Tag Archives: Success Academy

Can We Talk About Poverty And Violence NOW?

I became aware of this via a graduate school colleague.  Research from the CDC and Harvard University identifies that as much as 30% of young people in our urban areas suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as the result of living in communities afflicted by violence, a rate higher than soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  This citation recently went viral because of report on a San Francisco CBS affiliate that mentioned the research — while deciding to coin the phrase “hood disease” to describe the phenomenon.  Response to that polarizing and sensationalist turn of phrase was swift, and it was well earned.  Hopefully, it will not obscure a chance to focus on a conversation that is desperately missing from today’s education conversation — the impact of poverty and violence on children and what it means to provide meaningful education for those children.

I am not optimistic, unfortunately.  Discussing the impacts of poverty and community violence on children would mean taking a good hard look at American society as a whole, how segregated we remain as a society (and how it is getting worse since 1980), how poorly we do as a country at helping families in poverty and how we largely ignore problems that are clustered in communities that are predominantly of color. I find it hard to believe that we are ready for a conversation today.  It would require more willingness for painful introspection and confrontation of racism that many prefer to believe does not exist.

Optimism is further undercut by the fact that the impacts of poverty on all sorts of outcomes for young people is not precisely news, although the PTSD estimates for community violence should cause more people to take notice.  “Effects of Poverty on Children” was published in 1997 and found vast differences in physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional and behavioral outcomes for children living in poverty, and it described the ways in which poverty influences these outcomes.  They recommended community health, parental education, in home interventions, and renewed efforts to eliminate deep, sustained poverty.  Not one of these recommendations found their way into the Bush era No Child Left Behind education reform bill nor into its Obama administration successor, Race to the Top.  Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Emeritus David Berliner delivered the Presidential Invited Speech at the 2005 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, and he titled in “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform.”  Among his conclusions:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

But since that address in 2005, “one-way accountability” has not only dominated policy, it has actually spawned an entire industrial scaled investment in testing and data, entrenching it even deeper.  Even though it has very little to do with the issues that plague impoverished communities in our country and the schools that try to serve them.

Most of what you’ve read about our “failing” national schools is based on flawed data.  Even using the preferred tool of accountability advocates, standardized tests, the crisis in our public schools is one of community poverty.  This graphic comes courtesy of Christine McCarthy, a New York City public school teacher and recipient of a Distinguished Fullbright Award in Teaching:


Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at USC provides the data for this chart which should make it crystal clear that the constant doubling down on standards and testing will have no serious impact on the international testing gaps that produce such gnashing on the teeth in the media and in Washington.  A test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.  Firing a teacher whose students are performing poorly on a test does not alleviate the well documented impacts of poverty.

It is at this junction, that a Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein comes along, sometimes on a talk show, to say that there should be “no excuses” for even a school with a 75% or higher poverty rate.  Their preferred “no excuses” methods involve firing as many people as they can, closing down schools and turning more and more children over to charter school operators.  Certainly, many of those operators like to claim that they’ve found the “secret sauce” to educating within communities afflicted by high rates of poverty.  Eva Moskowitz’s “Success Academy” empire claims that it is educating the exact same students as the neighborhood schools in Harlem, but that claim is simply false, and a parent at Upper West Side Success documented on tape how administrators have tried to counsel out her son who has an IEP, something no neighborhood school could do.  Northstar Academy in Newark loves to claim at 100% graduation rate for seniors, but it fails to report its 50% attrition rate prior to senior year.

The lesson here is that there is no “special sauce” and “Superman” is a comic book hero.  We, as a society, have never figured out a way to provide large scale, genuine, educational opportunity to children growing up in communities with deep and persistent poverty.  We, as a society, are woefully uncommitted to alleviating poverty and have even come to accept the terrifying 20% rate of childhood poverty as normal and perhaps inevitable.  But absent those two commitments, no amount of firing teachers or testing students until they cry is going to “fix” American education.

And this is where I worry for the future again:  I think it is very likely that a combination of suburban parental outrage and teacher activism is going to push back hard on current reforms.  If Common Core survives, it will be substantially modified with fewer tests and less emphasis on value added models of teacher evaluation.  The fact is that pushing the punishment narrative that has been the burden of urban schools for so long to communities that generally like their schools is going to create a backlash.  But once those parents have pushed back and changed these systems, we will still be left with communities rife with damaging poverty and violence, and we will most likely go back to ignoring those facts.

And the next cycle of “reform” will ignore it too.

