to be flexible and should be handled by education department after the law is passed. “If the schools are super successful and more people want them, we should allow that up to a point,” she said.

The proposed legislation would also allow for the creation of virtual charters in Puerto Rico – a particularly contentious type of online school, evenamong school choice supporters. (DeVos is a big proponent of virtual charters, and a former investor in them herself.)

Keleher acknowledged the concerns around virtual charters, but says she remains optimistic about their potential. “I’ve taught in online classrooms,” she said. “It requires discipline and fidelity, and it may not be right for everyone.” She emphasized the importance of providing “options,” which she said could help bring new infusions of funds to the island. “If you look at what the president is prioritizing in his new budget, there’s a lot of emphasis on educational options,” she said.

In general Keleher advocates for an approach that leaves the charter law fairly vague (or as she calls, it “flexible”) so that her department can then craft regulations as it sees fit.

“We don’t want the law to be so tied to the reality of today,” she said. “We want to make it function as a lever to get the [education] department to behave in a way that we will produce strong results.” She pointed out that their last education law was incredibly detailed, “but very poorly implemented” and so this time they tried to go in the opposite direction. “We want to be sure that the system is responsive, rather than every time you want to adjust your program you have to amend your law,” she said.

The idea of creating an ambiguous law understandably has not eased much anxiety amongst Puerto Rico residents concerned about the pitfalls of school choice.

Even Ziebarth of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says it’s better to put more into the charter law than less. “We tend to try to get as much into the law as we can, and while some decisions make sense left to regulation, I think if they have a chance to pass a strong charter law that’s better,” he said. “I think we know enough about what the fundamentals should look like – particularly around flexibility, accountability and funding – that they can put that in statute now and not go back later and deal with it.”

Ziebarth adds that especially if Puerto Rico is considering going down the road of virtual charter schools, the island should include their six policy recommendations. “They should definitely not repeat the mistakes that others have made in that area,” he said.

Vouchers for private schools are included in the education reform bill, but they would likely not be implemented until after charter schools get started. Keleher told The 74 that given their budget situation, “it’s not something we can execute right now for obvious reasons.”

In 1994, back when Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, was governor, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court struck down a proposal to establish a school voucher program. Puerto Rico’s leadership believes a series of court decisions issued over the past two decades, including from the U.S. Supreme Court, have now paved the legal path for them to move forward with school vouchers.

A recent trip taken by Rosselló has exacerbated concerns that he is not seriously grappling with the risks of his proposed education reforms.

Last week he visited an ASPIRA charter school in Philadelphia, and tweeted out after his visit that it represents an “excellent charter school model.”

But just two months ago Philadelphia voted to close two ASPIRA charter schools for their low academic quality, as well as a host of financial scandals and mismanagement issues. For years there have been concerns that ASPIRA was self-dealing with public funds, and the situation was difficult to track because each ASPIRA charter is structured as an independent nonprofit, despite all sharing the same board of trustees through their parent organization. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entities, and money flowing throughout them,” said an official working in the Philadelphia School District official in 2014. A former accounts payable coordinator at ASPIRA also filed a federal whistle blower lawsuit in 2014, alleging that the charter operator misappropriated more than $1 million in federal funds. The employee charged that ASPIRA made “repeated false representations” to the U.S. and state Departments of Education “in an effort to defraud the United States of taxpayer dollars, under the guise of providing quality education to some of the nation’s neediest students.” ASPIRA dismissed the charges as politically motivated. Then in 2016 news emerged that ASPIRA’s CEO had paid a top employee $350,000 in a sexual harassment settlement. Another former senior employee filed a lawsuit claiming she had been wrongfully terminated for helping her colleague file that sexual harassment complaint.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told the Intercept that Rosselló has been unresponsive to their concerns.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Puerto Rico’s governor should be ashamed of himself. “He pretends that he’s a Democratic governor, but his playbook on schools is right out of Trump and DeVos,” she told The Intercept. “He won’t even tell the people of Puerto Rico what he’s doing as he secretly travels to an ASPIRA charter for a tour.” Weingarten says his behavior is “just baffling” and “one wonders who he is listening to.”

