A ‘Founders’ Excerpt: How Joel Klein Found His Disruptive Force — and Reshaped NYC Education

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This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools. See more excerpts at The 74; watch all the videos, download the book and explore the Founders Oral History at The74Million.org/TheFounders.

Could there be a more unlikely city to serve as a launchpad for top charters than New York — home to the most powerful and politically savvy teachers union in the country, the United Federation of Teachers, and governed by a legislature in which the unions had invested millions of dollars over the years to ensure that Albany remained a steadfast friend? But it happened when Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor and appointed famed prosecutor Joel Klein to take over the education helm. Bloomberg didn’t care that Klein had no experience running schools. He wanted a fearless change agent, and Klein proved to be that.

Klein took over the New York system in August 2002, and for the first year he remained silent on charters while he carried out big organizational changes. But in his second year, all that changed as he arranged meetings with the heads of top charter management organizations: Dave Levin from KIPP, Norman Atkins from Uncommon, Dacia Toll from Achievement First and Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children’s Zone. Klein set out to do something any other schools chief would consider insane: disrupt his own schools with built-in competitors. And Klein didn’t want mere tinkering; he wanted big change, so at first he focused only on the major operators who could open multiple schools that would be high performers from the first day. What about the mom-and-pops, the one-off charter startups that might grow into KIPPs and Uncommons? Didn’t they deserve support? Fuhgeddaboutit. This was New York; only the biggest and the best. And right away!

“I know with Dacia, she was skeptical at first,” said Klein. “People didn’t know how aggressive the city would be. But I pushed hard on this notion that I didn’t want this to be a boutique business, that they would be in this for the long haul with multiple growth opportunities … I wanted to make New York the Silicon Valley for charter schools.”

Toll recalls her first meeting with Klein, who asked that she expand her Connecticut operations to the city. The discussion seemed to go well, so she asked Klein: “OK, who [in the department] do I start the conversation with about Achievement First coming to the city?” Klein answered immediately: We just had the conversation, and you just agreed to open three schools. “It was like, boom!”

Toll checked quickly with Dave Levin and Norman Atkins, the KIPP and Uncommon leaders in New York, to see if they would object to the added competition. “They said they were more than OK. Their attitude was, ‘This is going to be fun. Come to New York!’ ”

Joel Klein talks about his theory of change:

On July 14, 2003, the first day of school for KIPP S.T.A.R. in Harlem, the new strategy kicked off as Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference at the school, which was housed in a former district office building. It was a clear shot across the bow: We will find space for top charters.

Said Bloomberg: “We said we would put children first when it comes to education — and by creating a new school where offices once stood, we are doing just that. We applaud KIPP for their academic achievements and for their continuing commitment to New York City’s schoolchildren.” Added Klein: “In just two weeks we have taken district office space that used to house bureaucracy and transformed it into a charter school in a community that needs innovative and excellent new schools … We continue to work with charter schools throughout the city to share best practices for teaching and learning across all types of schools.”

Most charter operators gravitate to cities where there’s little hostility from unions and charter critics, meaning anywhere but New York. But Klein had a very large carrot to bend that maxim: $1-per-year rental fees inside existing school buildings. “We took the view, and it was controversial, that the schools belonged to the children,” said Klein.

Uncommon’s Brett Peiser, who would return to New York City to lead Uncommon’s expansion there, was stunned by the freedom offered by Klein. The all-consuming need to find buildings in the most expensive city in the country suddenly ended. “It was a huge part of our growth,” said Peiser. “I had just spent three years where all I did was work on the building [availability] issue.” The idea that buildings were going to be taken care of meant Peiser and others could focus just on instruction. That was huge. “That’s what moves people’s hearts and is why people are excited about this work — not school construction bonds.”

To support rapid charter growth (which would soon grow to about 20 school openings a year), Klein pulled together a collaboration of philanthropists who formed the NYC Center for Charter School Excellence, now called the NYC Charter Center. All this was to create schools to compete against his own traditional schools — unthinkable in any other city. “Most people running a school system are not eager to give up market share to the charter sector,” said Klein. “But our overall view was that serving lives, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods, you want to create as many options for good schools as you can.” But creating more good schools was only part of the plan. To be fundamentally disruptive, those schools had to become permanent, not something future union-friendlier mayors could dismantle. The theory: “If you change the status quo for families, the schools become bulletproof,” said Klein. That’s why he ushered in only the top charters; they had to be good from opening day.