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Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, VAMs

Of Greenbacks and Green Cards — Why Wall Street Likes Charter Schools

Yesterday, I contemplated why hedge fund manager and principle founder of Democrats for Education Reform, Whitney Tilson, would be quoted in the New York Times saying that “hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital” as an explanation for financial support of charter schools by Wall Street.  Offering the benefit of the doubt, I considered that Tilson may have simply meant that relatively small cash investments could result in returns of human capital in the form of better educated students.

I no longer consider that.

It turns out that United States tax and immigration laws have created a healthy flow of money from the very wealthy into the charter school movement, possibly in ways not exactly imagined by the authors of those laws but which nevertheless have made charters a favored project of quite a few .1% movers and shakers in world capital.  The New York Times printed an article back in 2010 that reported the interest of the financial sector in promoting charter schools, but it did not examine the connection of that interest to actual returns on investment. While I cannot dispute claims that hedge fund managers like charters because many of them focus on test scores, are not unionized and they are seen as a way of polishing local philanthropic credentials, there is another reason that money flows into charters: it gives a return on investment.

In this piece on Forbes, financial analyst and author Addison Wiggins, explains the mechanism in the tax code that allows Wall Street to show a return on investment in charter schools:

In part, it’s the tax code that makes charter schools so lucrative: Under the federal “New Markets Tax Credit” program that became law toward the end of the Clinton presidency, firms that invest in charters and other projects located in “underserved” areas can collect a generous tax credit — up to 39% — to offset their costs.


So attractive is the math, according to a 2010 article by Juan Gonzalez in the New York Daily News, “that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years.”

That isn’t sexy Gordon Gecko kind of money, but it is also guaranteed.  Put down money to fund the creation or expansion of a charter school, and a firm can double its money in a predictable time table and get to brag to the press about it is bringing new education options to urban areas.  The Gonzalez article in the New York Daily News also reported that JPMoragan Chase was setting up a more than 325 million dollar fund to invest in charter schools taking advantage of the tax credits.  This strategy is attractive enough that there are firms specifically devoted to connecting charter schools and financial backers.

To be fair, it is entirely possible that this is a more cost effective way of increasing the number of classrooms in some urban areas than traditional school construction projects funded by bonds; I do not currently possess the data to make such an analysis.  However, two very important considerations must also be made.  First, using the federal tax code in this way means that the cost to the public comes from potentially lost federal revenue instead of being paid in a predictable way at the local and state levels.  Second, when a city funds school construction traditionally, it is usually doing so to create schools that are obligated to educate and accommodate every student within its zone.  Many charter schools love to brag about their “awesome” results and make incredibly impressive claims about their test scores and graduation rates.  As Bruce Baker of Rutgers demonstrates here, such claims rarely can stand even moderate scrutiny.  North Star Academy in Newark, NJ, for example, claims that 100% of its seniors graduate, which is true — if you ignore that 50% of the students who enroll in 5th grade never make it to senior year.

So what we have are major charter school chains with deceptive or outright fraudulent marketing backed by the titans of finance who are making hefty returns on investment and are donating significant sums to politicians to keep the returns flowing.

In addition to onshore capital returns, investments in charter schools can be beneficial to foreign investors via the EB-5 visa program.  Under this program, foreign investors who spend at least $500,000 in the United States on a development project can earn a visa for himself and his family. According the Reuters article, this path is so attractive to foreign investors that Florida alone expected 90 million dollars for charter schools from foreign investors in 2013.  Much like the tax credits for domestic hedge funds, there is an industry developing to connect wealthy donors looking for EB-5 eligible projects to charter schools seeking capital.

To my knowledge none of these actors are channeling investments into neighborhood schools in need of infrastructure funds, estimated at over 250 billion dollars in 2008.  But the good news is that some hedge funds are getting a guaranteed return on investments and some foreign born multi-millionaires are getting green cards.

Al Shanker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers, helped envision the idea of charter schools.  In a blog post from 2012, NYU’s Diane Ravitch wrote an open reminder to then New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, about what Mr. Shanker thought charter schools should do. Charter schools, in Shanker’s vision, were meant to serve students who were most needy and had potentially failed already within other schools — instead, many of today’s charters deliberately avoid or push out those students.  Shanker also saw charters collaborating with other public schools.  As small laboratories of innovation, their goal should have been to translate what they had learned about working with students to the rest of the public school system.  Today, many charters aggressively compete with public schools and far from being a true part of the public education system, large numbers in some states are managed by for profit Educational Management Organizations who are responsible for their bottom lines.  According to Ravitch, Shanker turned against charters when he saw a pattern of corporate and for profit interests taking over the movement.

