Re(new)al schools

New York City moves to close 14 struggling schools, including site of Bronx stabbing

PHOTO: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year with Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

The New York City education department plans to close 14 low-performing schools at the end of the academic year, officials announced Monday, marking Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most aggressive effort to date to shutter struggling schools.

Nine of the proposed closures involve schools in the city’s “Renewal” program, which has marshalled millions of extra dollars and other support for troubled schools. Among the five other schools the city wants to close is the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, the Bronx middle and high school where a student fatally stabbed a classmate in September and which students and parents have described as chaotic and plagued by unchecked bullying.

The closures will leave over 3,900 students searching for new schools to attend next fall, and more than 400 teachers seeking new jobs.

The city will also move to combine five Renewal schools that enroll very few students, and remove the middle-school grades from a school that currently serves grades 6 to 12. (Find the full list of proposed changes here.)

“The kids come first in any decision,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at a press conference, which the mayor did not attend. “All the decisions we made and we’re announcing today have that at the forefront.”

Unlike his predecessor in City Hall — who favored closing struggling schools and replacing them with new ones — Mayor de Blasio decided early in his first term to blanket low-performing schools with extra help, including teacher coaches, extended school days, health clinics, and funding to embed social-service providers in schools. The investments, de Blasio promised, would spur “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

The changes proposed Monday, which still must be approved by an oversight panel during its meeting in February, amount to an acknowledgement that it was not enough to turn around some of the city’s most struggling schools. De Blasio has said from the program’s unveiling that he would consider shuttering schools that failed to improve despite the help.

The closures and mergers would leave 46 schools in the turnaround program, which started with 94 schools in 2014 and now includes 78.

While the Renewal program was originally cast as an intensive three-year intervention, the remaining schools will be entering their fourth year in the program — and Fariña suggested it could extend for even longer.

“We’re not giving up on it at all,” she said.

But the city isn’t adding more schools to the program. While observers suspect the program’s huge price tag could be a factor, Fariña pointed to broader initiatives meant to infuse schools citywide with literacy coaches, Advanced Placement courses, and computer science.

“We expect that to make a big difference,” she said.

Evidence of the Renewal program’s success has been mixed. Schools have made only modest gains in test scores and graduation rates, researchers have found, while continuing to struggle with low enrollment and high turnover among principals and teachers.

Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College who has followed Renewal closely, says that record raises an important question: What will the city do differently at the remaining schools?

“The schools that remain in Renewal are the ones I call the ‘hard cases’: These are schools that have not been making progress in the same ways others have,” he said.

Renewal officials and superintendents will soon ramp up their presence in the remaining schools, which will be expected to hit specific goals by next November, officials said.

While Monday’s announcement was de Blasio’s biggest school shake-up to date, the administration did close nine schools before the program reached the three-year mark this November. It also merged several other schools with ones that tended to be slightly higher performing. In the past, some school communities have mounted mostly unsuccessful campaigns to delay or stop the closure process, while others have been silent.

Families in the affected schools will receive letters about the proposals and personal phone calls Monday, officials said. The department’s enrollment office would work individually with the students to make sure they land in high-performing schools, they said — a difficult task once the traditional high school application deadlines have passed.

Officials said teachers would also receive help finding new placements. However, it’s likely that some will end up in the pool of teachers who lack permanent positions and act as roving substitutes — a costly group that the de Blasio administration has been trying to shrink.

In some cases, the education department is planning to open new schools in the place of the shuttered campuses, much like it did with J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez de Tio in the Bronx, which closed in 2016 and saw I.S. 584 open in its place this fall.

The city’s teachers union, generally an ally of de Blasio, did not comment directly on the city’s plan to close schools — a policy it fought forcefully under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. United Federation of Teachers head Michael Mulgrew blamed poor leadership, as evidenced by teacher turnover, for the schools’ potential demise in a statement.

“No matter how serious the challenges, if the leadership of a school is good, teachers will stay. If it isn’t, they leave,” Mulgrew said.

The United Federation of Teachers said half of the positions at new schools must be reserved for educators from the closed campuses. Fariña sounded a note of caution on Monday, noting that “nowhere near” that many teachers at I.S. 584 came from its predecessor, for example. (That could be due to teachers not applying to the new school or not having licenses that qualify them for the open positions, according to the union.)

Even as the city seeks to shutter schools in the $582 million Renewal program that have made insufficient progress since the program started, it is also creating a new pathway for improving schools to graduate out of the program. Twenty-one schools that have made academic and attendance gains will leave the Renewal program at the end of the academic year and become “Rise” schools, freeing them from intense oversight by the education department.

The nine Renewal schools the city plans to close are:

  • P.S. 50 Vito Marcantonio (District 4)
  • Coalition School for Social Change (District 4)
  • High School for Health Careers and Sciences (District 6)
  • New Explorers High School (District 7)
  • Urban Science Academy (District 9)
  • P.S. 92 Bronx School (District 12)
  • Brooklyn Collegiate: A College Board School (District 23)
  • P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam (District 27)
  • M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo (District 27)

The five other schools the city plans to close are:

  • KAPPA IV (District 5)
  • Academy for Social Action (District 5)
  • Felisa Rincon de Gautier Institute (District 8)
  • Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation (District 12)
  • Eubie Blake School (District 16)

The schools the city plans to merge are:

  • Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community (District 8), becoming part of Longwood Preparatory Academy, another Renewal school
  • Entrada Academy (District 12) into Accion Academy
  • Middle School of Marketing and Legal Studies (District 18) into East Flatbush Community and Research School
  • Middle school grades of Gregory Jocko Jackson School (District 23) into Brownsville Collaborative Middle School

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited an incorrect number of students — over 4,500 — who are affected by the closures. In fact, 3,950 students currently attend the 14 schools that the city has proposed closing. Just over 4,500 students attended the schools last academic year.

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Only 45 Memphis schools were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants this year to pay for extra resources — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status. Nine schools taken over by the state have gone off the list.

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 45 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be less punitive and more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

You can find the 2018 list here, but check back for a sortable list from Chalkbeat.