first reaction

From outrage to indifference, charter school educators respond to the NAACP’s call to limit their schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

When Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem West, heard that the NAACP passed a resolution to curb charter school growth, he called a meeting with his teachers.

“In my school, I just brought them together. I gave them news reports if they hadn’t seen it already. I asked them to take a look at that, just read it, quietly, and then we shared,” Shabazz said. “We had a conversation. We talked about it.”

During that conversation, Shabazz said, his teachers expressed confusion. They could not understand why, after working to help educate so many students of color, they were being admonished by the NAACP, he said.

That was a common sentiment at a Wednesday afternoon rally in Foley Square for charter school teachers, principals and staff, organized by the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. Like Shabazz, other school leaders and teachers felt compelled to facilitate either formal or informal conversations about the NAACP’s resolution.

The NAACP called for the moratorium last weekend, arguing charter schools expel too many students and “perpetuate de facto segregation” by catering to higher-performing children. Those arguments have long been made by the teachers union, which quickly praised the NAACP’s decision.

Success Academy, the largest charter network in New York City, came under fire last year after one principal was found with a “Got to Go” list featuring students’ names.

The NAACP’s decision drew criticism from the editorial boards of several major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. But on Wednesday night, Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, stood by the organization’s decision, saying, “We will do what we have to do.”

That is both distressing and personal to Kiah Hufane, principal at Success Academy Harlem Central.

“I grew up with family who talked about the NAACP as the next great hope for African-Americans during the civil rights movement,” she said, “and to have this organization speak for me is really just downright offensive.”

The news was distressing enough to her, she said, that she felt it necessary to have a school-wide discussion about it, which she characterized as “a hard conversation to have with my staff.” One of her main concerns is that the NAACP’s actions will cause a withdrawal of public support for charter schools. In cities other than New York, she fears it could significantly slow charter school growth.

Others say that while the NAACP’s position is upsetting, it won’t cause a tangible difference for charter schools.

“Although it makes me sad — and maybe I’m being naive — it doesn’t really worry me that much,” said Katherine Genao, a teacher at Success Academy Bronx II. “While there are people opposed, there are more and more people who are rallying for us.”

(Most teachers and staff approached by Chalkbeat declined to answer questions, but the organizers made certain attendees available to the press.)

Jacob Mnookin, executive director at Coney Island Prep, argued his own experience speaks louder than the NAACP’s criticisms.

“We haven’t talked a lot about it as a school,” Mnookin said. “We have over 2,000 families on our waiting list, and I think it’s unfortunate and sad for an organization like the NAACP with such a storied history to tell families that desperately want a better choice like that for their children, that they shouldn’t have that.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.