I have no doubt that with 1000s of charters operating across the country, that many of them embody the original vision to provide innovation and collaboration and truly dedicate themselves to serving the most needy of our students.  However, today, they are being greatly overshadowed by deceptively marketed brands of charter chains that rake in Wall Street and foreign investment, aggressively lobby state and federal officials for preferential treatment and build their reputations for success on the backs of students they refuse to serve and work to evict from their schools.  Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy chain can summon 7.75 million dollars in donations in one evening while most states’ education spending remains below pre-recession levels.

But, again, the good news is that some hedge funds are getting a guaranteed return on investments and some foreign born multi-millionaires are getting green cards


Filed under charter schools, DFER, Funding, politics

How Andrew Cuomo Has Lost My Vote

Andrew Cuomo has lost my vote — and if you are a teacher, a parent of a public school child or a citizen who sees schools as a vital component of our civil society, he should lose your vote too.  He has been as abusive towards our public schools and the people who work in them as have Republican governors such as Scott Walker and Chris Christie, only without the national spotlight aimed at his policies.  My conservative friends will probably suggest this has to do with media bias, and I won’t deny some possibility of that.  However, a simpler explanation is that Governor Cuomo, unlike Governors Walker and Christie, has done little to highlight his conflicts with unionized teachers — it would do him little good with his core constituencies at home or nationally to do so.

Regardless, he has been a net negative for schools and teachers although you would not have guessed it reading his inaugural address in 2011.  That speech had no mention of education or teachers and the only mention of school was a personal anecdote.  The same speech mentioned taxes or taxpayers seven times, budget three times and the deficit eight times in one short paragraph, claiming there was a deficit of trust and competence as well as a budgetary one.

It has become clear since then that even if he did not mention education in his address, he had education in his sights and it wasn’t to make sure school districts had the funds they need to guarantee educational opportunity for all.  One of the governor’s early achievements was a cap on property taxes   that may have helped many home owners but has also left many school districts scrambling for funds.  At the same time, Albany continued the “gap elimination adjustment” which became permanent in the 2011-2012 budget year.  In the GEA, Albany allocates school aid and then uses a formula to take it away…or even increases the amount of money removed from school aid if the state projects a shortfall in revenue.  Essentially, this is a formula that allows the legislature and the governor to announce a school aid budget and then to trim it when nobody is looking.  According to the New York State School Boards association, the GEA has cost New York districts an average of $3.1 million dollars per year each year since 2010.  64% of districts have cut personnel, 53% have increased class sizes and 36% have reduced or eliminated extracurricular activities.

None of this is good for the children of New York, but it certainly helps Governor Cuomo keep from ever considering higher taxes.  By the way, when you search the New York Times for “gap elimination adjustment” this is what comes up.  Too obscure for even the Times’ New York reporting, you have to go to local and regional papers to find comprehensive coverage.

While finding ways to trim the money available locally and at the state level, the Governor has also aggressively pursued state pension reform.  This is hardly unique to New York, but the demands to reform how career teachers retire comes at a time when teachers are being asked to do more than ever before…with less in the present and promises of less in the future.  Governor Cuomo is solidly behind the current reform environment which means the state is not only implementing the Common Core State Standards, but also the state is implementing test score driven evaluation of teachers.  While recent statements from the governor indicate a willingness to delay or reweight the degree to which student test scores will impact both student promotion and teacher evaluation, Commissioner John King was unambiguous that Albany believes it is on the right path for schools and will plow ahead.  Plowing ahead means teachers with larger class sizes and fewer support personnel having to quickly implement a new and complicated set of curriculum standards in all grades simultaneously and simultaneously having to face their retention and tenure decisions being based upon the result of tests that have resulted in dramatic declines across the board.

All of this in a budget environment where NYC parents are being asked to fund raise so schools can hire elementary reading specialists.  Schools lucky enough to have parents who are wealthy and connected maintain essential services.  Other schools?  Well, at least Andrew Cuomo doesn’t have to raise anyone’s taxes.

Balancing the budget on the backs of school children and public employees is unpleasant enough on its own, but Governor Cuomo’s behavior during the recent public battle between charter school magnate Eva Moskowitz and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was beyond the pale.  The narrative should be familiar to New York residents.  In the waning days of his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hastily granted a number of new colocations for charter schools in the city, including either new or newly expanded sites for Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain.  Mayor de Blasio granted most of these colocations, where a charter operator is allowed to take over space in an existing public school building without paying rent to the city.  Charter school advocates claim that paying for their space would put charters at a disadvantage compared to existing public schools, which they claim to be. But  Moskowitz herself sued the state of New York to prevent the Comptroller from auditing and succeeded in having a law struck down that granted the Comptroller that authority.  Her argument?  Her schools are not a “unit of the state”. Ponder that: her schools accept public funds and demand space in public school buildings without rent, but the state’s top financial officer has no authority to examine her books.  And she sued to make it that way.

