TLD Interview: NYC Charter School Head Michael Duffy

Michael Duffy listens at a charter school hearing in February.

Last week, a long-running debate pitting parents on the Lower East Side against one another finally came to an end. After two emotional public hearings in the neighborhood, the Department of Education’s policy panel voted to approve a proposal allowing the Girls Prep Charter School to expand in its current location. Now, Girls Prep administrators and their counterparts from two other schools sharing a century-old building on East Houston Street, must figure out how to adjust to the new arrangement. Several days before the Panel on Education Policy’s decision, I spoke with Michael Duffy, executive director of the DOE’s Charter School Office. We discussed many issues, including the struggle for school buildings in New York, the role of parents in DOE decision-making and the uncertain future of charter schools in the city.

Duffy has been in charge of the Charter School Office for two-and-a-half years. He came to New York from Boston, where he was executive director of a charter high school. I asked Duffy to describe his responsibilities:

There are two roles that the Charter School Office plays. The first is authorizing new schools. That revolves around reviewing new applications that are submitted and it also involves the review of existing charter schools as they go through their five year charter. And then making recommendations to the chancellor about whether new applications should be approved and whether an existing charter would be renewed. That’s one set of responsibilities. The second deal with the administrative, operational support for charter schools. So the funds that flow to 99 charter schools in the city come through my office. Transportation, coordination of public health issues and then the biggest – working with schools on issues related to facilities, both DOE facilities and private facilities.

Duffy explained what his office is trying to accomplish:

We’re trying to empower parents, teachers and activists in a number of ways. One is by helping them to create the schools that best serve the needs of their children, whether it’s a couple of teachers getting together and writing a charter application, or a couple of parents who have a better idea about how to run a school, or neighborhood activists to build a certain kind of school — working with groups like that to help them realize their vision. Second is empowering parents in the choices that they have available for the schools that they send their kids to.

In spite of the controversy certain charter school applications have generated in New York City, Duffy maintains it is the “most dynamic place for charter schools in the country.” This is due, he says, to the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. On the Lower East Side there are three charter schools: Girls Prep, Manhattan Charter School and Ross Global Academy. How does Duffy assess the state of the charter school program in our neighborhood?:

I think the focus of charters in New York City is to serve kids who are at risk, and since the Lower East Side has high numbers of at risk children, charters are a natural for the neighborhood. I think the biggest obstacle to the creation of more charters in the Lower East Side is the same obstacle that charters face across the country, which is facilities and where to locate. That’s exacerbated by the fact that charters don’t get funding for facilities and also by the fact that the Lower East Side is so densely settled that finding available space is really difficult.

At the public hearings concerning the expansion of Girls Prep’s middle school, parents were critical of the DOE assessment indicating the P.S. 188 building was only operating at 67% of capacity. In their view, the Education Department chooses the easy way out, wedging new schools into existing school buildings, rather than building new schools.  A speech therapist at P.S. 188 said she had moved offices three times in the past year and was now working with students in the back of a classroom while classes are in session. Due to the need to juggle three separate school communities, some kids eat lunch at 10:30am. How does Duffy respond to the concerns about overcrowding:

It’s interesting. Charter schools are public schools. So in New York City we have roughly 1.1 million students who are in the public school system in the five boroughs. So the charter schools, when they are created and when they open, they draw from that same pool of students. So if you look at it from a macro perspective, it’s not like there’s any new student creation that’s happening as a result of charter schools opening. It’s the same pie. It’s just sliced in a different way. So conceptually, it should be possible for charters to share existing spaces without displacing anybody. Now when you add to that the fact that many charters are located in private facilities, you could actually make the case that they’re adding to the pie rather than taking away from it. So next year, of the 29 new charters that are to open, half of them are going into private space. Those are spaces in buildings that had not been available in the past that are now added as a new option for New York City public school students.

So why are some administrators, teachers and parents complaining so loudly about the space issues in their schools?

Listen, if I was a school leader operating in a building for many years and my enrollment was less than what the building was built for I’d expand to fill the empty classrooms too, and I’d make the best use I could of them for whatever programs I had. Then when the day came when somebody asked me to give up those rooms, you know it would really be difficult to think about how to do that. And I think that’s what we were hearing about at the hearing on the Girls Prep expansion.

The state-mandated hearings are designed to solicit feedback from parents and other members of the community about the DOE’s proposals.  I asked Duffy for his thoughts on the process and to explain how the information gathered at the hearings is factored into the DOE’s decision-making:

It definitely provides a forum for people to speak out, and I think that’s a good thing. It helps to get good information out there. I thought the community superintendent did an outstanding job of laying out the facts… 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.

Beginning next year, Girls Prep plans to accommodate 50 middle school students. Eventually, there will be 300 middle school seats. To make room for the expansion, P.S. 94, a special needs school (grades 4-9), will ultimately drop four sections, but continue to serve middle school students. Does the DOE have any concerns about the ability of the three schools to juggle their space needs:

No. I think it’s not unusual for there to be some friction at the beginning as people kind of accommodate themselves to one another. But as one speaker said, once the hearing is over, everybody’s got to go back to work in the building together the next day and I think people will find a way to kind of work through their difficulties.

