Monday, April 3, 2023

Why Gov. Hochul's proposal to earmark state funding for tutoring is a bad idea; and Michael Duffy's post-Bloomberg career

While Gov. Kathy Hochul's proposal to raise the charter cap in NYC has received a lot of attention, little scrutiny has been given to her other education proposal: to require that districts set aside $250 million of their state Foundation Aid on tutoring programs. Neither the Assembly nor the State Senate included that proposal in their one-house budgets, which is opposed by many of the education associations and advocacy groups around the state.. 

Nevertheless, her proposal has been hailed by some in the media and the corporate reform groups as the answer to the drop in student achievement caused by the pandemic.  An article in The 74 quotes one supporter of the idea:  

Michael Duffy is the president of the GO Foundation, a New York-based organization that brings tutors into public school classrooms for one-on-one or small-group lessons. The legislature’s recent rejection of the governor’s tutoring proposal is a “missed opportunity,” he said.

“I think that those dollars would have been a really important way to help level the playing field,” Duffy said, explaining that the private market typically renders one-on-one tutoring accessible only to the well-off. 

That name rang a bell to me.  Michael Duffy was the head of the NYC DOE charter office under Bloomberg/Klein, and like his bosses, was an aggressive proponent of expanding charter schools.   

I recall one of the early charter hearings where the vast majority of parents and community members opposed a charter school's authorization.  Yet Duffy, who was running the meeting, was not taking any notes; nor was the hearing being taped, despite the fact that his office was in charge of transmitting the community's views to its potential authorizer, whether the Regents or SUNY.  I asked Duffy why he wasn't taking any notes and why the meeting wasn’t taped.  He responded that transcribing the public's comments would take too much time and money. 

Here is an excerpt from a 2010 interview with Duffy published in the publication, The LoDown, about his dismissive attitude towards public input during these charter hearings, in this case about the proposed expansion of Girls Prep charter school in District 1:

I think, for my part, in a couple of hours of comments, I didn’t hear anything new from the public that wasn’t already known prior to the start of the hearing. I know it’s important that people have a chance to speak their mind, but I don’t think there’s anything that wasn’t known to the Department prior to the proposal for the expansion of Girls Prep.

It was recently announced that this same Girls Prep charter school will close at the end of the 2023-2024 school year, due to lack of enrollment.

Duffy  left the DOE in July 2010 to join Victory, a for-profit charter management organization founded by the private equity operator Steven B. Klinsky, that started at least 16 charter schools in NYC, Philadelphia and Chicago, and had charged high fees to these charters despite low performance.  Many of these charter schools later closed.

Shortly after Duffy joined the company, Victory converted to a for-profit company called Victory Education Partners that would  “contract” with charter schools to provide services – in an apparent attempt to exploit a loophole in the NY charter law, which at that point banned new charters operated by for-profit companies.  

At about the same time, Duffy started his own chain of charter schools, called Great Oaks Charters, which now runs schools in several districts including Newark NJ, Bridgeport CT, Wilmington DE, and NYC. These schools hire recent college grads as low-cost tutors whose salaries and housing stipends are paid for through the Americorps program.  

Recently, the Great Oaks Wilmington charter school was in danger of being closed because its enrollment had fallen to 236 students from its authorized enrollment of 325 students.  In February, the NYC charter school received authorization from the Board of Regents to revise their enrollment from 573 students to 375 students - which they say reflects a delay in expanding to high school grades.

Duffy subsequently started the Go Foundation, for Great Oaks Foundation, which according to its website, aims to “recruit, train, and support a corps of young adults who are placed in partner schools where they intensively tutor students as a part of a year of service through the federal AmeriCorps program.”  The schools shown on their website   are exclusively charter schools.

The GO Foundation 2022 annual report boasts of funding from Bloomberg, the Walton Family Foundation, Steven Klinsky, and others, and says “their plan is to increase the number of Fellows deployed each year to 335 and to expand the program into new partner schools in Washington, DC beginning in fall 2023. 

In August, the GO Foundation announced they had leased a former parochial school in Greenwich Village from the Catholic Diocese to be able to expand through high school,  and will spend five million dollars in renovating the building, with financing provided by BlueHub Capital, a financing organization based in Boston. No doubt they will be charging their charter school a hefty sum for the rent, which will then turn to DOE to cover costs of that lease. Currently, they are receiving  $1.3 million per year from DOE to cover the cost of their lease in a building on Delancey Street.

Despite Duffy's praise, Hochul's  proposal that districts be mandated to use $250 million in state funds for tutoring has serious drawbacks. Many tutoring programs have shown inconclusive results, and the ones that appear to have worked at all have very specific requirements: tutoring sessions should be held more than three days a week and during the school day, which is hard for many schools to schedule.  The group to be tutored should be kept very small – less than three or four students per group.  A USC report adds the following recommendation: the tutoring should be “delivered by teachers or well-trained professional tutors rather than volunteers, peers, or parents.” 

As the USC report concludes: “Finding qualified tutors, navigating students’ schedules, reaching the volume of students who need extra time, communicating with families, even just motivating students to attend –these barriers continue to interfere with the delivery of services that we know will help students.”

Sure enough, even Michael Duffy admitted in his organization’s Annual Report that it has been challenging for his organization to recruit tutors: “ Our team struggled to enlist enough AmeriCorps Fellows to meet the rising demand from students who are eager for the individualized attention provided by our tutor/mentors.”  

Robert Lowry of the New York Council of School Superintendents explained to The 74 reporter why his organization, among others, oppose the tutoring requirement put forward by the Governor:

“It was not a well-thought-out proposal,” he said, explaining that many school leaders support tutoring and other academic recovery efforts, but fear they might face staffing challenges that could leave funds unspent if too narrowly earmarked.”

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