meanwhile in albany

Here’s your Albany education cheat sheet for 2019. SHSAT, charter schools and mayoral control will be among hot topics this session.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity gather in 2016 before their 150-mile walk from New York City to Albany.

On Wednesday, state lawmakers will head back to Albany for what could be a historic 2019 session, with the first fully Democratic-led state government since 2010.  

That new political makeup in the Senate will likely change the course for state education policy: What can we expect for mayoral control of city schools? How bleak is the future of charter school openings? Will lawmakers move to get rid of the admissions test for New York City’s specialized high schools, or will they push the issue off for another year?

Here’s what to expect over the next few months.

SHSAT

New York City’s controversial proposal to diversify its most elite high schools needs state approval — specifically, the part of the plan that calls to eliminate the specialized high school admissions test, known in short as the SHSAT.

Last June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan that would instead grant admission to the top 7 percent of middle school students. He swiftly earned a mix of backlash from families who believe the test is the best method of admissions and support from those who see his proposal as an important step toward integration.

The plan would usher more black and Hispanic students into the city’s eight most selective high schools. Many parents of white and Asian students, who represent the majority in these schools, have called the test “race blind” and argued that the city must instead properly educate all  students earlier so they’re prepared to take the test. Supporters of the plan say that preparation for high-stakes testing is usually only accessible to more affluent families who have the time and resources.

Some advocates for keeping the test have decided to invest in lobbyists. The alumni foundation for Bronx High School of Science, one of the elite high schools, signed a $96,000 contract with lobbying firm Bolton-St. John, according to public filings. Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which renewed a $120,000 contract with firm Yoswein, has lobbied for the test since at least September 2017, filings show.

Another group called the Scholastic Merit Fund, comprised of more advocates who want to preserve the test, hired Parkside Group LLC for $60,000 to lobby in support of the test.

Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Yonkers Democrat who will chair the Senate education committee, said she has “serious process concerns” about how de Blasio’s office handled the rollout of this plan, but she declined to comment beyond that. She deferred to newly elected Queens senator John Liu, a Democrat who will chair the New York City Senate education subcommittee, who says he acknowledges the city’s segregation problem but feels the Asian community should have been consulted.

Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said his group supports efforts to diversify the elite high schools through stronger enrichment programs, but scrapping the test is not the answer. He says his group will “actively” engage lawmakers “about what the problem really is,” but he’s not sure it will even matter this year.

“It remains to be seen in all of the issues — and there are huge issues facing the legislature now — what kind of priority this issue will take,” Cary said in an interview late last year with Chalkbeat.

Teacher evaluations

Senate Democrats will prioritize untying certain state assessments from teacher evaluations, Mayer said. Like many opponents to the current law governing teacher evaluations, Mayer called it a “terrible system” for judging teachers, ultimately hurting students and parents.

Mayer expects Democrats to act quickly and believes support exists in both chambers. A similar bill to untether tests from evaluations sailed through the Assembly last year, but died in the Senate. The new make-up of the Senate could change that this year.

The state Board of Regents will soon formally extend a moratorium  that separates evaluations from how students score on elementary English and math assessments. In the meantime, the board is planning to assemble work groups that will explore how to best evaluate teachers.

From these work groups, state education officials want to provide guidance for lawmakers as they make policy decisions on assessments and evaluations. Mayer said she welcomes the Regents’ input, but she’s also not willing to wait past this session.

“I think we should go right ahead,” Mayer said. “Let’s get this bill done.”

In December, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told reporters that she hadn’t received a signal from lawmakers on whether they’ll wait for the Regents’ recommendations.

“They certainly know the work we’ve done and have started, and we have shared with them that this is our plan,” Elia said. “If they are in a position to use that, then that’s great. And if that doesn’t happen, that’s certainly up to them.”

Mayoral control

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools expires on June 30, so it’s the issue with perhaps the most pressing deadline.

