Pedagogy and Profits: Charter School Bid Raises Questions

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The headquarters of the New York State Education Department, where officials will decide on the application from NYFlex charter school.

Photo by: UpstateNYer

The headquarters of the New York State Education Department, where officials will decide on the application from NYFlex charter school.

A new charter high school proposed for Manhattan has close ties to a for-profit curriculum provider with family links to the chair of the state board that will decide on the school’s application.

The school in question, the New York Flex Charter High School, is planned for Manhattan’s District 2, which covers much of downtown and midtown Manhattan and the Upper East Side. Its board is led by a team of private investors. And it is designed to deliver a “hybrid” learning model that employs individualized online learning and virtual instruction, along with actual instruction by classroom teachers.

That model is a favorite of New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who believes hybrid learning offers a chance to shake up traditional education—and to cut back on the number of teachers the city needs.

At the proposed New York Flex Charter High School, a company called K12 Classroom LLC will supply the curriculum to support that model, along with other services. The involvement of K12—whose chairman, Andrew H. Tisch, is the brother-in-law of New York State Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch—could be a test of the state’s new charter-schools law, passed in late May, which forbids for-profit charter school management. At the very least, the proposal raises questions about what kind of educational approaches are fair game for New York’s charter schools.

Bricks, mortar and monitors

Andrew Tisch is a longtime philanthropist with ongoing education and civic interests. He led Lorillard Tobacco during the 1990s—appearing on its behalf during infamous 1994 Congressional hearings, where he testified that he did not believe cigarettes cause cancer. Tisch currently serves as co-chairman of the board of his family business, the Loews Corporation, which has interests in insurance, hotels, natural gas pipelines and a Texas-based offshore oil-drilling company, among other ventures.

K12, founded in 1999 and traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is the “nation’s premier provider of online curriculum,” Jeff Kwitowski, company spokesperson, tells City Limits. K12 classes are conducted on line, some in real time (“synchronous”)and others in self-paced and self-directed modes.

K12 Teachers “can handle a larger class load,” Kwitowski explains, with class sizes of approximately 40 students in the elementary grades, primarily because “there are no classroom management issues” with remote instruction. “But numbers can vary,” he adds. “Some lectures that may not involve as much interactivity may have more students in the class. Most of the learning for high school students is asynchronous, meaning students work individually on their lessons.”

K12 curricula are now used by 70,000 public-school and home-schooled students, Kwitowski says, in 27 states and the District of Columbia. The company supports the Youth Connection Charter School in Chicago (developed in partnership with current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) and opened the San Francisco Flex Charter High School just this year. Company documents show 2009 revenue of $316 million.

In New York City, K12 partners with the DOE for online courses via the NYC iZone, as well as with nearly 100 schools across New York State for credit-recovery coursework and other offerings.

The iZone aims to reform urban education by upending traditional practices via “disruptive new models that restructure and rethink K-12 education,” according to the DOE. At the NYC iSchool, a selective high school that opened in 2008, for example, students use a “blended” learning model, where online studies of core academics, including those that will be tested by Regents exit exams, are supplemented by traditional, in-person instruction.

As Chancellor Klein has repeatedly observed in regard to the well-publicized and often-lauded School of One, online instruction encourages students to work individually or in small groups on computer-based learning modules, with teacher guidance and support as needed.

Hybrid and blended learning models are also designed to allow students to be served by fewer teachers, with up to 80 children and multiple instructors in a single “classroom,” making possible a future that might include a third fewer teachers in the city’s schools.

An intimate involvement

The NY Flex board is led by private investor Salvatore Vasi (formerly of Merrill Lynch and Bear Sterns), real estate advisor and business developer Michael Cohen and attorney Victor Geraci. Roger Griffith, an associate conservator of sculpture at MOMA, and Roberto Gutierrez, who once headed communications at Notre Dame University and has worked with the for-profit entity Edison Schools, complete the board.

According to Kwitkowski, K12 will be intimately involved in NY Flex. “We will provide the full program, the whole curriculum of the school–every lesson, every day, all the core subjects, including foreign language.” K12 has been “working with the charter board on its application,” Kwitowski says.

The proposed NY Flex curriculum includes “Study Island,” an online program promoted as “an effective test mastery program,” and materials developed with textbook publishers (and standardized test-makers) Pearson and Glencoe that include preparation for the Regents exams.

It is not clear how the teachers who might staff NY Flex would interact with K12 instructors–or what their classes would look like. NY Flex has not yet hired a principal or education leader for the school.

Vasi, the school’s lead sponsor, was traveling in Europe and unavailable for comment. Speaking for the board, Gutierrez tells City Limits, “None of us are educators by profession. We will have an education leader if the school is approved.”