One crucial development during the Klein years was granting in-school space to Success Academies, a charter group that has grown faster than the others, attracted more philanthropy than most, registered higher test scores — and drawn exponentially more criticism. All that arises from the unique personality of its founder, Eva Moskowitz, possibly the most polarizing, successful and controversial charter leader in the country.

“She had a rapid growth plan, and one that we were happy to support,” said Klein. “Her whole modus operandi depended on us giving her space. It’s hard to grow at the level she wanted to unless she had co-located space.”

Everything about Moskowitz is different, including her launch. As a former City Council member and head of the council’s education committee, she held a now-legendary series of investigative hearings that skewered union work rules, leaving the unions furious and vowing revenge — a revenge they extracted in 2005 when Moskowitz launched an unsuccessful bid to be the Democratic nominee for Manhattan borough president.

It was during those hearings that Moskowitz began forming ideas for launching her own schools. “At the hearings, I was asking teachers and principals and coaches and custodians about every part of schooling, about what excellence looks like, about what needs to happen,” she said. “Once I decided to open Success Academy, I crisscrossed the country finding every great example I could.”

In addition to the New York City–area schools she visited — Uncommon, KIPP and Achievement First — she went west as well. From California’s High Tech High, she came away impressed by the focus on rigor. From a Colorado charter school, she borrowed lessons learned on running project-based learning. The visits were not limited to charter schools. Parochial, private and traditional district schools were on her must-visit list as well.

In Queens, at Ozone Park’s P.S. 65, she came across Paul Fucaloro, who was overseeing the lunchroom while peppering the students with math facts. She hired him to work at Success, where he ended up as director of pedagogy before he retired in 2014. At the prestigious Nightingale-Bamford private school in New York, she found a social studies program she admired. From the private, all-girls Brearley School in New York she found a science focus that helped shape the intense concentration on science.

In spring 2016, as Success Academy was celebrating its 10th anniversary, Moskowitz ran 34 schools that enrolled 11,000 students, nearly all of whom register striking academic gains. (It was hardly a surprise when the network was named one of three finalists for the 2016 Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools.) In 2015, her minority-dominated schools, which operate in some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, scored among the best in New York state: Five of the top 10 schools in New York in math were Success Academy schools.

For the next school year, 20,000 students applied for 3,228 spots. Moskowitz’s long-term goal: 100 Success Academy locations. Some of the controversy surrounding Moskowitz is of her own making; she’s still bashing the unions, essentially fighting the same fight from her City Council days. And comparing academic results from her schools with those from neighborhood schools, when her schools enjoy important differences such as not “backfilling” classes after fourth grade, is unfair.

But there’s no question that she has pioneered success at unprecedented scale by doing one thing different: offering incredibly rich academics to students who live in neighborhoods where that just doesn’t happen. Klein, who had his own clashes with Moskowitz, said the success at scale is the source of most of the attacks. “That’s threatening to a lot of people.”

Did Klein’s master plan work out? According to independent researchers, New York charters come close to being the best in the nation. But did they change the status quo for city families? That question got an early test when union-friendlier Bill de Blasio was elected mayor and immediately went after the co-located charters despised by the unions. The result: Thousands of minority parents and their children turned out for massive demonstrations in both New York and Albany. These were parents for whom the status quo had definitely changed. De Blasio famously backed down. Bulletproof.

The Bloomberg/Klein period of school reform in New York involved scores of initiatives, most of them highly controversial and all drawing fire from the teachers unions. Only with hindsight is it possible to see that the most radical change Klein pushed, and certainly the most successful, was persuading the nation’s top charter operators to make New York City a priority. He challenged them to disrupt his schools.

Klein’s revolutionary charter-building initiative in New York points to a second phenomenon: These charter pioneers, the designers of charter groups such as KIPP, Achievement First and Aspire, didn’t do this on their own. That success happened because a separate group of education entrepreneurs, district leaders such as Klein, philanthropy innovators such as Kim Smith of NewSchools and creative funders such as Reed Hastings all joined forces to make it possible.

Download the book, read more about Joel Klein and meet the other pioneering founders of America’s high-performing charter networks, at The74Million.org/TheFounders. Below, a video interview with author Richard Whitmire, on what he learned while writing the book:


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