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Democrats for Education Reform blasts New York state’s school turnaround program

Alex Zimmerman

An education reform organization took a swing at city and state officials Monday, releasing a report critical of their approach to turning around New York’s struggling schools.

The report, issued by the local chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, argues that the state’s education department has watered down its “receivership” program. That program allows officials to make staff changes, re-negotiate union contracts, and eventually appoint outside leaders to take control of long-floundering schools. But schools in the city and across the state have largely avoided those more aggressive sanctions.

DFER says that represents a missed opportunity.

“No school wants to be ‘taken over’ but the truth is, autonomy and targeted spending on instruction can really improve a struggling school,” DFER’s Nicole Brisbane said in a statement.

The report offers several familiar critiques of the program, but is notable for its authorship: It was issued by the local chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a national organization that has supported the expansion of charter schools and sweeping changes to local school districts, but has not been a vocal presence in New York City in recent years.

That role had largely been played by Families for Excellent Schools, a separate advocacy group that forcefully criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education policies and abruptly imploded several months ago after its leader was accused of inappropriate behavior. Monday’s report could signal that DFER is interested in filling that void.

“DFER-NY has been expanding in capacity and is able to tackle a wider range of issues than it has in previous years,” Ryan Fajet, a DFER spokesman, wrote in an email.

In its report, DFER criticizes the state’s goals as unambitious, noting that some schools were expected to improve on academic measures such as reading proficiency by just fractions of a point.

The receivership program has also shrunk dramatically. Changes to the rules determining which schools qualify, and school mergers and closures, have reduced the number of schools in the state’s program. As of December 2017, only 18 city schools remained, down from 62 when it launched. Just one school in the state has faced the most severe consequences of receivership, a junior high school in the Bronx that the city ultimately closed rather than turn over to an outside manager.

The receivership program has been part of a complicated web of school-improvement efforts in recent years. New York City introduced its own turnaround program in fall 2014, as the receivership program — which launched in 2015 — was under discussion. Dozens of schools in the city’s program have since merged and several have closed, making the “Renewal” program more central to school improvement debates.

A spokesman for the state education department declined to comment on the main criticisms lodged by the report.

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