Moskowitz stormed to Albany with her students claiming that the new mayor has declared war on her, but many of her claims fail to stand up to the slightest scrutiny.  Among the most damning highlights is that by halting one of the colocations, Mayor de Blasio was trying to prevent one third of the severely disabled students in one building from being displaced and sent all over the city.  Moskowitz likes to make lofty claims for her schools’ accomplishments drawing from a population that she alleges is among the city’s neediest.  Sadly, these claims are heavily embellished as well.  While Success Academy test scores are indeed high, there is no metric that makes Success Academy 4 the “highest performing school in the state,” and even though admission to charter schools is by lottery, remaining there is not guaranteed — and Moskowitz’s schools have exceptionally high attrition rates, especially among students who do not test well.  Diane Ravitch of NYU and Avi Blaustein note:

In just four years Harlem Success Academy 4 has lost over 21 percent of its students. The pattern of students leaving is not random. Students with low test scores, English Language Learners, and special education students are most likely to disappear from the school’s roster. Large numbers of students disappear beginning in 3rd grade, but not in the earlier grades. No natural pattern of student mobility can explain the sudden disappearance of students at the grade when state testing just happens to begin.

Given these issues, it was disturbing enough to watch Governor Cuomo rush to Moskowitz’s side during her “Save Eva” rally in Albany on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was rallying for support of a universal prekindergarten proposal for New York City.  But what has come out since then is simply inexcusable.  Not only did Cuomo show up to stand by Moskowitz, he actively participated in making the rally happen, and the result of that public pressure and multimillion dollar ad blitz got us a New York state budget that expressly forbids charging charter school rent in public schools and forces the city to pay charter schools’ rents if they cannot colocate.

The fact is that Eva Mokowitz has very wealthy friends.  The NY Times article makes clear that Governor Cuomo relies on campaign donations from Wall Street patrons of charter schools who helped fund the advertising backlash against Mayor de Blasio:

A lot was riding on the debate for Mr. Cuomo. A number of his largest financial backers, some of the biggest names on Wall Street, also happened to be staunch supporters of charter schools. According to campaign finance records, Mr. Cuomo’s re-election campaign has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from charter school supporters, including William A. Ackman, Carl C. Icahn, Bruce Kovner and Daniel Nir.

Kenneth G. Langone, a founder of Home Depot who sits on a prominent charter school board, gave $50,000 to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign last year. He said that when the governor asked him to lead a group of Republicans supporting his re-election, he agreed because of Mr. Cuomo’s support for charter schools.

Campaign filings show that the governor’s re-election campaign has collected over $400,000 in donations from wealthy donors who are also supporters of the Success Academy chain, including $65,000 directly from Moskowitz’s own political action committee. Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana teacher, Ph.D. in statistics and education blogger, has extensively examined Success Academy tax documents with illuminating results, including that the IRS contact reported for Harlem Success Academy is Luxor Capital Group.

I don’t pretend to know why Wall Street big money is so invested in charter schools.  Perhaps they sincerely believe that competition from privately run charter schools that their own children will never attend is a “secret sauce” to improving universal education in this country.  Maybe they see charters as an effective tool against one of the last largely unionized work forces in America.  Perhaps expanding charters is seen as a key factor in setting up education as a massive data collection enterprise where entrepreneurs can turn data into profitable technology products.  It could be any number of factors, but one thing is certain: those factors are not being debated in public as part of the exercise of democratic control of public education.  It is almost entirely privately debated for private purposes.

And that is why Andrew Cuomo cannot have my vote.  He has made it very clear that he is not for public schools, public school teachers or public school students.  Those people have been continuously squeezed by local revenue roadblocks and state revenue take backs at a time when they have had to do more and more for higher and higher stakes.

He is, however, very much for what hedge fund campaign donors are for.  Those people have not been asked for a cent more in taxes and have their pet projects enshrined in the state budget.

If you are a student in New York, a parent of a student in New York, or a teacher in New York, Andrew Cuomo is not your governor, and he does not deserve your vote.

ADDENDUM:  There are reasons why hedge funds promote charter schools.  They are, surprise, linked to profit.


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