Keleher, for her part, emphasized that she’s trying to be very transparent and accessible with Puerto Ricans to discuss the reforms. This week her department organized a forum and last week she met with parents from each region of the island.

“The governor appointed me and I am fully accountable to the people,” she said. “You can like my decision or not but I think I’m responsible for showing you how I got my decision, and at the end of the day I have to take the hit.”

Still, the education secretary’s engagement with the public hasn’t always gone smoothly. Last week during a union-sponsored Q&A, Keleher abruptly stormed outwhen one teacher said the education secretary should return when she’s more prepared to answer their questions.

“Before this bill we were working together, we understood each other, and we agreed on many things,” Díaz told The Intercept. “But right now communications are stopped, I don’t think [the government] wants to understand our point of view.”

Indeed the question of whether charter schools in Puerto Rico would be unionized remains an open one. The proposed legislation says nothing about it. Most states do not require charter teachers to be in unions – indeed being union-free is seen by many charter advocates as a key characteristic of the model – but a few states, including Maryland and Hawaii, require it.

Keleher told The Intercept that they are staying intentionally “silent on the union issue” though she’s “not adamantly opposed if in the context of Puerto Rico” unionized charters seem like the best way to do it. She said, though, that if charter school operators want to come and oppose doing so with a unionized staff, she “would also understand and respect that” and she’s “very much in a let’s-see-what-makes-the-most-sense” position.

The last time Puerto Rico passed major education reforms was in the 1990s, and some elements of the controversial bill have attracted support from union members. Aside from the $1,500 pay hikes, Díaz says her union also likes the new procedures outlined around making school budgeting more transparent, and creating regional education offices.

“But the rest of the bill is unacceptable to us, and we cannot support it,” she said. For now the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico will continue mobilizing against the charter and voucher proposals, and Díaz said they are also going to start more vocally championing for public schools that provide robust wraparound social services.

“These kids and their parents have been traumatized,” said Weingarten. “Let’s try to create some stability in Puerto Rico after this terrible storm.”

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.”

Teacher Tests Test Teachers

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 18, 2017.
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The Houston teachers union scored a legal victory in May when a federal judge found that the Houston school district’s system of evaluating teachers could violate due process rights. The lawsuit centered on the system’s use of value-added modeling (VAM), a controversial statistical method aimed at isolating a teacher’s effectiveness based on their students’ standardized test scores.

United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith concluded that the metric’s impenetrability could render it unconstitutional. If, he wrote, teachers have “no meaningful way to ensure” that their value-added ratings are accurate, they are “subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.” More specifically, he continued, if the school district denies its teachers access to the computer algorithms and data that form the basis of each teacher’s VAM score, it “flunks the minimum procedural due process standard of providing the reason for termination ‘in sufficient detail to enable [the teacher] to show any error that may exist.’”

It’s unclear whether the Houston school district will now negotiate a settlement with the teachers union or end up back in court, but either way, the decision comes at a significant time for the test-based accountability movement, which has faced a number of legal and political challenges over the past several years. The outcomes of the court battles have so far been a mixed bag: Teachers challenging VAM have scored some wins, lost other big cases, and a few major suits are still pending. Outside the courtroom, states have begun implementing the new federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—which imposes far less pressure on the states to use VAM or similar measures than what they faced during the Obama administration.

Donald Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos has also signaled she’s less interested in using test scores to define school performance. (“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are,” she said in March, in response to a question about measuring school success. “But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”) Considering all this, some experts have gone so far as to say that regardless of what ends up happening in the judicial system, the political momentum for using test-based accountability measures is all but over.

 

THE MOVEMENT FOR teacher accountability isn’t much older than many schoolchildren. In 2009, an education reform group known as The New Teacher Project (TNTP) issued an influential report finding widespread “institutional indifference to variations in teacher performance.” TNTP reported that less than one percent of teachers in their study received “unsatisfactory” performance reviews, with most teachers receiving ratings of “good” or “great.” TNTP recommended an overhaul of teacher evaluations, urging districts to develop systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement”—which meant evaluating them by their students’ scores on standardized tests.

