wave watch

Charter schools, funding, and the SHSAT: What we’re watching if Democrats flip New York’s Senate

New York State capitol

Education politics could see a shakeup in Albany soon, as Democrats have their best chance in years to take control of the State Senate.

In recent cycles, New York education policymaking has been defined by predictable splits between the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate.

The Senate has championed private and charter schools, dangling approval of mayoral control of New York City in a tug-of-war with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Assembly, which has fought for larger school funding increases and defended city interests.

But with progressives defeating six incumbent Democratic senators — who broke away from their party in an unusual arrangement that gives Republicans a majority — those surprise upsets could set the stage for a bigger shift. For the first time since 2010, it is possible Democrats will control the State Senate, as long as they hold on to their seats and peel off at least one vulnerable Republican in November.

It is difficult to predict exactly how a Democrat-controlled legislature would affect specific policy details, especially since the Senate will have fewer familiar faces with long track records. And any education legislation will be subject to negotiations with Cuomo, so lawmakers’ priorities will matter. Still, a Democrat-controlled legislature could have big implications for charter schools, school funding, mayoral control, and other perennial education battlegrounds.

Here is what you can look out for if the Senate flips.

Efforts to rein in charter schools, with some limits

Senate Republicans have been stalwarts of the charter sector, helping secure increases in per-student funding and additional subsidies for renting private space. A Democrat-controlled Senate would be likely be much less favorable.

Some of the progressive Democrats campaigned explicitly on a promise to maintain the limit on the number of charter schools that can open in New York City.

“I think the cap is a very real issue,” said Bob Bellafiore, a consultant who has worked for charter schools and helped push for the state’s charter law in the 1990s. “It’s a thing to watch because of the campaign rhetoric.”

Charter advocates say they’ll continue to pressure lawmakers to raise the cap, but after pushing the issue for years, it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to drum up support in a more challenging climate.

They could also face additional challenges, if Democratic majorities seek to ratchet up oversight of the sector. In 2017, Senate Democrats put forward proposals that would require charter schools to have specific enrollment targets for students with disabilities and English learners, make it more difficult to share buildings with district schools, and limit how much leaders are paid.

Those proposals had virtually no chance of garnering necessary Republican votes, but they could plausibly pass in a Democrat-controlled Senate. If they do, lawmakers could wind up in a showdown with Cuomo, who has previously supported charter schools.

“The question becomes: Would those proposals ultimately be approved?” said Julie Marlette, the governmental relations director for the New York State School Boards Association.

Less likely: any legislative efforts to increase teachers unions’ influence in charter school operations, considered a holy grail for the unions. Even with Democratic majorities, lawmakers will be hemmed in by recent federal labor rulings that classify charter schools as private, meaning that their employees would not be represented by public unions. (Charter school employees can still seek to form unions on their own.)

But no matter what happens, charter advocates are bracing for a difficult session.

“The movement writ large has fallen out of favor with progressive politics — that’s not a secret and in the Trump-DeVos era it’s only gotten worse,” said Steve Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools. “I can’t see it being a good year.”

More pressure to increase school funding

Not every progressive Democrat who unseated an incumbent in the primary cited maintaining the charter cap as a priority. But they are all united on another issue: that the state should send more money to local districts.

Like Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star who took on Cuomo in the primary, these politicians say the state has not fulfilled its funding obligations under Cuomo. They point to a landmark school funding lawsuit that prompted the state to come up a new funding formula, but which they argue has never fully been funded and that the state owes billions of dollars. One of the lead plaintiffs on that original lawsuit, former City Council education committee chair Robert Jackson, unseated a Democratic state senator to win the nomination in Harlem.

“Every one of the challengers ran on the demand of fully funding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for more funding, referring to the Democrats who unseated state senators who voted with Republicans.

“It’s not a slam dunk,” Easton said. “But I think it’s an atmosphere we’ve never seen in Albany before.”

A consensus among lawmakers on school funding would reshape the annual budget dance. In recent years, the Democratic Assembly has called for much more spending than Cuomo has proposed, while the Senate has previously come out somewhere in the middle. If both chambers unite in calling for more aid, Cuomo could face pressure to increase funding in the final budget.