K12’s participation is crucial, according to Gutierrez. “They are the premier provider of this kind of technology,” he says. “We are counting on an organization that has a strong reputation nationally to guide us.”

He dismissed questions about the involvement of a for-profit company in a charter school venture. For-profit or not-for-profit, he says, “everybody gets paid.”

Guide or partner?

But the nature of K12’s planned involvement is murky.

The new charter school law provides a detailed timeline and a process for charter-school applications and review–and NYSED’s detailed Request for Proposals for charters further articulates how planners should submit their applications.

An application submitted earlier this year to the city DOE by NY Flex characterized the school’s relationship with K12 as a partnership: “NY Flex is partnering with K12 Classroom LLC as an institutional partner.” School planners wrote that K12 would provide curriculum, and “in addition, K12 will provide other supports and financial services if required, [including] assistance in budget preparation and management.”

That application also stated “current board members have track records with demonstrated successful performance in education, business, and commitment to New York City and New York State,” in contrast to Gutierrez’ statement to City Limits that “none of us are educators.”

It added that the school had been “encouraged by the New York City Department of Education to continue to develop plans for NY Flex,” and added: “We look forward to a continuing collaboration with the Department of Education.”

City DOE spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld confirms that NY Flex submitted an application for DOE review prior to a June deadline. But DOE’s Charter Office did not recommend NYFlex’s application to the state, Zarin-Rosenfeld said. “We didn’t feel they had the leadership capacity to move forward.”

So NYFlex turned its attention to the state, which under the new charter school law passed in May has more latitude to approve charters. However, in the new law, school-management partnerships with for-profit businesses are not permitted. (Nine New York City charter schools approved under the old law are managed by for-profit organizations, seven of them by Victory Schools.)

In the prospectus NY Flex submitted in early August to the New York State Education Department, K12’s contribution to the school was reframed from a partnership to a collaboration: “NY Flex Charter School plans to collaborate with K12 Classroom LLC (“K12″),” the prospectus read.

But the school’s planners again enumerated the ways that K12 will support NY Flex: curriculum, instructional materials, digital resources, testing and assessment tools, teacher training and “other support and services,” including budgetary and human resources support, making it difficult to discern the difference between a collaboration and a partnership.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and frequent DOE critic, recommends “extreme caution” as new charter school applications go forward. She asks whether K12 would receive “a per-student percentage or a flat fee” for students who enroll at NY Flex, suggesting a direct line between enrollment and K12 profits–a question that is not answered in the NY Flex prospectus and that K12 representatives declined to resolve.

Haimson also raises concerns about NY Flex seeking to share space in an existing public school building in already-crowded District 2 facilities.

“This is the Gold Rush,” Haimson says. “Anyone with an idea can be considered, no holds barred.”

Process questions

Despite the new law’s promise of 260 additional charter schools across the state, NYSED’s Sally Bachofer, head of the Office of Innovative School Models, says the state is proceeding with deliberation.

“I can guarantee that we will not burn through those 260 charters in four years,” she says. “It’s not just about letting a thousand flowers bloom. It’s a quality issue. It makes no sense to open schools for the sake of opening schools.”

Despite the lack of a DOE endorsement, New York Flex school planners were among 35 groups that submitted prospectus applications to the state. Of that group, NY Flex and 15 others were invited to present full applications and participate in interviews about their prospective schools; these were due to the state by close of business on August 22nd. The final applications will be posted in full on line in late September, Bachofer said, in an ongoing effort to promote transparency in the charter-application process.

NY Flex would open in 2012—if the school is approved, after what NYSED describes as an extensive interview and “due diligence” process led by Bachofer.

That process culminates in recommendations to the State Regents–headed by the K12 board chair’s sister-in-law, Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Merryl Tisch, a personal friend of Chancellor Klein and the Mayor, is married to Andrew’s brother James, the president and CEO of Loews Corp. Andrew Tisch’s first wife was Merryl’s sister.

Asked about the role of the Chancellor and the State Education commissioner in the charter-application review process, NYSED spokesperson Jonathan Burman said, “We check in with them and senior staff regularly throughout the process.” State officials will sign off on formal recommendations developed by Bachofer’s office, Bachofer said, once the review process is complete for all new charter applicants, including the NY Flex Charter High School.

“Chancellor Tisch must have knowledge that her brother-in-law is the chairman of the K12 board,” says City Council education committee chair Robert Jackson. “If she doesn’t know, someone has to bring it to her attention. If she does know, that is a possible conflict of interest. She needs to bring it forward to the Conflicts of Interest Board and explain the situation and/or recuse herself from voting” on the NY Flex application.