reporter's notebook

Why my Eva Moskowitz story is the scariest one I’ve ever written

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz touted her network's test scores at a press conference in 2017.

Writing about Eva Moskowitz, charter school impresario, is scary as hell. It’s impossible not to imagine what she, or her legions of critics, will say. Today, I am probably going to get a beating from all sides.

That’s because we published a story in partnership with the Atlantic magazine today in which I simultaneously praise and condemn Moskowitz and what she represents for our country, more sharply and honestly than I ever have before.

My key point: “Moskowitz has created the most impressive education system I’ve ever seen.” And I’m both optimistic and also really afraid for what that means for the country.

What’s impressive about Success schools, I write, goes beyond their high test scores, emerging diversity, and speed-of-light expansion. What’s impressive is the new model of public education the schools represent — one that’s taking off all around the country, especially in cities Chalkbeat covers. I introduce this model by explaining why I think school districts have such a hard time (maybe an impossible time) getting better:

The reason isn’t terrible union contracts or awful management decisions. The fault, I came to see, lies in the (often competing) edicts issued by municipal, state, and federal authorities, which add up to chaos for the teachers who actually have to implement them. It’s not uncommon for a teacher to start the year focused on one goal—say, improving students’ writing—only to be told mid-year that writing is no longer a priority, as happened just the other day at a Boston school I know of. We could hardly have designed a worse system for supporting good teaching had we tried.

Of all the reforms that have set out to free schools from this trap, to date I’ve seen only one that works: the implementation of charter-school networks. Large enough to provide shared resources for teachers, yet insulated from bureaucratic and political crosscurrents by their independent status, these networks are creating the closest thing our country has ever seen to a rational, high-functioning school system.

But what’s scary about a charter-school-takeover model, I write, is that it succeeds by squashing democracy.

They have strengthened public education by extracting it from democracy as we know it—and we shouldn’t be surprised, because democracy as we know it is the problem …

As Moskowitz built Success, she enforced what she calls a “dual mission”: first, to build schools “to which any parent would want to send their children,” and second, to enlist staff, students, and families in the fight for laws and policies that let Success build such schools. Her contention is that one mission reinforces the other. But does she wishfully overlook deeper tensions? …

According to Moskowitz, the choices she’s made have been pedagogically driven. Opting out of backfilling ensures that her students aren’t distracted by peers who lag behind; test prep arms her students for the meritocratic ordeal ahead. At the same time, these policies clearly advance Success’s reputation and help cement its political power. …

Who gets to make these trade-offs? In large part, the decisions belong to Moskowitz—or, more accurately, to the Success board. Charter boards, designed to sidestep the unwieldy directives of democratic school governance and focus ruthlessly on leading good schools, are the main reason charter networks operate so well—and also the main reason I worry as the networks grow.

I can’t wait to hear what our readers think. Actually, I’m so nervous about what you’ll say that I’d happily wait a lifetime, but go ahead and let me have it. Comment below, on Facebook, or via Twitter — I promise I’ll read each and every note.

After you read this, please check out our story from Matt Barnum — first in a three-part series — on the portfolio model that has allowed Eva Moskowitz to thrive and the philanthropists and activists who are pushing for it.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.