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said in an interview that she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes would lead to more funding. Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — require significant spending, Rosa said.

But Cuomo will still wield considerable power in the budget process, which is hammered out with the leaders of the Assembly and Senate in a process known as the “big ugly” because so many issues are negotiated at once. And he may be reluctant to dramatically boost spending, especially given the state’s budget deficit and potential economic uncertainty. He has also suggested that the level of funding is not as important as how it is spent.

“Three parties have to come together and agree on a final number,” said Marlette, of the school boards association. “That will involve the executive.”

A more straightforward path to renewing mayoral control

Next year’s legislature will have to decide, once again, whether to let New York City’s mayor control local schools — and what restrictions on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s power, if any, should be enacted.

Mayoral control has previously been used as a bludgeon by Senate Republicans, both as a punishment for de Blasio campaigning against them and as a bargaining chip to exact concessions in the budget, including on charter schools.

But Democrats have also critiqued the governance system for being too top-down — a criticism that occupied lawmakers’ energy extensively when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. As City Council education chair, Jackson was particularly strident in his calls to roll back mayoral control.

It’s possible that Jackson and the new wave of progressives could level that kind of criticism again, and mayoral control has previously been part of larger negotiations at the last minute. But they might not have an appetite for squaring off against de Blasio, especially after years of mounting consensus that returning to the previous, complicated system of local control or creating a completely new system would be undesirable.

A more likely outcome, according to the Alliance for Quality Education’s Easton, is that reauthorizing mayoral control could be easier, with de Blasio getting more than just a one- or two-year extension that lasts into his successor’s administration. Still, the issue will still be subject to negotiation and Cuomo could use it as a bargaining chip if legislators ask for a longer extension.

Teacher evaluation legislation, but potentially with a twist

During the last legislative session, the Democrat-controlled Assembly passed a bill repealing elements of an unpopular law that could eventually tie teacher evaluations to test scores — but it died in the Senate.

With a new Senate, would the Assembly simply pass the bill again with a greater chance of success? It’s possible, but that depends on each legislator’s priorities and how much pressure comes from the teachers union and parent groups critical of testing.

“It’s possible that we might see swifter action on [teacher evaluations] than we would otherwise,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

It’s also possible that lawmakers might advance a different bill with broader goals. Some of the state’s top education officials, including Rosa, the Board of Regents Chancellor, favor a slower overhaul of the teacher evaluation system with more opportunity for input from educators as opposed to an immediate legislative change. The Regents have placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests, and Rosa said in an interview that the board would likely extend it.

“It gives the new legislators an opportunity to catch their breath and weigh in,” Rosa said.

A statewide shift away from suspensions

In recent years, New York City has significantly curtailed student suspensions in favor of more “restorative” approaches, which emphasize peer mediation and less punitive responses to student misbehavior. De Blasio has also made it much more difficult to suspend the city’s youngest students.

Cathy Nolan, chairwoman of the Assembly education committee, has previously sponsored legislation that would require those types of discipline reforms across the state, but which have not gained traction.

“There was never a chance it would move” under Senate Republicans, Easton said. “I think you’ll see a push.”

Continued debate over specialized high schools

One big issue on the table this year doesn’t have a clear party line: whether New York City will be allowed to scrap the admissions test at its elite specialized high schools, which is written into state law.

De Blasio has proposed eliminating the exam to promote diversity at the hyper-segregated schools, but the issue has divided city Democrats. John Liu, a former city comptroller who defeated Tony Avella in the primary, does not support de Blasio’s plan. Current legislators, some of whom attended specialized high schools, have also spoken out against it.

The issue is so new and murky that many of candidates have not yet weighed in. And while de Blasio remains optimistic, Michael Mulgrew, the city teachers union chief who supported the proposal when it was announced and whose take counts with many Democratic lawmakers, is not.

“I don’t believe at this point in time it can pass in the next legislative session because it has been so highly politicized,” he said — before the primary election that ushered progressive Democrats onto the November ballot.

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.