let's review

What happened in New York City education this year — and what to expect in 2019

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It was a dramatic year for New York City schools. Parents either panned or applauded middle school integration plans in two districts. A proposal to diversify specialized high schools stirred up protests across the five boroughs. Even the selection of a new chancellor proved to be a nail-biter.

Here’s our look back at the headline-grabbing moments of 2018 — and what parents, students, and educators should watch out for in the new year.

The city welcomes a new chancellor

After a rocky search process, Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped former Houston schools chief Richard A. Carranza to be New York City’s next chancellor in March. In his first eight months, Carranza  has shaken up the schools leadership structure, taken on a busing controversy, and has promoted efforts to desegregate city schools in ways his predecessor didn’t. But while advocates for integration have been heartened by Carranza’s blunt talk, he faces steep odds. As the specialized high school debate has shown, changes to the system are met with great resistance.

Educators and families will also look to see how the department rolls out other promises Carranza made early in his tenure, such as improving education for English language learners, addressing suspension lengths, and implementing the feedback he hears from parents and educators.

An uncertain future for the SHSAT

Undoubtedly, the most controversial education news in the city was the June announcement of de Blasio’s two-fold proposal to diversify the most elite high schools. First, the plan would scrap the specialized high schools admissions test, or the SHSAT, and second, it would expand and modify the city’s Discovery program, which grants admission to students who have scored just below the test’s cutoff. The plan has sparked a lawsuit from Asian parents and community organizations, and it has drawn both support and harsh blowback from different segments within the city school system — particularly white and Asian families who are likely to benefit from the current test and believe it’s the most unbiased method of admissions.

De Blasio needs approval from state lawmakers to get rid of the test in favor of admitting the city’s top 7 percent of middle school students. As the new legislative session starts in January, it will be important to watch how the legislature tackles this issue, which doesn’t fall neatly along party lines. In theory, de Blasio would have the political support he needs, but the debate over specialized high schools has sparked opposition from people in his own party, like longtime New York City politician John C. Liu, now a newly elected senator and the new head of the Senate’s subcommittee on New York City education.

Integration plans get put to the test

Middle school integration plans were approved in two districts this year — District 3, which spans Manhattan’s Upper West Side and part of Harlem, and District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. In 2019, we should receive the first clues as to whether those plans are working as their supporters hoped.

The integration efforts could also lend momentum to other districts that are brainstorming how to spur more school diversity. These include District 2, which spans Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. But parents there have also been harshly critical of integration plans (while others have lent their support.) Will parent and education leaders be able to forge consensus? Will the education department approve changes even in the face of public backlash?

Charters face a cap

Democrats rode a mini blue wave in November and took control of the state Senate for the first time since 2010, signaling a bleak future for the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed. Because of a cap on how many charter schools can open in New York, less than ten spots are available in New York City.

Charter advocates have pushed to expand the cap, but their lobbying could fall on deaf ears with new progressive Democrats who have campaigned against charter school expansion and favor boosting traditional public-school resources.

In addition to deciding the fate of charters, lawmakers will also decide in 2019 on extending de Blasio’s control over New York City’s school system. With a Democratic majority, lawmakers will likely grant him another extension without severe political bargaining, but how long and the structure of mayoral control could be up for debate.

Big questions for school turnaround efforts

The next year could bring answers to looming questions about the city’s approach to school improvement.

Come January, the city is expected to announce a round of proposed school closures, and schools in de Blasio’s signature Renewal program are likely on the chopping block. Renewal is the $750 million effort to turn around struggling schools by infusing them with extra resources. But after achieving mixed results, at best, the city is expected to wind down the program at the end of this school year. City leaders haven’t shed much light on what (if anything) they expect to replace Renewal with, or how still struggling schools might yet improve. (Officials have said schools will continue to receive extra funding and social service supports that have been part of the program.)

Ambitious early childhood education plans

In 2019, the city will begin a massive shift in its early childhood education programs, bringing oversight of the care of children as young as 6 weeks old under the purview of the education department. Currently, many of those programs are overseen by the city’s child welfare agency. We’ll be watching to see whether the transition helps streamline an often disjointed system, and whether the changes create problems for providers who often operate on thin margins.