In the past several months, District 1’s Community Education Council has been sharply critical of the DOE for its handling of the Girls Prep issue.  While supporting the presence of charter schools in the neighborhood, they argued no school should be allowed to expand at the expense of any other school.  CEC President Lisa Donlan has also ridiculed (see the sock puppet protest here) the process, saying, “the mayor and Chancellor (Joel Klein) have made it very clear that they don’t think parents have any role in this level of decision-making.”  I asked Duffy to comment on the dissatisfaction some parents have expressed with their influence (or lack thereof) in the era of mayoral control:

I think that some parents were empowered by the way things were in the past. Very vocal parents had the ability to raise enough heat to challenge and quash proposals that would alter the status quo, and I think one of the reasons the status quo 10 years ago was so deeply dysfunctional was exactly because of that. So now with the authority vested with the mayor, you’ve got one decision-maker who can make the decisions about school closure, replacements based on the merits, and I think he’s less swayed by the heat that’s generated by the few parents who might be disgruntled with a particular decision.

Donlan has also expressed dismay with the way charter and traditional public schools are evaluated. Since charters accept far fewer “special needs students,” she asserts, it’s unfair to compare their test scores with those of traditional public schools. Duffy’s response?

In general, the charters do not enroll as many special education students as the district, if you look across the city. But the difference is relatively small and it varies by school. There are some schools that do a very good job and enroll greater than the city average, some that enroll far less. But on average, charters are close to or a little less, than their district counterparts. I think the criticism is really apt when it comes to English Language Learners. Charter schools are not doing enough to reach out to linguistic minorities to enroll them in their schools. They need to redouble their efforts to reach out to those communities, and we’re working with the schools to do exactly that.

So, given the disparity, how can charter schools and traditional public schools be evaluated on an even playing field?

I’d say this. The most credible rejoinder to that criticism comes from Professor Carolyn Hoxby and Macke Raymond and the study that they conducted. So the study they conducted is longitudinal… It studied those who applied to lotteries – those who earned a place in a charter school lottery and those who didn’t and then it compared them over time. So if the difference in the performance of charters was simply attributable to the kind of students they enroll, you’d expect to see those kids do the same, regardless of the school they entered. But what you see over time is a statistically significant difference in performance that grows the longer the student is in a charter school. Raymond’s methodology is slightly different. She doesn’t use actual lottery results, but she kind of creates a virtual twin for charter school students, to gather statistics on distinct students, that share characteristics with the charter, to compare the charter effect, and she too finds a statistically significant difference. Raymond’s study has particular credibility since she released her results in November, and that was specific to New York City, she released a national study on 17 states back in June, and the conclusion using that same methodology for the 17 states, was very critical of charters. I think people like Diane Ravitch, who have been very harsh charter critics, they lauded Raymond’s study when it came out in June, and were really silent when her results were published in November.

But what do the studies tell him, in practical terms, about what’s happening in New York’s public schools:

I think it says two things. Charters are succeeding at the work that they’re doing and it’s because of the high standards that we have on who gets a charter and because of the willingness of the New York City school district to support charters. I think both of those conditions are not present in the 17 states that were studied. You have authorizers in states like Ohio that have very low standards for who gets a charter and are often operating in districts where the school superintendent and the mayor are very much at odds with charter school operators.

These are uncertain times for New York’s charter school movement. Under the current law, there are only 19 charters left to award. The Legislature has not been able to agree on a proposal to lift the cap. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has insisted on new rules that would strip the DOE and the mayor of much of their decision-making power. Republicans in the Senate balked. Is the situation in Albany having an impact on the charter school office:

Not yet. I think pressure to lift the cap might not come again until people see how New York fares in its Race To The Top application. I think the expectation is that the U.S. Department of Ed. will make a decision in March on the first round of applications and, if in fact New York loses there will be a lot of pressure for a new application, which would be due June 1st, for the cap to be lifted.

There has been speculation the Legislature’s failure to act could jeopardize New York’s application. Duffy thinks there’s some merit to this theory:

What I’ve heard in talking with colleagues from other states is that there’s some really strong proposals that have been made by states where they’ve lifted the cap, and Secretary Duncan says that it’s going to count against applications where there are caps in place on charter school growth.

And what about the future? I asked Duffy to look ahead:

At this point we’re looking at 29 new schools opening in September 2010. None of those schools are planned for the Lower East Side. I think applicants are beginning to look ahead to 2011. I think there’s some concern about whether the cap will be lifted in time. For instance, up in Massachusetts, where I used to work, the Legislature in January acted to lift the cap that was in place there, and there’s a lot of excitement about charter growth there… I think the next couple of moths will tell whether we can sustain the vibrancy of the charter community here, or whether it will start to dry up.

Finally, Duffy had this message for parents on the Lower East Side:

If there are a group of activists who have a vision for, say, a green school, or a school focused on progressive values, or innovative models that can push the envelope about what a school could be. A Montessori model, many different elements. We’re looking for people who want to create something better than what exists. If there are people who read this and have that idea, they should contact our office, because we’d love to see more, strong, innovative applications from people in the community, who have roots in the community. That’s one message. Then two is, I would encourage parents in the community to check out charter options and understand whether they might be right for their child.