Monday, October 7, 2019

Imagine schools: corporate-style reform in NYC rearing its head once again

On Thursday, Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza announced a new $32 million initiative, called “Imagine Schools NYC”, described as a “Public-Private Challenge to Open 20 New Schools and Transform 20 Existing Schools Across 5 Boroughs”.  A competition was announced for teams to submit their ideas for new or redesigned public schools, with winners to be announced in May 2020 and these schools to open in 2021 or 2022. 

According to this press release from the Mayor's office, the Robin Hood Foundation will contribute “up to $5 million to support the creation of up to 10 new Imagine Schools”  and the XQ Institute  will contribute another $10 million to create 10  new or redesigned public high schools.  Presumably, this means DOE will itself be putting in an additional $16 million to create or restructure another twenty schools. 
Robin Hood is also spending $1M to expand the  DOE’s District-Charter Partnership work, “centered on proven, effective professional development,”  as well as spending up to $10 million for 18 new charter schools, as mentioned in the NY Times, which is twice as much as they’re paying for new public schools.
The XQ Institute, founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, focuses on questionable “competency-based learning” and spent a boatload of money on promoting itself, first via a flashy 2017 TV prime-time special, replete with celebrity performances, and then unsuccessfully pitching the show to be nominated for an Emmy via a national bus tour. 
The DOE press release describes the XQ Institute as “a national leader in transformational high school design…Based on research and expert practice.” Yet the schools that the Institute has helped launch so far have not had an impressive record of success. Four of the first ten high schools that were awarded $10 million each by XQ in their 2016 “Super School” competition  either never opened, failed to expand as planned, or have already closed. 
In addition, one of the schools awarded $2.5 million in a second round of funding, Crosstown, a new high school in Memphis, experienced a student walk-out this fall, to protest how the tenth grade had apparently been separated into two cohorts; one composed of mostly white students and the other black students, with the first group provided with extra attention.  Just last week, the school lost its principal for the second time since it opened last year.
Over the last decade or so, the Robin Hood Foundation has primarily supported charter schools in its education portfolio, as might be predicted considering it was founded by hedge funders and its board is still composed largely of corporate executives and financiers.  According to Wikipedia, its board chair, Larry Robbins, is also the board chair of KIPP NY charter schools, and board chair of the Relay Graduate School that trains teachers in the charter school “no excuses” regimented style of instruction. Robbins is also a member of the NY Board of Teach for America.
Robin Hood’s co- founders have a spotty record.  One co-founder, Paul Tudor Jones, who still sits on the board, also was a board member of the Weinstein Company and continued to support Harvey Weinstein even after the stories of his numerous sexual assaults were exposed in the NY Times. 
Another Robin Hood co-founder and board member, Glenn Dubin, was a close associate and business partner of Jeffrey Epstein, even after Epstein served time for the sexual abuse of minors. Economist Roland Fryer, board member, was suspended in July from the faculty at Harvard for two years and lost his research lab for repeated instances of sexual harassment.
The DOE application form to submit an idea for a new or redesigned ImagineNYC school is here.  Among the information required are the members of the school design team, a theme for the school, several essays and a video. And yet the application is due on Nov. 6, only one month from now.
While the DOE press release claims that this will be a community driven process, and that "Department representatives have attended community events and distributed flyers in neighborhoods across the City to raise awareness,” I have yet to hear from any parent leader or community member who had seen any such flyers. 
The press release also indicates that some design teams “have already begun forming across the City,” which suggests the entire competition may be an inside job, with the administration giving a head start to certain favored groups or individuals. Indeed, the release discloses that “through the spring and summer, the DOE has invited principals to attend design day sessions."
Given that these two private funders will help select the winners, or as Robin Hood put it, “will partner with the Department of Education on a rigorous selection process”, that means DOE will be sacrificing control for the design of these public schools to these two organizations for a relative pittance, compared to what it will cost to operate them.
But an even greater concern, as I expressed it to the Daily News, is that every new school will likely take space and funding away from our existing public schools, which are already underfunded and in many cases squeezed for space. Every new school makes overcrowding worse by eating up classroom space with the need to carve out new, replicated administrative and cluster rooms. 
We already have seen how worse inequities have resulted from the expansion of co-located charter schools in our public school buildings, as well as how the Gates-funded small schools initiative led to many of the remaining large high schools becoming even more overcrowded with the high-needs students that the small schools refused to enroll.  
Many of the disadvantaged students at the large schools ended up more likely to be discharged, enrolled in low-quality credit recovery programs, or graduate without a Regents diploma  -- all of which served the purposes of the organizations running the show as their small schools data appeared better in comparison.  Another piece of evidence that DOE is caught in an infinite feedback loop: the Senior adviser to the XQ Institute is Michele Cahill, who ran the small schools initiative for Chancellor Klein when she was at DOE. 
One of the proposed XQ “Super Schools” awarded $10 million in 2016 was later rejected by the Somerville school board in Massachusetts, because the district Superintendent and school board realized that even with these funds, starting yet another school would cause  big cuts to their existing high schools, and that “opening the new school would force the district to cut at least 20 teacher or counselor positions and to eliminate most before- and after-school programs districtwide.”
As the Somerville Superintendent was quoted in the Boston Globe:
“As someone who believes in and has championed the power of new ideas my whole career, it pains me deeply to not be able to solve this problem,” she said. “In this case, the investment to create something that may only add an unknown amount of benefit to 2 to 3 percent of students, at the expense of the remaining 97 to 98 percent, is one I cannot recommend making at this time.
NYC already has more than 1800 schools, as a result of the mistaken notion that constant “innovation” (meaning experimentation) and “choice” will raise all boats. Under Bloomberg, 500 new, mostly small schools were created, in addition to 210 new charter schools. How many more do we need?  Instead, it would be better if the Mayor and the Chancellor would focus their attention on making real improvements in the schools we already have, with reforms that have been proven to work, like reducing class size. 
This new “competition” seems like a vanity project and an attempt to enhance the image of Mayor de Blasio, who after coming back from a failed run for President is suffering from a 33% approval rating, and whose sole school improvement effort so far, the Renewal schools, is widely recognized to have failed.  Instead of forging a different and more progressive path, he and Carranza are following in the corporate-style footsteps of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein in outsourcing of decision-making to private foundations with problematic records and vested interests, in addition to their other recently-announced plans to impose a new system of  interim standardized testing on the schools and create yet another new data system. 
Sure enough, Ray Domanico of the right-wing, pro-privatization Manhattan Institute recognizing this when he applauded the-new initiative, writing that "this approach is built on the same valuable concepts de Blasio’s predecessor embraced, which have been missing from the mayor’s agenda until now."
Another deeply concerning development was the concurrent Robin Hood announcement that they intend to fund 18 new charter schools, when NYC reached the cap on charter schools last yearAccording to this NYSED chart, there are already 281 charter schools in NYC, with 25 more already  approved and due to open from 2020-2023. 
Does Robin Hood expect to fund 18 of these already-authorized charter schools, or do they plan to use  their billionaire bucks to try to lobby the Legislature to raise the charter cap once again, as they did in 2010? Let’s hope not the latter.  Only time will tell, I suppose.

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