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

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?

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