the pay problem

A look at the whys and hows of executive pay at charter schools

A hotly-debated topic in the larger battle between charter school advocates and those who oppose their expansion is the question of executive pay. How much is too much for a charter school chief executive officer?

Though charter schools are privately operated, they receive public funding, which opens them up to criticism when their CEOs and CFOs receive high six-figure salaries.

One interesting case study is Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools founded by Deborah Kenny in 2001, which operates three charter schools — two middle schools and one high school — in Harlem. According to an analysis done by Kim Gittleson, Kenny also happens to be one of the mostly highly-paid charter executives in the city, second only to Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children Zone charter schools.

Like all charter schools, Kenny’s schools are privately operated but receive public funding, opening her up to criticism that her salary far exceeds what traditional public school administrators earn. This year, Kenny’s base salary, excluding her pension and expense account, is $275,000. She also has the opportunity, as she has every year, to earn a year-end bonus of $150,000 if her schools do well, putting her total salary at a potential $425,000.

Ed Lewis, chairman of the board for Harlem Village Academies, said Kenny’s salary is entirely paid by the board and private contributions.

“She’s not being paid out of funds from the public,” Lewis said. “She’s being paid by private funding and I think the individuals who have given money to the charter school clearly understand that in order to maintain and to try and provide the continuing best results, we need to attract and keep and compensate people, particularly if they perform. She’s just been sterling at getting results.”

Lewis said that comparing Kenny’s salary to what traditional public school principals or superintendents make is unfair, as those positions don’t come with the job requirement of connecting with donors and raising funds to support the schools’ survival.

“It’s all part of the effort to attract fundraisers who are interested in the concept of providing the best service for our kids,” Lewis said. “Deborah has this ability to attract and reach out to a variety of people. What she is paid is quite appropriate.”

Peter Murphy, policy director for the New York Charter Schools Association, said it’s difficult to object to charter CEOs’ salaries, as they have raised the money that goes to paying them.

“What charter schools have brought into the public education world is the educational-entrepreneur, who takes enormous risks, works killer hours and brings new ideas and investors into public education,” Murphy said. “They’re paying their own salaries by raising ten fold or a hundred fold what they get paid themselves.”

Kenny’s starting salary was $140,000 with a possible bonus of $40,000, Lewis said, adding that she did not receive a raise for five years. Last year, her salary was frozen because of the economic downturn and the difficulties the charter organization faced in raising money.

Asked what prompts debate about charter CEOs’ salaries, Lewis attributed the criticism to jealousy.

The teachers union and charter school opponents “are going to try and protect their turf,” Lewis said. “So if you have the possibility of a new competitor in the market place who is bringing in results, then you’re going to get a reaction.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.