embedded on the front lines

Door to door in Crown Heights with a charter school foot soldier

Bianca Blake (check!) and George Banning in Crown Heights, Brooklyn
George Banning canvasses for charter school advocates in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

As next week’s Race to the Top deadline approaches, pro-charter advocates are marshaling all their resources to lift the state’s cap on charter schools. George Banning is one of their foot soldiers.

It’s been hard to miss the advocacy group Education Reform Now’s pro-charter, anti-teachers union ad blitz. The group, backed by millions of dollars raised largely from hedge fund managers, spent $750,000 on a television ad buy last week, for example. Its web ads plaster Google, Facebook and news websites.

But the group is also trying to rally support for its efforts in Albany by sending roughly 40 canvassers like Banning literally to voters’ doorsteps.

To persuade lawmakers to support their issues — many of which clash with the powerful teachers union — Education Reform Now has to argue that its positions enjoy a groundswell of public support. But the true extent of public support for its position is unclear. The last independent poll that asked found that more than 60 percent of New Yorkers wanted more charters, but that was in March 2009. A recent poll reported that public support for Chancellor Joel Klein, a charter school cheerleader, is declining.

And so one afternoon last week, Banning hit the streets of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn armed with postcards and petitions addressed to the neighborhood’s assemblyman and senator. On a clipboard, Banning carried a list of names and addresses of registered voters.

Face of the campaign

Banning is a tall man in his early 30s with a posture that gives away his history as a dance graduate of LaGuardia High School. After an injury, he gave up his dancing career, got an undergraduate degree in biology and is headed to medical school this fall. He got this job through connections made as a canvasser for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, and goes out canvassing five afternoons a week.

Each of the postcards Banning carried asked lawmakers to vote “yes” on a measure that would more than double the number of charters allowed in the state. Banning, who has canvassed in all the city’s borough’s except Staten Island, is also hoping to build support for an effort to do away with the city’s seniority-based layoff system.

banning_2
George Banning in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

The day I tagged along, Banning was covering friendly territory. Crown Heights’ Assemblyman, Karim Camara, introduced the cap lift bill that Education Reform Now supports and that the Senate already passed earlier this month. Banning also happened that day to be canvassing the neighborhood where he grew up; his elementary school, P.S. 161, was a few blocks away. (One man mentioned that his mother-in-law had taught there for many years. “Mrs. Alexis?” Banning replied excitedly. “I know her.”)

The roughly 15 voters who opened their doors for Banning in Crown Heights in a three-and-a-half hour canvassing shift are clearly not a representative sample. But their responses to Banning’s pitch suggest that at the very least, the lobby’s public relations campaign has succeeded in capturing attention, if not creating deep knowledge of the issue.

Banning’s script typically went like this: First, he introduced himself as a representative of a pro-charter advocacy group and assured that no, he was not with the census. Banning then asked if the person knew that New York had lost $700 million because state lawmakers had not lifted the cap on charter schools.

Responses varied:

— “I saw the commercials, but I don’t know the politics of it.”
— (Blank stare.)
— “Is that what they were showing ads for on the TV?”
—”Mayor Bloomberg came to my church Sunday talking about this, so what the heck!”
— “What does Karim think of this?”
— “Is this that $700 million thing?”

Making the pitch

For some of Ed Reform Now’s canvassers, it’s just a job, Banning told me, but he’s a true believer. Banning is the father of a student at Excellence Charter School and has a personable, persuasive manner as he explains that he thinks all parents deserve strong public school choices, including charter schools, for their children.

He convinced most voters he encountered to sign their names and addresses to pro-charter school postcards with relative ease, often arguing that doing so would help the state secure the $700 million Race to the Top funds state officials argue New York’s schools desperately need. “Anything for the kids,” several people said as they signed without asking questions.

Not everyone was so amiable. “So we’re going to sell ourselves to Washington for this?” asked one man, suspicious of the federal government’s push to dangle funds as a way of influencing state educational policy. He took a flier but did not sign.

If he secured a signature on a pro-charter school postcard, Banning moved to stage two. “Also, have you heard about the crisis in Albany with budget cuts?” he asked. (“Which one?” one woman deadpanned.) Around 6,400 teachers face layoffs, he explained. “That’s really sad,” he said, “and what’s more sad is that they’re going to fire first the teachers who have been hired most recently.”

“Do you think that’s fair?” he asked.

“I’m on the fence about this,” responded Ann Rollins Boyd, the mother of a P.S. 161 student who had signed Banning’s charter school postcard. “In the corporate sector when they downsize, that’s how they do it, too.” Banning pushed, and Boyd eventually assented that she thought there should be a way to pinpoint the best teachers and spare them. She signed the petition.

At one house with day care signs in the window and mail from the national teachers union peeking out of the mailbox, Banning got a surprising answer. “No, I don’t think that’s fair,” said the middle-aged teacher who answered the door. “I’m not supposed to sign this, but I’m going to,” she said.

Jason Hayes, left, and George Banning debate charter schools and seniority-based layoffs.
Jason Hayes, left, and George Banning debate charter schools and seniority-based layoffs.

The last visit of Banning’s run was also the only one where Banning encountered serious opposition. “This, to me, is a jaded issue,” said Jason Hayes, a filmmaker and former teacher. “If you’re giving people a choice between a charter school that’s extremely well funded and a public school that’s extremely underfunded, what kind of a choice is that?”

Banning spent the next 20 minutes trying to convince Hayes that charter schools don’t weed out students and are not a form of privatizing public education, and that the push against seniority-based layoffs is not a union-busting strategy. It didn’t work. “At the end of the day, this campaign for me is not about educating kids in the best possible way,” Hayes concluded.

But Hayes’ opposition won’t show up in Education Reform Now’s records. Later on the train, as Banning tallied all of the responses he’d received on a scale of 1 (signed a petition) to 5 (extremely opposed), I noticed that he didn’t include Hayes at all. He wasn’t the registered voter at that address and so wouldn’t be counted, Banning explained.

I asked how Banning would have rated Hayes if he had been the voter at that house. To my surprise, Banning told me he would rate Hayes as a 3.

He seemed pretty opposed, I said.

“He took some literature,” Banning said optimistically. “And he said he’d think about it. Maybe he’ll change his mind.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”