hail mary

Cuomo throws support behind tax credits for private school scholarships

PHOTO: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cardinal Timothy Dolan in Buffalo to tout a tax credit proposal that would support families afford tuition for private schools.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest proposal to expand school choice extends beyond charter schools to private and parochial schools, options that could alter the city’s complex student enrollment patterns.

Cuomo spent Tuesday with Cardinal Timothy Dolan advocating for tax credits that would finance full or partial tuition to nonpublic schools for students from less-affluent families.The proposal, a version of which was cut out of an education deal decided along with the state budget in April, is the latest effort by Cuomo to promote schools that aren’t within the traditional school system and has a better chance than ever of making it into law.

Teachers unions and many lawmakers oppose the plan, which they see a way to direct taxpayer dollars away from public schools. The Democrat-controlled Assembly has blocked the bill from coming up for a vote in both of the last two years.

But shifting political dynamics mean that the proposal could have a better chance of passing this year. Among the Assembly Democrats who supported the last version of the legislation is new Speaker Carl Heastie, who took the leadership post in January after Sheldon Silver stepped down amid a corruption scandal. Cuomo’s support indicates that the plan will be part of negotiations over extending mayoral control of New York City schools and raising the state’s charter school cap during the legislative session’s final months.

In New York City, 242,000 students attended nonpublic schools, 19 percent of the student population, according to the Independent Budget Office. But enrollment in Catholic schools has been trending downward for years.

“This would be something that would significantly help many of those schools and many of those schools are in my district,” said Queens Democrat David Weprin, a Democrat who sponsored the bill with Heastie.

The bill, which has not yet formally been introduced, would establish tax credits that would finance four statewide education programs. Individuals or corporations who donate to the programs would be able to subtract up to 75 percent of their contribution from what they owe the state in taxes. Up to $150 million in tax credits would be available in the first year.

Two of the programs would offer tax credits for donations that directly benefit public schools. Up to $37 million would go to public schools to fund a wide range of activities like after-school classes and arts enrichment. Another $10 million would be set aside for district and charter school teachers to be reimbursed up to $200 each for classroom supplies they buy on their own.

But most of the available money — $137 million — would go toward the other two programs, one of which would offer scholarships for “low-income and other students,” and the other offering $500 tuition checks for children from families earning less than $60,000. That, Cuomo and Dolan said, would help revitalize the state’s religious schools.

If the payments did lure parents who otherwise would have opted for district or charter schools, it could mean an even more complicated admissions landscape in certain low-income neighborhoods where charter and district schools already compete for students. (The number of eligible city students will depend on the volume of donations and individual tuition bills.)

The deep-pocketed supporters of the city’s Roman Catholic archdiocese have poured millions into a three-year campaign for such legislation betting that it will make a difference, though. The diocese has had to close dozens of Catholic schools over the last decade, as city figures show they lost more than one-third of their total enrollment.

Enrollment in other types of private schools, especially Jewish schools, have increased, according to the IBO. And enrollment at city charter schools has exploded over that period, increasing from 2,422 students in 2003 to 83,000 this year.

That has led some to question the motives behind Cuomo’s advocacy and to ask why struggling Catholic schools should be propped up with public dollars.

“Why is the state promoting enrollment in religious schools?” said Laura Zingmond, who works for the school review website Insideschools, an arm of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, and a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy. “It should be neutral on this.”

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew called the proposal “a set of tax credit schemes” that would disproportionately benefit wealthy donors. Mulgrew, de Blasio, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have also said the state’s charter cap, which Cuomo wants to raise, should stay put.

On Monday, Cuomo reflected on his own experience attending Catholic schools in Queens  and said the legislation was meant to allow parents to choose among the widest possible array of schools for their children.

“I am a product of parochial school education – that was my parents’ choice,” Cuomo said. “I made a different choice with my three girls. We sent them to public elementary school in Westchester. It was a good public school, it was a good district, and that was the choice that I made.”

“So there is no right or wrong choice,” he said.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.