The report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores and value-added modeling. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 43 states revamped their teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” by 2013, up from just 15 states in 2009.

Many of these policies had the effect of shifting accountability systems away from the school level (where it was emphasized under No Child Left Behind) to the teacher level. Advocates for this shift cited research showing the importance of teacher quality, though critics argued that measuring student growth at the school level was a fairer and more reliable way to use the statistical tools. Not surprisingly, teachers overwhelmingly opposed the shift. A 2014 Gallup poll found that nearly nine in ten teachers felt linking teacher evaluations to student test scores was unfair, and 78 percent felt that all the testing was taking too much time away from teaching.

By 2015, the anti-testing backlash had gained steam across the country, in part because the federal government had pushed for test scores to be used to evaluate teachers across all grades and subjects. States had begun to require assessments in such traditionally untested areas like art and early elementary. Parents, teachers unions, and conservatives rallied together for a rollback of federal testing mandates. With the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015, they succeeded.

Not only does ESSA reduce standardized testing, it also voids some of the Obama-era waivers that incentivized states to adopt test-based teacher evaluations. In 2016, pro-test education reformers were also frustrated to learn that despite the widespread implementation of new evaluation systems under Obama’s tenure, the overwhelming majority of teachers were still receiving high ratings. Reformers had hoped these measures would help identify “ineffective” teachers and lead swiftly to their removal, in addition to rewarding “effective” teachers with new incentives. They held up Washington, D.C.’s reforms as a successful model to emulate, though it’s become clear that the nation’s capital is something of an outlier.

Even before the testing wave had begun to recede, though, some experts had been warning of the legal risks associated with VAM and similar statistical tools. In 2012, education law professors Preston Green and Joseph Oluwole, and education finance professor Bruce Baker, published an article outlining specific legal and policy problems with VAM and teacher evaluations, focusing on due process challenges, equal protection challenges, and disparate impact firings.

Major litigation against VAM quickly followed. Unions brought lawsuits arguing that the measures were arbitrary and capricious, that they unfairly penalized teachers who taught more disadvantaged students, and that they were being inappropriately used to measure things they were not designed for.

The lawsuits have partly been fueled by debates within the academic community over whether it’s even scientifically valid to use these measures to evaluate teachers. These debates have not been settled. Some researchers say the statistical growth measures fail to adequately control for all the disadvantages students face outside their classrooms, meaning evaluative scores may be less “objective” than some supporters claim. Other researchers found evidence that the same teachers could receive different value-added scores depending on what types of tests their students took, and others found that scores could vary significantly from year to year for no discernable reason. A complicating factor for VAM supporters has been that even when high-quality research studies showed that VAM could be theoretically used in ways that reduce some critics’ concerns, many states implemented their test-based systems in ways that ignored these recommended practices.

ONE LESSON THAT TEACHERS and their unions have learned over the past several years is that the courts are unlikely to overturn school district policy, even when they agree it’s unfair. If a teacher sues on the basis that a policy unconstitutionally denies them “substantive due process” or equal protection, a judge will consider their complaint under what’s known as a “rational basis analysis,” meaning the judge will look to see if the policy can be shown to have any kind of rational relation to a legitimate government issue. If it can, even if only vaguely, the courts are unlikely to intervene.

“These testing cases are always hard for teachers to win,” says Preston Green, an education law professor at the University of Connecticut. “A ‘rational basis analysis’ is a low bar for the government to satisfy, and a very hard one for plaintiffs to overcome.”

Take this major VAM case in Florida: In 2013, the National Education Association and its Florida affiliate filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that required at least half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on VAM. In practice, this meant that teachers in non-tested grades and subjects were graded based on the test scores of students they didn’t teach. For example, one plaintiff was a first-grade teacher evaluated based on the third-grade test scores of students she herself never taught. Another was a high school math teacher who mostly taught juniors and seniors, but had her VAM score calculated on the basis of freshman and sophomore reading scores. Together, the seven public school teacher plaintiffs in Cook v. Chartrand argued that Florida’s law violated their equal protection and due process rights.