The transition is happening while the city rushes to expand 3-K, free preschool for 3-year-olds. The next school year will also be high stakes for the mayor’s much-lauded push to make pre-K available to all 4-year-olds: The first class of students to benefit from Pre-K for All will take state tests, and many observers will be weighing the results to judge how effective the city’s program has been.

High stakes for the teachers union

The city and the United Federation of Teachers hashed out a contract that would provide extra pay for teachers at hard-to-staff schools. The incentive is part of a larger effort to lift schools in the Bronx (and elsewhere) by also giving teachers a more formal role in school decision-making. But the city has undertaken similar efforts before. Will they be more effective this time?

Looking ahead, the union faces a tough test in 2019. The Supreme Court recently ruled that staff who aren’t union members can’t be forced to pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Now that there’s a financial incentive to opt-out of the union, will educators stick with the United Federation of Teachers?  


Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.


Four takeaways from New York City’s response to discrimination charges in specialized high schools lawsuit

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

New York City lawyers are asking a judge to allow the education department to move forward with admissions changes aimed at better integrating the city’s elite specialized high schools, saying the tweaks are not meant to discriminate against Asian students.

Instead, lawyers for the city argue the changes serve the “most disadvantaged” students, leading to “greater geographic and socioeconomic diversity” in the schools, “which may in turn increase racial diversity.”

At issue: The city’s plan to expand the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who score below the cutoff on the exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria to eight specialized high schools. The city also wants to change who qualifies for the program, limiting Discovery to students who attend schools where at least 60 percent of their peers are economically needy. (Previously, eligibility was based only on each students’ individual need.)

In December, Asian-American parents and organizations sued the city, claiming the reforms would discriminate against their children. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the changes from going forward until the court case is decided — and affect the current admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year.

Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in the specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students citywide. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students comprise just 10 percent of enrollment in the eight schools, but 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The city’s lawyers make a number of arguments in defense of the admissions overhaul, claiming the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because they don’t have the proper legal standing, and that it’s in the government’s interest to promote school diversity.

We already know the suit is likely to cause a delay in when students receive their high school admissions offer letters — dragging out what is already a stressful process for many families. Here are four other takeaways from the city’s response, which you can read here.

We finally know how many students will be admitted through Discovery this year, if the expansion is allowed to move forward.

Enrollment through the Discovery programs is expected to grow to 13 percent of seats at specialized high schools this summer, city lawyers wrote. That would bring the total number of students admitted through Discovery to 528, more than double last summer’s class of 252.

City leaders have previously said Discovery would be expanded gradually to eventually account for 20 percent of seats by the 2020-2021 school year. But it had been unclear until now what this year’s expansion numbers would be.

It’s uncertain whether the expansion will work as city leaders hope.

The city projects that black and Hispanic enrollment at specialized high schools would increase only modestly under the full Discovery expansion: from 9 percent to 16 percent. But city lawyers called that a “rough prediction, unlikely to definitively predict the future ethnic and racial composition of the students.”

The city’s modeling didn’t account for how many students might turn down offers to enroll in Discovery, according to court filings.

Of course, it’s possible the city is playing up the uncertainty of demographic changes for the purposes of the court fight.

Years later, a federal civil rights investigation into the specialized high schools’ admissions process is still open.

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the lack of diversity at the city’s specialized high schools.

The complaint argued that the admissions test for the sought-after schools had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and also took aim at the city for letting the Discovery program wither. (By 2011, only four of the high schools participated in Discovery, according to court records.)

Although the complaint hasn’t made headlines in years, it’s still under investigation, city lawyers wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights “has requested and received from DOE numerous documents and had interviewed a number of witnesses,” according to court records.

Some light was shed on how the Discovery expansion was crafted behind the scenes.

For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle admissions reform for the specialized high schools — but he waited until his second term to announce the proposal that’s now being challenged in court. Now we know a little more about how the current proposal was drafted.

The plan to expand Discovery and change eligibility was developed by a “decision-making group” of unnamed officials and led by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, according to a statement Wallack submitted to the court. The group, in turn, recommended the changes to the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza.

“I believe the decision-making group’s recommendation was decisive in the chancellor’s decision to expand the Discovery program and adopt the revised criteria,” Wallack’s statement says.