Mayoral control, which replaced a fractured system of boards of elected officials, reaches back to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2002. State lawmakers must decide whether it should be extended past the expiration date written into law, and for how long.

It’s “weighing heavily” on state lawmakers, especially since it “has been thrown around as a political football for so long,” Sen. Liu said in an interview with Chalkbeat last month.

With de Blasio’s political party at the wheel, he is likely to get the extension he needs without fighting the ugly political battle that bubbled up in past years with Republicans and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But there could be some pushback over what mayoral control will look like in the future.

Liu and newly elected Sen. Robert Jackson, another former New York City politician, have suggested that the nature of de Blasio’s control over schools could be the real focal point.

“I don’t want to call it control,” Jackson told City and State New York. “Let’s call it mayoral authority with oversight. Oversight by the City Council, oversight by the state of New York, not control.”

City Hall officials did not answer questions about what de Blasio is expecting as the session starts, but asserted that mayoral control is in the best interest of New Yorkers.

“Mayoral control is the reason why we have record high graduation rates and college enrollment, record low dropout rates and a Pre-K seat for every four year old in New York City,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for de Blasio. “This policy empowers families and strengthens school communities and allows us to build on our record progress.”

School funding

Expect a tough fight over education funding in this year’s budget proposal, Mayer said.

Backed with a majority, Mayer expects a “very aggressive response” from Senate Democrats for more education dollars, especially after Gov. Cuomo’s repeated rejection of a formula that is supposed to provide extra dollars for high-needs schools throughout the state.

The formula, called foundation aid, was the result of a 1993 lawsuit that argued the state wasn’t providing enough money for schools. The formula sent extra dollars to high-needs schools until the recession set in. Now, advocates and state education officials contend that districts with the most vulnerable students are owed $4 billion in foundation aid.

In a speech and on a radio program, Cuomo called the lawsuit a “ghost of the past,” and compared people still pushing for foundation aid dollars to those “who would say the world is flat.”

Cuomo’s comments angered funding advocates and progressive lawmakers, who campaigned on boosting education funding. State education policymakers have requested an almost $5 billion phase-in of foundation aid money (adjusting for inflation) over the next three years. Sen. Jackson, the former New York City councilman, was one of the lead plaintiffs on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that eventually created foundation aid. In a statement last month, he and a few new Democrats rejected Cuomo’s view.

“The outcome of CFE’s lawsuit still remains clear: New York state is legally obligated to release billions of dollars in funding to our schools, and the foundation aid formula should be used to allocate those funds,” Jackson said. “Burying this obligation and claiming that it’s ‘a ghost of the past’ doesn’t make it go away—it makes a bad problem worse.”

Mayer, who also believes districts are still owed foundation aid, said there will likely be budget negotiations to revamp the formula so that it uses more updated data when counting how many high-needs students are in districts throughout the state.

Charter schools

After November’s elections, charter school advocates lost some of their biggest cheerleaders in state government— several Senate Republicans and a group of Democrats who broke with their party.

Now, new and more public-school-focused lawmakers probably won’t have the appetite to expand the cap on how many charter schools can open in New York. There are just seven slots left for New York City, so for advocates of charter schools, the issue is essential for their expansion efforts.

Some charter advocates told Chalkbeat that their main strategy will now have to be grassroots organizing — so that new progressive lawmakers who campaigned against charters can hear the “drumbeat” from constituents who want different school options.

In the meantime, it’s possible the new Democratic majority will push for stronger regulation of charter schools and maintaining the cap — both things Mayer supports.

“Our focus has to be on primarily on something for public schools,” Mayer said, adding New York City and her own community in Yonkers are “desperately” in need of resources.

“My door is open to the charter school community and I look forward to hearing what their concerns are. They educate a lot of kids — I’m very mindful of that — but we can’t pretend we’re starting on an equal playing field.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Scholastic Merit Fund and Brooklyn Tech alumni foundation were lobbying against the SHSAT. 

NO DEAL

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.

counter-point

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.