But in 2014, a federal district judge ruled against them, concluding that while the rating system seemed clearly unfair, it was nonetheless still legal. “Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to [teachers in non-tested subjects], let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system,” the judge wrote. “This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system. The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law.” A federal appeals court upheld the ruling in 2015.

More failed legal challenges against value-added measures took place in Tennessee. In 2014, two of the state’s teachers, Mark Taylor and Lisa Trout, filed federal lawsuits, later consolidated, arguing they were unfairly denied performance bonuses because so few of their students took the tests used to generate their VAM score. In Taylor’s case, for example, just 22 of his 142 students took the exams that formed the basis of his VAM score. Trout and Taylor argued the measures were arbitrary and irrational, and violated their due process and equal protection rights.

But in 2016, a federal judge from the U.S. District Court in Knoxville dismissed their case. Though the judge recognized the legitimacy of the plaintiffs’ concerns, saying the teachers’ criticisms “are not unfounded,” he cited the Florida precedent, and concluded that it would be up to the Tennessee legislature to make any changes to the system, as it “survives minimal constitutional scrutiny.”

Still, there have been some wins. In addition to the recent legal victory in Houston, last year a Long Island fourth grade teacher named Sheri Lederman won her lawsuit against New York state officials, with a judge concluding that her VAM score for the 2013–2014 school year was indeed arbitrary and capricious and needed to be vacated. During the 2012–2013 school year, Lederman scored 14 points out of 20, the next year she scored 1 out of 20 (considered “ineffective”), and during the 2014–2015 school year she scored 11 out of 20. “It’s the variability and volatility of this model that makes it so arbitrary,” Lederman told The Wall Street Journal.“There’s no reason to suggest that my performance with my children has varied that much year to year.”

Another major suit is playing out in New Mexico. The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the state’s VAM system in February 2015, arguing that it violates state law and is arbitrary and capricious in design. A state judge issued a temporary injunction in December 2015, blocking New Mexico from using its VAM measures for high-stakes personnel decisions until a later trial could be held. (That trial is scheduled for October.) Notably, the judge said that while value-added modeling can generally be sound, it’s not clear how much New Mexico’s system conforms to those best practices, given that the inner workings of the model “are not easily understood, translated, or made accessible.”

“Courts aren’t really good at parsing statistical details, but if they see something is a blunt instrument, and that information is unstable and unreliable, those are concepts judges can understand,” says Rutgers education finance professor Bruce Baker. “And if it’s being used in an arbitrary way, in a way that requires a precision that can’t be achieved, judges can look at that and say, ‘Well, I can understand those due process issues.’”

AFT president Randi Weingarten told The American Prospect that in addition to working on the legal and legislative fronts to “defeat VAM,” the AFT is fighting for more constructive evaluation systems that actually help teachers improve their practices.

“VAM is an unjust, unreliable, and unconstitutional method of evaluating teachers in America’s classrooms, and the AFT and our affiliates are leading—and winning—the fight against these systems,” she says. “We are heartened by recent court victories in which judges agree with us that VAM does not work for students, teachers, or schools as an evaluation tool.”

OUTSIDE OF COURT BATTLES, one clear sign of how the political winds have shifted is the rhetoric of education reformers. Just a few years ago, prominent leaders were calling to publish teachers’ VAM scores, so that parents and taxpayers could better hold public school teachers accountable.

“Parents and community members have the right to know how their districts, schools, principals, and teachers are doing,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010. “It’s up to local communities to set the context for these courageous conversations but silence is not an option.”

Duncan’s comments came a few months after the Los Angeles Timescontroversially published the value-added scores for Los Angeles teachers, and posted names of individual teachers rated as effective or ineffective on their website. The New York City Department of Education wanted to follow suit, insisting that doing so was in the public interest. “These are public schools and public dollars,” said a spokeswoman for New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at the time.

Not all education reformers supported publishing VAM scores. Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, spoke out against it. “I just thought it was an absolutely shameful practice,” she told me. “If VAM were 100 percent accurate I would still have a problem with it—but it’s not, there are a lot of false positives and false negatives.” Bill Gates also published New York Times op-ed urging against disclosing the scores. “At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper,” he wrote.

