crib sheet

We read Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare” so you don’t have to

Eva Moskowitz did not generate the idea for Harlem Success herself; Randi Weingarten has been criticizing her successor, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, to her friends; and former Chancellor Joel Klein thinks that at least two of his former deputies have gone soft on reform in their new school districts. These are among the claims in “Class Warfare,” Steven Brill’s new book on the education reform movement.

Much of “Class Warfare” will be familiar to GothamSchools readers. The book’s main characters include, on one side, former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and, on the other, teachers unions president Randi Weingarten; many of its main plot points center on New York City, and some of the key classroom scenes take place in Harlem.

But the following insights — some of them more solidly sourced than others — were news to us. Here’s a run-down of Brill’s most intriguing New York-related reporting:

The war behind the war: Bloomberg v. Klein

  • On labor issues, Bloomberg sometimes undercut Joel Klein. Klein’s team thought they could get the UFT to sign off on a change in the teacher termination process. But Bloomberg, who was nearing reelection, told them not to push their luck. “The mayor blinked,” the DOE’s one-time labor chief, Dan Weisberg, told Brill. “The mayor just gave up.” Weisberg said he “clashed almost daily” with City Hall over back-channel contract negotiations in 2005.
  • Similarly, Brill reports that in 2006, Bloomberg told Klein and Weisberg to “stand down” on pushing a time limit for teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve. As Klein left office last year, he was still calling for that policy.
  • Bloomberg was weighing a third term even a year into his second, and his education policies reflected that. The 2007 teachers contract included little in the way of substantive policy, an oddity at a time when Klein was setting an aggressive tone at Tweed. In fact, the only major change, a schoolwide bonus program, was spiked this year. “The plan,” Klein told Brill, “was to make some progress in the 2005 contract — which we did, though not enough — and then go in for the kill in 2007. Mike deciding to run for a third term completely killed that.”

What Klein really thought of his proteges and more that you didn’t know about him

  • Klein didn’t think he would be chancellor. Brill reports that a mutual friend suggested that Bloomberg consider Klein, but after their first meeting, Klein “didn’t think he had connected with Bloomberg.” Bloomberg now says he picked Klein because “Jesus Christ wasn’t available.”
  • The animosity displayed between Klein and Randi Weingarten, the teachers union president for most of his tenure, was real. “Joel Klein would come to detest [Randi] Weingarten as much as she detested [Klein ally, PS 49 Principal Anthony] Lombardi and him,” Brill writes.
  • Klein isn’t uniformly proud of his protégés. Former Klein deputies now head school systems in Baltimore, New Haven, Chicago (where Jean-Claude Brizard came from Rochester, N.Y.), and New Jersey. But in some of those places, Klein said his former deputies had not been bold enough. “All of them had big minds, but not all had strong minds,” he told Brill. Brill and Klein do not name names. Among the former Klein deputies now leading education efforts in other cities, at least two have received criticism from proponents of aggressive reform. In Baltimore, Andres Alonso has been positioned as a more collaborative alternative to Klein; in New Haven, Garth Harries, the number-two school official, led an agreement with the teachers union that critics charge included too many concessions.
  • Klein’s pension from his eight years as chancellor is guaranteed at the same rate as city teachers’ — 8.25 percent per year. The benefit structure is costly for the city, as we reported last year. “Who else but Bernie Madoff guarantees 8.25 percent a year permanently?” Klein asked.

What Randi Weingarten thinks of Michael Mulgrew, why Eva Moskowitz started Harlem Success, and more charter school politics:

  • Klein created the idea of charter school co-locations with the precise intention of generating a political fight. He told Brill that he slipped $250 million for charter school co-locations into 2005’s larger-than-ever budget and “nobody noticed.” He also said that his decision to give the UFT charter school space inside a city school building was strategic. “Once Randi’s school was co-located, she could never be against co-location in principle,” Klein told Brill. “She’d have to oppose the specifics of the co-location plan but not the idea.” Since then, the UFT has twice sued the city over the specifics of its co-location plans. The union also received City Council funding this year to plan its charter schools’ exit from their co-located site.
  • Weingarten hasn’t approved of the battle that her successor at the UFT, Michael Mulgrew, has waged against charter schools. Brill writes that Weingarten told friends that she was embarrassed by Mulgrew’s efforts to prevent the lifting of the charter cap in 2010 because she thought the union had already lost. The cap was lifted when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, usually a friend of the union, suddenly threw his support behind the move.
  • The cap probably could have been lifted sooner if the city had made a few concessions. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told Brill that she wanted Klein to give up his commitment to co-location as part of the negotiations around lifting the charter school cap in 2010. “If Joel would give up on co-location and look at doing something on saturation, it would sure ease all the tension,” Tisch told Brill.
  • Harlem Success Academy wasn’t Eva Moskowitz’s idea. Brill reports that several hedge-fund managers approached Moskowitz’s husband, Eric Grannis, for advice about starting a network of charter schools; Grannis had previously helped launch the Girls Prep charter school. After Moskowitz critiqued the hedge-fund managers’ plan, they offered her the job — but they told Brill they hadn’t planned to do so before that.

On Race to the Top, including what the Obama administration really thought about New York’s application:

  • The Race to the Top competition was partially inspired by the Gates Foundation. In 2008, the Gates Foundation held a small-scale competition to encourage school districts and teachers unions to work together. When an Obama administration official first proposed the idea of having states compete for federal funds, they were reminded that the Gates competition had achieved its aim of fomenting collaboration.
  • Race the to Top could have been three times bigger. When Obama administration officials approached David Obey, a member of the House of Representatives who controlled the appropriations committee, he wasn’t happy that the competition would annoy the unions and that his state, Wisconsin, was unlikely to win. So he cut the initial proposal of $15 billion (out of $100 billion being distributed to schools) down to the $5 billion that made up the first Race to the Top competition.
  • Other states were supposed to beat New York, which came in second in Race to the Top’s second round. New York’s win — after a dismal showing in the first round — came largely because the state and its teachers unions agreed to toughen teacher evaluations (the same evaluations that are now being disputed in court). Federal officials were shocked to see that the people hired to evaluate Race to the Top applications gave so much credit to union collaboration in New York. They were also distressed that Colorado and Louisiana, which had reshaped their laws in response to the competition, had not made the cut — to the point that they considered changing the rules after the competition was over. Politics K-12, Education Week’s education politics blog, has the complete run-down on the rankings shakeup that Brill writes caused “near-panic” at the U.S. Department of Education.

Rubber rooms, Wendy Kopp and LIFO, and more miscellaneous extras:

  • The number of teachers removed from the classroom on misconduct charges is tiny and falling. In the year after the city closed the rubber rooms that housed teachers accused of misconduct, Brill reports that just 155 teachers were removed from the classroom, down from 250 to 300 teachers a year before that.
  • Teach for America tempered its opposition to “last in, first out” layoffs, which would have heavily affected its members, out of pragmatism. “It should be obvious how I feel but we have to work with these school systems and teachers every day,” TFA founder Wendy Kopp told Brill.
  • Capacity is a big problem. Brill describes how top Harlem Success staff members quit midyear, citing the toll of their long hours and high-pressure jobs on their relationships and bodies. Meanwhile, the superintendent of Pittsburgh’s schools told Brill that even if he replaced the weakest 3.5 percent of his teachers each year with better teachers, he would be able to “refortify” only a third of his workforce in a decade. And that’s in a system with just 2,200 teachers, compared to nearly 80,000 in New York City.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”