the road to albany

Union chief says de Blasio’s plan to scrap the SHSAT is going nowhere in Albany

PHOTO: Monica Disare
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew endorses Mayor Bill de Blasio for re-election.

The head of New York City’s teachers union offered a bleak assessment of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to integrate the city’s specialized high schools Thursday, saying it likely won’t come to fruition any time soon and the plan’s rollout was “fraught with mistakes.”

“I don’t believe at this point in time it can pass in the next legislative session because it has been so highly politicized,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said during a panel discussion hosted by City & State and moderated by Chalkbeat.

Mulgrew’s comments underscore the challenge ahead for de Blasio’s plan, which calls for eliminating the single test that determines admission at eight of the city’s top high schools and instead admitting the top 7 percent of students at every middle school across the city. At three of those high schools — Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science — state law mandates the use of a single exam for admission. (The legislative session begins in January.)

New York’s schools are among the most segregated, and de Blasio has elevated specialized schools as a key symbol of that problem. Although nearly 70 percent of the city’s public school students are black or Hispanic, just 10 percent of offers to specialized schools go to those students.

Mulgrew’s comments are particularly striking because the union has previously advocated for minimizing the role of the Specialized High School Admissions Test in favor of other admissions methods — and the union chief has rarely clashed publicly with de Blasio. (Mulgrew noted that he will still push state lawmakers to deemphasize the SHSAT in admissions.)

Meanwhile, Mark Treyger, chairman of city council’s education committee who was also part of the panel discussion, said that he was not informed of the plan before it was announced and said he does not support it because it would only promote racial diversity in a tiny fraction of the city’s schools.

“I’m still waiting for the bigger vision and the bigger plan,” Treyger said.

Here are three other highlights from the discussion, which also included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

A Richard Carranza report card

All three leaders gave schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high marks. Elia, who referred to Carranza as a “soul mate” with the state on equity issues, said she admired his commitment to using data to inform policy decisions.

“If you noticed, he kept saying ‘look at the data’ and I think that’s what we need to be driven to do,” Elia said. That’s in stark contrast with Carranza’s predecessor, Carmen Fariña, who famously said that she valued stories, not statistics, as measures of the school system’s health.

Yeshivas on the state’s ‘agenda’

State officials plan to offer guidance to the city’s education department about its three-year investigation of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas sometime in the next two months. That comes on the heels of a letter Carranza sent to Elia last week that said certain city yeshivas appeared to offer little secular instruction and denied city investigators access to 15 others — but ultimately asked the state education department for advice on what to do next.

Without mentioning yeshivas directly, Elia said she was glad that advocacy groups had raised the issue of whether certain private schools are offering a “substantially equivalent” education as public ones. “There has been some reviews of particular types of schools from advocacy groups,” she said. “That’s putting, certainly, the agenda on the page for all of us.”

What’s next for teacher evaluations?

State lawmakers failed to overhaul the state’s teacher evaluation law during its last session, and if no action is taken test scores would once again be tied to teacher ratings in 2019 — a policy that has fueled a vigorous political opposition across the state.

Elia said the state planned to restart its efforts to craft a new evaluation system with input from teachers, and strongly hinted that the Board of Regents could extend the ban on using test scores in evaluations until a new plan is ready.

“This is not something that should happen in a very fast timeline,” Elia said. “It should be thoughtful.”

For his part, Mulgrew suggested a faster approach might be appropriate. “If nothing happens by the end of next school year then we go back to ‘everything’s about the test,’” he said. “I’m pretty sure that no matter what side of the debate you’re on in New York State, nobody wants to go back to that.”

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:



Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.