And while New York did end up publishing teachers’ scores, along with other states like Ohio and Florida, you don’t hear VAM supporters championing such disclosures anymore. (Even Arne Duncan walked back his initial support.) One reason for the retreat is that making the scores available enabled the public to see how biased and error-prone they could be.

“After New York did it, people started realizing it was not a great thing to do,” says Baker. “Researchers reanalyzed the LA Times data and came up with different results, and I analyzed the NYC data, and even though NYC uses a pretty rich value-added model that controls for lots of stuff, eliminating much of the bias, that means you’re left with relatively noisy estimates, that jump around a lot from year to year.”

On top of growing doubts about how states are using VAM, some academics have even begun to challenge the idea that boosted test scores are a reliable proxy for improved life outcomes. This position is most prominently espoused by Jay Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who has argued the evidence for a correlation between test scores and life prospects is weak, especially with regards to high-stakes testing.

In an interview with the Prospect, Greene also said that test-based accountability advocates tend to imagine either that existing accountability systems are already designed according to best practices, or that states will eventually adopt best practices. “But there’s no sign that this will happen,” he says. “Their fantasy is an undemocratic fantasy, that benign dictators will scientifically design the correct evaluation, impose it on an unwilling workforce and population, and then it will stay forever. They always end up sounding a little bit like the ‘communism has never been tried’ argument. You know, once we get the details right, everyone will see how good it is.” Still, Greene thinks that even though reformers have not succeeded in really transforming teacher evaluations, they have effectively narrowed public discourse around education, defining “achievement” down to mean, merely, gains in reading and math scores.

“If you tell me that Chicago public schools are producing greater gainsamong disadvantaged students than other disadvantaged students across Illinois, it might be that Chicago students have figured out how to focus more narrowly on tests,” he says. “I don’t even know if the information we’re getting now [from tests] is a proxy for school quality anymore, or if it’s gaming.”

 

WHILE THE FUTURE of using value-added measures in teacher evaluations is unclear, some researchers have been advocating alternative ideas. One would be to use the statistical growth measures as a diagnostic tool, a preliminary screening test to help identify which districts, schools, and classrooms warrant closer attention. The idea would be to think of using VAM like a doctor who diagnostically screens for major diseases. If patients fail the screening test, they are given another, more careful measure. “As in medicine, a value-added score, combined with some additional information, should lead us to trigger classroom observations to identify truly low-performing teachers and to provide feedback,” Doug Harris, a Tulane education economist, wrote in 2012. Bruce Baker and Preston Green have also voiced support for this idea. Some reformers oppose this, saying that using it merely as a diagnostic tool would “water down the metric.”

In an interview, Harris told me that he’d rather see teacher evaluations be based on peers and experts observing teacher practice and coming to a professional judgment. He says he hopes the backlash against VAM will at least motivate people to think more seriously about alternative ways to evaluate teachers.

Though some are worried the country will move entirely away from holding schools and teachers accountable for student test scores—and thereby hurt academic opportunities for historically underserved students—Baker thinks we’ll see continue to see more incremental shifts in test-based accountability over the next few years. But some states, he says, will shift to growth measures that are no better than what states were already using.

Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says she’s inclined to be a pessimist, and the pessimist in her doesn’t see much progress happening on the test-based evaluation front over the next few years. “But then again,” she says, “the winds change pretty quickly.”

Bernie, the Billionaires, and the School Board

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 12, 2017.
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Just 20 percent of eligible Los Angeles voters turned out to the polls on March 7 to vote for their city’s next mayor and school board officials, and turnout is likely to be even lower for Tuesday’s school board runoffs. And yet, this race that barely anyone will vote in has turned into a high-stakes battleground, complete with record-setting amounts of political spending and bitter negative campaigning. It has pitted some of the richest men in American against none other than Bernie Sanders, in a brawl over the future of public education in the nation’s largest state.

Incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, backed by labor, is running against the education reformer Nicholas Melvoin; in another district, labor-backed Imelda Padilla is facing off against the charter-backed Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez in an open race.

