Future of Schools

Democrats win control of New York state legislature. What that means for education

PHOTO: Flickr
New York State Capitol.

Democrats won enough state Senate races on Tuesday to secure a majority for the first time since 2010, and in the process gained control of the New York legislature.

Senate Republicans previously held a working majority of one seat but in a midterm election where Democrats fell short in some races nationally but had a strong showing in the Empire state, the result was not surprising given statewide trends.

What do Tuesday night’s results mean for the future of education in New York? Not all issues fall along party lines, but there are a few things that are likely gain traction in the new legislative session in January.

School funding

Don’t be surprised to see a push for more state funding for local districts, an issue that every progressive Democrat who ran for office campaigned on.

They, like others who have fiercely pushed for more state funding, point to a school funding lawsuit that forced the state to come up with a new funding formula. Advocates for increasing the money flowing from Albany argue this new formula was never fully implemented, meaning the state still owes billions of dollars to districts.

The Democratic-controlled state Assembly has typically called for more funding than what is proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also won re-election Tuesday. But with advocates for more state funding in both chambers, it’s possible there will be more pressure on Cuomo to open the coffers a little even as the state faces a budget deficit and potential economic uncertainty.

But that doesn’t mean it will happen, said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. There is a property tax cap on districts (though these don’t include New York City) that rely on tax revenue for their schools, and Bloomfield doesn’t think Cuomo would raise state taxes to bring more funding in.

“You’re basically dealing with a state aid formula that’s fixed except for the margins,” Bloomfield said.

Charter schools

The support that the charter sector enjoyed from the previous legislature, thanks to strong backing from Senate Republicans, will likely erode, with several progressive Democrats having campaigned on platforms that included reining in charter schools.

That could mean an increase in oversight of charter schools. Proposals to regulate them more have previously failed in the senate, owing to Republican opposition.

As state officials approved another batch of charter-school openings in New York City this week, the state inched even closer to a legal limit on how many charters can open in the five boroughs and across the state.

Charter advocates want lawmakers to increase this cap, but it’s possible that the newly shaped legislature won’t even consider it.

Mayoral control

Mayor Bill de Blasio will look for legislators to renew his control over the city’s education system.

In the past, Senate Republicans used the issue as a budget bargaining chip and also as a way to punish a mayor who has often campaigned against them.

But a Democrat-led Senate doesn’t necessarily mean de Blasio will easily win support for renewed mayoral control within his party.

Some progressive Democrats, who support more grassroots governance, don’t support mayoral control, including former City Council education committee chair Robert Jackson, who had won 89 percent of the vote with 93 percent of precincts counted on Tuesday night.

But even these Democrats may hesitate to quickly return to the old system of local control, which would introduce new complications.

“I don’t think there’s legislative appetite,” Bloomfield said, “ to go back to community control.”

It’s more likely that mayoral control will be easier to reauthorize, and that de Blasio will earn a more than a one- or two-year extension, Bloomfield said.

Teacher evaluations

This week, the Board of Regents signaled it would extend its three-year-old, temporary ban on using state English and math exams to evaluate New York teachers.

By extending the moratorium by one year, state officials signaled they wanted more time to figure out the best way to evaluate teachers, a subject that has provoked prior backlash from educators and families.

And, with the extension expected to come right before the start of the legislative session, it’s possible that a Democratic-controlled legislature will seize the moment to make legislative changes to teacher evaluations.

Last year, the state Assembly passed a bill that would untie teacher evaluations from test scores, but it failed to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Democrats could try to raise the issue again, now that it might garner more support, or develop another bill after the Regents study the issue further.

Suspensions

A Democratic-controlled legislature might be more friendly toward finding alternatives to suspending students.

Easton, from Alliance for Quality Education, said discipline reform “was never going to see the light of day in the Senate.”

But a shift in party control could mean an easier path for those who want the state to shift away from punitive discipline policies in schools.

Last year, Assembly education committee chairwoman Cathy Nolan sponsored a bill that, in part, would require educators to use suspensions as a last resort to discipline students. The bill didn’t make it to a final vote.

In New York City, de Blasio has promoted a restorative justice model for student discipline, cutting back on suspensions, but the idea remains controversial among some teachers who say the approach doesn’t do enough to ensure orderly classrooms.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan called Tuesday’s results “disappointing,” but that senate Republicans will “continue to be a strong and important voice in Albany.”

“When we need to push back, we will push back,” Flanagan said. “And where we can find common ground, we will always seek it.”

State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, widely expected to be the first female majority leader, projected more Democrats would win their races Tuesday night as results rolled in.

“I am confident our majority will grow even larger after all results are counted, and we will finally give New Yorkers the progressive leadership they have been demanding,” Stewart-Cousins said in a tweet.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that David Bloomfield does not think Gov. Andrew Cuomo would raise property-tax caps on districts throughout the state. Bloomfield was referring to state taxes, not district property taxes.

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.