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Mayoral hopefuls split on taking donations from StudentsFirstNY

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools took aim at StudentsFirstNY's ties to Mitt Romney during a rally at Department of Education headquarters today.

Hours after the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools launched a campaign to tie the education advocacy group StudentsFirstNY to the political ideologies of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, 2013 mayoral candidates began chiming in on whether they would accept StudentsFirstNY’s support.

Of the three campaigns that responded to requests for comment from GothamSchools, one said no StudentsFirstNY money would come into its coffers. The other two said they would have no problem accepting support from the group, which seeks to advance many of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies. A fourth candidate says he hasn’t made up his mind yet.

Comptroller John Liu said he would reject any support, although a spokesman acknowledged that funds from StudentsFirstNY were unlikely to be directed toward Liu’s campaign.

“I doubt the group would send us any contributions,” said the spokesman, Chung Seto. Liu, who hasn’t declared for mayor and whose campaign finances are the subject of a federal investigation, is considered a candidate likely to align with the teachers union.

Speaker Christine Quinn, an early favorite in the Democratic primary bid, would happily accept support from education groups, no matter their school reform ideologies, a campaign consultant said today. 

“Chris will accept contributions from [Students FirstNY] just as she has from the teachers union in the past,” the consultant, Mark Guma, emailed. “Chris will accept the support — and counsel — of people with differing opinions on how to improve our schools.”

Tom Allon, a former teacher at Stuyvesant High School who is running on an education platform, said he would be “honored if they donated to my campaign.”

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who came in second to Quinn in a poll this week, told Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah in a statement that he hasn’t made up his mind about StudentsFirstNY.

“The allegations in the report, if true, raise questions about StudentsFirstNY’s financial backing and reporting,” Thompson said. “The last thing we need is super-PAC-like organizations attempting to influence education policy with little transparency and accountability. I reserve judgment for the moment and look forward to learning more about the organization and its agenda.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, two other prospective candidates, did not respond to requests for comment.

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools is hoping to use ties between the Romney campaign and board members to discredit StudentsFirstNY as the group tries to buoy support for Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies. StudentsFirstNY has called the criticism groundless, noting that most of its board members, who include former mayor Ed Koch and Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, are registered Democrats. But the union coalition has focused specifically on a number of board members that are actively working to unseat President Obama in November as a reason to oppose the group.

This afternoon, leaders from unions and community groups that make up New Yorkers for Great Public Schools gathered on the steps of the Department of Education’s headquarters to issue a preemptive condemnation of any elected officials who consider StudentFirstNY’s support.

Billy Easton, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, which is funded by the United Federation of Teachers, said the coalition was not yet trying to tell people for whom to vote. But he warned politicians that “taking StudentsFirst money is bad for New York.”

StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Micah Lasher said the general response from the mayoral candidates so far was evidence that the union coalition’s campaign was baseless.

“New Yorkers don’t like being bullied and they don’t like politicians who are easily bullied,” Lasher said. “It’s sad that we can’t have a serious conversation on education without the union acting like they’re in a school yard.”

Newsroom

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.