Af­ter Demo­cratic wins, char­ter schools face back­lash

In­creased hos­til­ity likely in Al­bany

The Buffalo News - - STATE NEWS - By El­iza Shapiro NEW YORK TIMES

Over the last decade, the char­ter school move­ment gained a sig­nif­i­cant foothold in New York, demon­strat­ing along the way that it could build fruit­ful al­liances with Gov. An­drew Cuomo and other prom­i­nent Democrats. The move­ment hoped to set a na­tional ex­am­ple – if char­ter schools could make it in a deep blue state like New York, they could make it any­where.

But the elec­tion Tues­day strongly sug­gested that the golden era of char­ter schools is over in New York. The in­sur­gent Democrats who were at the fore­front of the party’s suc­cess­ful ef­fort to take over the state Se­nate have re­peat­edly ex­pressed hos­til­ity to the move­ment.

John Liu, a newly elected Demo­cratic state sen­a­tor from Queens, has said New York City should “get rid of” large char­ter school net­works. Robert Jack­son, a Demo­crat who will rep­re­sent a Man­hat­tan dis­trict in the state Se­nate, promised dur­ing his cam­paign to sup­port char­ter schools only if they have union­ized teach­ers.

And an­other in­com­ing Demo­cratic state sen­a­tor, Ju­lia Salazar of Brook­lyn, re­cently broad­cast a sim­ple mes­sage about char­ter schools: “I’m not in­ter­ested in pri­va­tiz­ing our pub­lic schools.”

No one is say­ing that ex­ist­ing char­ter schools will have to close. And in fact, New York City, which is the na­tion’s largest school sys­tem and home to the vast ma­jor­ity of the state’s char­ter schools, has many that are ex­celling.

Over 100,000 stu­dents in hun­dreds of the city’s char­ter schools are do­ing well on state tests, and tens of thou­sands of chil­dren are on wait­ing lists for spots. New York State has been mostly spared the scan­dals that have plagued states with weaker reg­u­la­tions.

But it seems highly likely that a New York Leg­is­la­ture en­tirely un­der Demo­cratic con­trol will re­strict the num­ber of new char­ter schools that can open, and tighten reg­u­la­tions on ex­ist­ing ones.

The de­feat is mag­ni­fied be­cause Cuomo, a shrewd ob­server of na­tional po­lit­i­cal trends with an eye to­ward a po­ten­tial White House bid, re­cently soft­ened his sup­port for char­ter schools. Mayor Bill de Bla­sio is a long­time char­ter op­po­nent with his own na­tional as­pi­ra­tions. And New York is not the only state where the char­ter school move­ment is fac­ing fierce head­winds be­cause of the elec­tion.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wis­con­sin, an en­emy of pub­lic sec­tor unions, was unseated by a Demo­crat, Tony Evers, a for­mer teacher who ran on a prom­ise to boost fund­ing to tra­di­tional pub­lic schools.

In neigh­bor­ing Illi­nois, J.B. Pritzker, a Demo­crat who promised to curb char­ter school growth, beat the in­cum­bent Repub­li­can, Gov. Bruce Rauner, a sup­porter of char­ter schools. And in Michi­gan, a Demo­crat, Gretchen Whit­mer, promised to “put an end to the De­Vos agenda.”

Whit­mer won her race for gover­nor de­ci­sively against the state’s Repub­li­can at­tor­ney gen­eral, Bill Schuette, who is an ally of Betsy De­Vos, the ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. De­Vos has been an out­spo­ken pro­po­nent of char­ter schools in her home state of Michi­gan and na­tion­ally.

Now char­ter school sup­port­ers are wrestling with the un­pleas­ant re­al­ity that a sup­pos­edly bi­par­ti­san move­ment, in­tended to res­cue stu­dents from fail­ing pub­lic schools, has been ef­fec­tively linked to Wall Street, Trump and De­Vos by char­ter school op­po­nents.

Der­rell Brad­ford, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of a na­tional group that backs char­ters, 50CAN, ac­knowl­edged that the elec­tion re­sults raised new chal­lenges. He said the sit­u­a­tion was es­pe­cially fraught be­cause Trump has cham­pi­oned char­ter schools, mak­ing the is­sue toxic for some Democrats.

“I find it frus­trat­ing that the pres­i­dent’s sup­port is of­ten used as the rea­son for peo­ple to aban­don sup­port of char­ters and low-in­come fam­i­lies,” Brad­ford said.

Where in­sur­gent na­tional Democrats sup­port char­ter schools, they do so care­fully: Rep. Jared Po­lis, D-Colo., whom vot­ers sent to the gover­nor’s man­sion Tues­day, founded two char­ter schools. But he has made sure to crit­i­cize De­Vos’ vo­cal brand of school choice ad­vo­cacy.

Tues­day’s re­sults were com­pounded by other re­cent blows for char­ters in lib­eral states.

In 2016, Mas­sachusetts vot­ers re­jected a ref­er­en­dum that would have ex­panded the state’s high-per­form­ing char­ter schools. Though back­ers poured $20 mil­lion into the race, it was no match for Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren and Sen. Bernie San­ders, pro­gres­sive stars who op­posed the ini­tia­tive.

