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.”

Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.

Referendum Results

Election results: Newark voters stick with an elected school board, NJ voters approve $500 million for schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A voter casts his ballot in Newark's Central Ward on Tuesday.

Newark voters decided Tuesday that the power to choose school board members should remain in their hands, not the mayor’s.

In a referendum held during Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters overwhelmingly opted for an elected school board over one appointed by the mayor. Their decision comes less than a year after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district, putting the nine-member board back in charge of New Jersey’s largest school system and its nearly $1 billion budget.

Statewide, voters narrowly authorized the state to borrow $500 million to pay for the expansion of vocational programs, school security upgrades, and improvements to schools’ water infrastructure. The money for career training will only go to county-run schools and colleges — a boon to those schools, but a potential threat to the district if it leads more students to opt for vocational-technical schools over traditional high schools.

As a result of Newark’s school-board referendum, which was required by state law, voters will continue to elect board members and approve the district’s budget. That outcome was widely expected. The Newark Teachers Union and prominent politicians — including Mayor Ras Baraka, who championed the district’s return to local control — had all urged voters to stick with an elected board.

In a pre-election message posted on the city’s website, Baraka said that allowing the mayor to handpick board members would give him “enormous direct power over education in Newark.”

“I do not want that power,” he said. “I want the people to have that power.”

Also on Tuesday, New Jersey voters re-elected U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, over his Republican rival, Bob Hugin. The high-profile race, which flooded the airwaves with bitter attack ads, drew a large number of voters to the polls despite heavy rain throughout the day.

However, some Newark voters said they were surprised to find questions about school funding and board elections on the ballot when they arrived at their polling sites. Debora Walker, a poll worker at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark’s Central Ward, said she had not seen any ads or information about the two education-focused questions before Nov. 6.

“I didn’t hear anything about any question,” she said. “Just a lot of mudslinging.”

In February, the state put Newark’s school board back in charge of the district, ending 22 years of state control when the board had only advisory powers. Now, the board is once again responsible for selecting the superintendent and overseeing district spending, hiring, and policymaking.

When districts return to local control, state law mandates that voters be given the choice between an elected or mayor-appointed board. Proponents say that granting mayors control of schools forces them to prioritize education because it hitches their political fortunes to the fate of the school system.

But the vast majority of boards nationally and in New Jersey are elected, which most voters are reluctant to change. Newark’s board has been elected since 1982 — and many observers doubted that voters would trade it for an appointed board just as the city regained control of its schools.

“At this particular time, people have a heightened sense of, ‘No, we’re not letting anyone else be in charge,’” said Mary Bennet, a former Newark principal who led a group that advised the district on its return to local control. With an elected board, voters will know that “what they say counts — and people they elected, they can hold them accountable for how they sit up there and vote.”

The statewide ballot measure that voters approved allows the state to issue $500 million in bonds.

Of that amount, $100 million will go to districts to improve the quality of their schools’ drinking water. In 2016, Newark was forced to replace pipes and water fountains in dozens of schools after their water was found to contain high levels of lead. Because most of that remediation has already been completed, it’s unclear how much of the $100 million Newark would be eligible to receive.

Another $350 million is allocated for county vocational programs and school security upgrades, such as new alarm systems. The bond act does not say how that amount will be divided.

The county vocational-technical schools will use their share of the money to expand programs that let students study trades, such as manufacturing and medical technology, while also earning high-school diplomas. In 2017, about 10 percent of Newark students chose to attend one of Essex County’s four “vo-tech” schools over one of the city’s district or charter high schools.

While the bond act was being crafted, some critics noted that it does not set aside any money for the vocational programs that some district high schools offer. Vocational programs at traditional high schools are open to all students, whereas vo-tech schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors.

Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said the county schools desperately need more funding to meet the demand from students. Last year, the schools had nearly 17,000 more applicants than available seats.

“Enrollment has been growing,” she said, “and the vocational schools are turning away more students than they can admit.”

This story has been updated with results of the statewide bond referendum.