Los Angeles is last of the big-city school districts to hold elections for local school board members—mayors in cities like Chicago and New York appoint their school boards, and Washington, D.C., dissolved its local school board altogether in 2007, giving education decision-making power to the mayoral-appointed schools chancellor.

Despite the current showdown, Los Angeles is hardly anti-reform. With 279 charter schools, Los Angeles has more charters than any other city in the nation. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), roughly 156,000 LA public school students—24 percent of total enrollment—attended charter schools during the 2015-16 school year. The second highest city on NAPCS’s list was New York, which enrolled 93,610 students in charters that year.

But the ambitions of national reformers still far exceed the district’s appetite for change, at least thus far.

Although the LA school board has approved most petitions for new charters and charter renewals, charter advocates say they feel the board’s support for opening new ones is waning.

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And in September of 2015 The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document from billionaire Eli Broad’s foundation, revealing plans to increase Los Angeles’s charter school market share to 50 percent over the next eight years. This transformation would require the creation of 260 new charters, at a cost of $490 million. The bombshell report sparked intense controversy.

By March of 2016, education reformers had toned down their public rhetoric and goals, emphasizing that they’d support expanding all types of high-quality schools, not just charters. The modified plan did little to tamp down tensions between charter supporters and opponents. A union-funded study released in May of 2016 reported that the city’s charter sector drains upwards of $500 million a year from the school district’s budget. The teachers union and its allies charged that unmitigated charter school growth “imperils the financial stability” of the district, and limits opportunities for those students who remain in traditional public schools.

Last month, in a 4-3 vote, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to endorse three controversial bills in the state legislature that would place more oversight and restrictions on charter schools. The California Charter Schools Association strongly opposed the bills, and both Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez said they would oppose the measures if elected. (Zimmer voted in favor of endorsing the bills, and Padilla declined to take a position.)

Money from outside the city and state has been pouring into the two races. The previous record in outside donations for school board elections had been $7.4 million in 2013. As of April 29, outside spending had already reached $11.3 million, according to the city’s ethics commission campaign finance data. As LA Weekly put it, “To say the 2017 Los Angeles election for school board is the most expensive such race in the history of the United States is an understatement: It is the most expensive by more than 50 percent.” (And this is all for a job that pays $45,000 a year.)

Nationally, charter advocates often justify their reliance on the deep pockets of billionaire supporters as necessary to compete with the spending of local teachers unions. But other sources place reform spending at least in parity with union spending. As EdSource, a nonprofit education news site focused on California recently reported, “In past years, the teachers union far outspent the [charter] association on campaign contributions. Not anymore.”

In the Los Angeles school board race, the charter advocates have outspent the unions by roughly a third, with significant money coming from billionaire-donors like Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Walmart heirs Alice and Jim Walton, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

And LA Weekly reports that $4.1 million has been spent on negative campaigning in the runoffs, compared to $1.1 million in the 2015 race, and under $1 million in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of the negative campaign financing has been directed by charter proponents against Zimmer.

The unprecedented escalation of the races has also attracted some high-profile, highly unusual endorsements from political leaders and celebrities.

“Billionaires should not make a profit off of public school children,” said Democratic senator Bernie Sanders in a statement earlier this month. “That’s why I’m supporting Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla for the Los Angeles School Board. They will fight against the Trump/DeVos agenda to destabilize and undermine public schools.”

Sanders’ endorsement—which links the education reform agenda of Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez to President Trump’s controversial education agenda—reflects a larger national strategy being pursued by advocates of traditional public education since Donald Trump was elected. It attempts to link charter advocates to a man Democrats despise. It also frames Tuesday’s choice as something larger than charter schools or traditional schools: an extension of a national debate about whether the public sector, including education, will be democratic and equitable, or privatized and outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Is it working? Time will tell, but Melvoin seems to be feeling the heat: in an article in LA School Report from March, he discussed pressure to dispel myths that he was a “Trump guy.”

Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez can claim support, however, from prominent Democratic charter backers. Both have received endorsements from Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under Barack Obama, while Fitzpatrick-Gonez formerly worked as an Obama administration education adviser.