Phi­lan­thropists tried again in Cal­i­for­nia over the sum­mer, when they spent $23 mil­lion to bol­ster the for­mer Los An­ge­les mayor, An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa, in the pri­mary for gover­nor. Vil­laraigosa, a Demo­crat, was eas­ily beat by Gavin New­som, the Demo­cratic lieu­tenant gover­nor, who has been vague about the role of char­ters as he seeks to make Cal­i­for­nia an epi­cen­ter of op­po­si­tion to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Some ad­vo­cates find a sliver of hope in the fact that even the most lib­eral Democrats ac­knowl­edge that char­ter schools are here to stay. Many op­po­nents want to slow growth, not de­stroy char­ters.

“No mat­ter how hos­tile some of the ci­ties get to char­ters, the char­ters have en­dured,” said Jeanne Allen, chief ex­ec­u­tiveof the Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Re­form, a na­tional school choice ad­vo­cacy group.

In New York, the in­sur­gent Demo­cratic can­di­dates’ crit­i­cism of char­ters was some­what less cen­tral to their cam­paigns than their sup­port for tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. And though most of those Democrats said they would re­ject any plan to ex­pand char­ter schools, they are aware that char­ters are pop­u­lar among some fam­i­lies in their own dis­tricts.

“You don’t want to alien­ate any­body,” said Alessan­dra Bi­aggi, who in the Demo­cratic pri­mary unseated one of the char­ter lobby’s most re­li­able al­lies, state Sen. Jef­frey D. Klein, in a Bronx dis­trict. “I un­der­stand why char­ter schools ex­ist, I un­der­stand why they have come to the Bronx, I re­ally get it. But we’ve got to fo­cus on im­prov­ing our pub­lic schools.”

But even the best-case sce­nario – wide­spread po­lit­i­cal am­biva­lence, rather than an­imus, to­ward char­ters – would have sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences for char­ter school sup­port­ers in New York.

The Leg­is­la­ture may not even bother to take up char­ter ad­vo­cates’ most press­ing need: lift­ing the cap on the num­ber of char­ter schools that can open statewide. Fewer than 10 new char­ter schools can open in New York City un­til the law is changed in Al­bany.

That means the city’s largest char­ter net­works, in­clud­ing the widely known Suc­cess Academy, will be stymied in their am­bi­tious goal of ex­pand­ing enough to be­come par­al­lel dis­tricts within the school sys­tem.

But it is the smaller, more ex­per­i­men­tal char­ter schools that may have the most to lose.

“A new gen­er­a­tion of schools will be thwarted,” said Steven Wil­son, the founder of As­cend, a small net­work of Brook­lyn char­ter schools.

And char­ters will now be par­tially reg­u­lated by the move­ment’s po­lit­i­cal foes. State Se­nate Democrats, with the lob­by­ing sup­port of teach­ers’ unions, are likely to push laws re­quir­ing char­ter schools to en­roll a cer­tain num­ber of stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties or stu­dents learn­ing English. Pre­vi­ous pro­pos­als in­di­cate that those politi­cians may force char­ters to di­vulge their fi­nances, and could make it harder for char­ters to op­er­ate in pub­lic school build­ings.

Those leg­is­la­tors could even im­pose a limit of about $200,000 on char­ter school ex­ec­u­tives’ salaries. At least two op­er­a­tors made over $700,000 in 2016.

Char­ter school ad­vo­cates in Demo­cratic states said de­feat has made their po­lit­i­cal mis­sion clear: Con­vince the hold­outs of their lib­eral bona fides.

“What peo­ple don’t un­der­stand is that our pre­vi­ous pol­i­tics ob­scured just how pro­gres­sive the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in the char­ter move­ment ac­tu­ally are,” James Mer­ri­man, CEO of the New York City Char­ter School Cen­ter, said.

Still, some of the po­lit­i­cal wounds New York’s char­ter school sec­tor has suf­fered ap­pear self-in­flicted, es­pe­cially in light of the state’s ea­ger­ness to chal­lenge Trump’s agenda.

Days af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Suc­cess Academy, in­ter­viewed with Trump for the role of ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary. When she an­nounced that she would not take the job, Moskowitz praised the pres­i­dent on the steps of City Hall.

The next day, Moskowitz hugged Ivanka Trump, the pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter, when she vis­ited a Suc­cess Academy school. A few months later, Moskowitz wel­comed House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis­con­sin to the same school dur­ing the fight to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act, which Ryan helped lead.

Stu­dents peered out the win­dows of the Har­lem school as an­gry protesters waited out­side, play­ing bon­gos and wav­ing signs.

Af­ter a back­lash from her staff, Moskowitz said she “should have been more out­spo­ken” against Trump.

The sit­u­a­tion got worse when one of Moskowitz’s most pro­lific donors, hedge fund bil­lion­aire Daniel S. Loeb, said last sum­mer that a black state sen­a­tor who has been skep­ti­cal of char­ter schools had done more dam­age to black peo­ple than the Ku Klux Klan.

His com­ment was met with fury from black sup­port­ers of char­ter schools, some of the move­ment’s most in­dis­pens­able al­lies.

On Tues­day, that sen­a­tor, An­drea Stew­art-Cousins, be­came the next leader of the New York state Se­nate.

New York Times

A fifth-grade class at the Achieve­ment First Aspire Mid­dle School in Brook­lyn, part of a large char­ter school net­work. In­sur­gent Democrats at the fore­front of the party’s suc­cess­ful ef­fort to take over the State Se­nate in the 2018 midterms have re­peat­edly ex­pressed hos­til­ity to the char­ter school move­ment.

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