work ahead

De Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group issues its first report — but it doesn’t touch the SHSAT or gifted and talented

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents, educators, and integration advocates gathered in Harlem for a town hall organized by Mayor Bill de Blasio's School Diversity Advisory Group on June 21, 2018.

After integration advocates found themselves underwhelmed by official plans to spur more diversity in New York City schools in summer 2017, city leaders promised more work would be done.

Tasked with that work: a School Diversity Advisory Group, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, that many hoped would push the city to act more boldly and systemically to integrate in one of the country’s most segregated school systems.

More than a year of meetings and months of delays later, the advisory group on Tuesday released its recommendations for how to do that, calling for action that is “more ambitious” and “aggressive” but also “realistic.”

“We need schools that meet the learning styles and needs of all our students and to do that, our children must be learning together and from each other,” the report notes.

Among the recommendations, the group of students, parents, academics, and advocates calls for new, more tailored integration targets for elementary and middle schools based on district- and borough-level demographics, before aiming to mirror citywide enrollment.

In districts with an overwhelming number of disadvantaged students, the group says the education department should focus on measures to ensure schools are serving similar shares of the most needy children, such as homeless students.

But the report zeros in on nine districts where group members say student demographics are ideal for integration, saying those districts should be required to devise diversity plans. Those districts are 1, 2, 3, 13, 15, 22, 27, 28, 31. Some of those places — districts 1, 3, and 15 — have already changed admissions systems to encourage integration.

Other recommendations include: the creation of a task force to consider ways to make PTA fundraising more equitable, using diversity measures in school quality reports, and robust ethnic studies courses for students.

The report is only a first step. Some of the most explosive issues — such as what to do about gifted and talented programs and selective admissions processes called screening — are expected to be addressed later. The report also steers clear of the mayor’s proposal to overhaul admissions at specialized high schools in a bid to better integrate them, an effort that has sparked intense backlash and prompted a lawsuit.

Many of the recommendations don’t come as a surprise, as they echo the calls of a growing community of integration activists — many of whom are on the committee.

The report traces a long history of segregation in New York City schools and draws on dozens of research studies to make the case that more diverse schools benefit all students.

Its view of integration is expansive and based on a definition created by student advocates who have called for looking beyond enrollment policies that simply move children around. Instead, they argue that integration efforts should also create more equity within schools by focusing, for example, on the resources available to them and discipline policies.

“We believe it is necessary to tackle the issue of segregation in New York City public schools from all angles of a student’s experience,” said Julisa Perez, a member of IntegrateNYC, a student advocacy group. “Having this report address all of these issues is a big step.”

The group’s definition of diversity is also broad, including race and economic status but also students with disabilities, those who are learning English as a new language, and cultural and religious differences.

Whether the report will lead to real change remains to be seen. The recommendations are not binding, and with just three years left in de Blasio’s term, time to act is dwindling for the current administration. Other controversial school reform efforts have gotten stuck in committees under the mayor’s watch, including recommendations for updating a 1998 agreement that governs how police officers do their jobs in city schools.

While de Blasio has avoided aggressive action to undo segregation, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has been far more blunt about the need to take on the issue. At Tuesday’s press conference, the chancellor said he would be weighing in on the suggestions in the coming “weeks,” but did not offer a specific timeline.

“I look forward to working with Mayor de Blasio in making the recommendations in the report truly the topic of conversation as we move forward,” Carranza said. “I’ll have a lot more to say about the specific recommendations and how we move forward together.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.