first draft

What are Mayor de Blasio’s education priorities? Here’s what his preliminary budget tells us

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his preliminary budget proposal Tuesday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 on Tuesday, totaling $84.67 billion, a 3 percent increase over last year’s spending plan.

It funds initiatives the mayor launched two years ago such as universal literacy by second grade and computer science education for every student. It also promises to fix the city’s glitch-ridden special education tracking system.

Still, some advocates criticized the plan for not including extra funding for social workers in schools with large homeless populations (though de Blasio signaled that he planned to restore it), and failing to advance a universal free lunch program. The proposed budget also restores money for a summer program the mayor has previously tried to cut — but earned some flak for not permanently restoring that funding.

Here are some highlights:

Better tracking of special education data

De Blasio’s proposal would invest roughly $16 million each year going forward on the city’s notoriously dysfunctional system for tracking services for special needs students, also known as SESIS.

City officials said improvements would allow the city to better monitor whether students are actually receiving mandated services, and would improve functionality issues that have previously cost the city millions in overtime — a move praised by some special education advocates. Still, Public Advocate Letitia James, who filed a lawsuit last February claiming SESIS had cost the city $356 million in lost Medicaid reimbursements, said the city’s plan does not go far enough to address “systemic issues.”

Alleviate overcrowding

As part of the administration’s bid to reduce overcrowding, this year’s budget proposal includes nearly $500 million in additional spending to create roughly 38,500 seats between the years 2020 and 2024. That will “largely alleviate the overcrowding issue we’re facing now,” de Blasio said. Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Education, said that is in addition to the 44,000 seats already included in the city’s five-year capital plan.

But at least one advocate raised concerns about whether this pace of expansion does enough to address overcrowding issues the city currently faces.

Boost internet access

The city is continuing to throw financial support behind its promise of giving every student access to computer science education by 2025. Though a survey of schools in Brooklyn found many lacked a qualified computer science instructor and had poor internet access, de Blasio’s budget includes almost $50 million through 2021 to boost internet speeds.

“Literally every school in the city will be reached by that point,” de Blasio said.

Funding for Schools Out NYC slots

In previous years, de Blasio has tried to cut funding for this middle school summer program, only to restore it under pressure from parents, educators, and City Council members. The mayor appears to be trying to avoid that debate this year by agreeing to fund almost 23,000 slots this summer.

Still, some critics noted that the proposed $15 million would fund fewer seats than last year.

“If the mayor truly wants to address income inequality and support low-income families in New York, his administration needs to baseline summer camp programming with permanent funding,” said Sister Paulette Lomonaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services. “Anything less runs counter to what we all know struggling New York families need.”

Expanding Summer in the City

The mayor’s proposed budget would allocate $14.3 million in fiscal year 2018 and more in the years beyond to expand the Department of Education’s Summer in the City program. The mayor said the program, which encompasses both summer school and enrichment activities, would target additional second-graders considered “at risk” in math and reading, expand STEM programming, and extend summer school from four to six hours per day.

Roughly 30 percent of city students were reading on grade level by third grade when he came into office, the mayor said, and now 41 percent are. His goal, he explained, is to get 100 percent reading on grade level within the decade.

Funding for Summer Youth Employment Program

The mayor’s plan would also add 5,000 slots to the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), bringing the total to 65,000 slots, funded by $9.3 million in fiscal year 2018. The city’s program has long been considered a model for other cities, though a recent report from the Community Service Society urged the city to rebrand its jobs program as a universal summer internship program that better prepared students for the workforce.

Adding more crossing guards

The proposal would use $6.3 million to hire 200 new crossing guards and 100 supervisors to “fully cover all crossings,” de Blasio said. He added that it might be the first time in city history that all school crosswalks would be guarded.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.