First Person

New York

Sunday Schools: After “Household of Faith v. Board”

By refusing the church’s latest appeal in Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education, 11-386, the United States Supreme Court today gave a final judicial green light to the Department of Education’s controversial ban on renting schools for religious services. While only persuasive nationally, the now-final Second Circuit ruling settles matters for multiple states within this judicial circuit (New York, Vermont, and Connecticut) but only affects those districts that want to start prohibiting services (probably few, but includes New York City). Haven’t we been here before? In 1998, the high court declined review of a similar Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. And, despite these decisions and others along the way, since 2002 Bronx Household of Faith has been holding services in P.S. 15 in the Bronx. The DOE estimates that dozens of churches now rent space for Sunday services, despite courts approving Chancellor’s Regulation D-180, Section 1(Q), prohibiting the practice. Can this really be the end? The DOE says so, releasing a statement from a senior city lawyer within hours of today’s decision that declares “Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012, is the last day that churches and other groups can use the schools for worship.” I am taking that with a grain of salt. This controversy has raged for over a decade and most legal observers thought Bronx Household of Faith had a good chance of winning this latest round. Since the Supreme Court upheld the federal Equal Access Act in Good News Club v. Milford, 533 U.S. 98 (2001), public schools have had to treat secular and religious groups similarly in renting their facilities. As an extracurricular organization, the Good News Club was clearly conducting worship, much as a chess club would pursue its core activity, theorized the court, and, under the First Amendment, schools could not discriminate on the basis of this content. The Second Circuit, which had sided with the district in Good News Club, clearly again fought against the tide in Bronx Household of Faith, arguing that the DOE could still decide against a church’s regular conduct of services on Sundays. Not that the DOE was required to bar the church, but it could if, in its judgment, the arrangement blurred the distinction between church and state:
New York

Can the Comptroller End the Space Wars?

The big questions about charter schools are not the real issue in current fights over co-location with traditional public schools. Charter schools with their own buildings are being left alone. Like most wars, the dispute is about territory, not policy. This is not about long-simmering disagreements about charters' instructional strengths, whether they cream more able students, lack of services for English language learners and students with special needs, segregative effects, and other important if wonky questions. This is about real estate. In its zeal to support charters and other small-school alternatives, the Bloomberg administration has opened the doors of neighborhood schools to entities without community roots, an imposition understandably resented by many already housed there. Though Department of Education capacity estimates tend to be wildly inflated and the space needs of current schools undervalued, there might very well be room for two or more coexisting programs in some buildings. But the mayor's and chancellor's heavy-handed actions, treating current occupants like squatters and shunting them aside in favor of preferred institutions, create unnecessary antagonism between students, parents, and administrators. This resonates with the old New York story of class warfare engendered by developers and landlords clearing out tenants. In schools, issues of gentrification, perceived religious school encroachment on public school space, and redrawing of district and attendance boundaries have long set off political fireworks. There were only sparks when the DOE moved regular public schools into these spaces. But with charters, these sparks are fanned into flames because of their association with moneyed interests and managerial profiteering.
New York

Teacher Tenure Tantrum

The lame duck is acting like a bantam rooster. Mayor Bloomberg's fuss-and-feathers over use of student performance data in teacher tenure decisions is a short-lived diversion, like his presidential run during a previous lame duck period. Legal authority for his position is questionable and of little practical consequence. At best, under current law, he has one year to try to work his will but no principal's tenure decision will change based on this new edict. Weakened by his slim re-election margin, Bloomberg's tantrum is an understandable political strategy to appear politically strong. But our education plight is too important to be distracted by this sideshow. The mayor invokes that portion of New York State Education Law § 3012-b as added by Chapter 57 of the Laws of 2007 which permits principals to make teacher tenure determinations based on "an evaluation of the extent to which the teacher successfully utilized analysis of available student performance data" and the more elastic "assessment of the teacher's performance by the teacher's building administrator." The law was clarified by Chapter 57 of the Laws of 2008 to prohibit use of student test scores to grant or deny tenure. But even if the earlier version is found to permit use of test data for current tenure evaluations, State Education Commissioner's Regulation § 100.2(o)(2)(iii) appears to prevent this use unless included in probationary teachers' "professional performance review plan," a formal document that must be developed "in collaboration with teachers ... selected by the [Chancellor] with the advice of their respective peers." Collective bargaining issues also exist as a change in the terms and conditions of employment. As a result, it is doubtful that the mayor's unilateral analysis has much legal weight. Rather than hastening their exit, the mayor has created a legal loophole for ineffective teachers to remain in classrooms.  What the mayor has actually done is to hand every failing teacher, already on the chopping block based on principals' prior determinations, a ready argument that his or her tenure was denied on illegal grounds.
New York

Credit Recovery – Joel Klein’s Race to the Bottom

By failing to set standards or even track the use of credit recovery in New York City schools, Chancellor Joel Klein has provided a convenient back door for students to pass courses and graduate without subject mastery. The State Education Department has now capitulated to this agenda by promulgating a draft policy based on unpublicized negotiations with the city Department of Education. If implemented, the policy would do nothing to stem this tide of empty credits but, rather, encourage credit recovery by officially recognizing and regularizing it but with inadequate controls and monitoring. What is credit recovery? The term is sometimes used technically to denote a formal program, such as summer school, with specified content, attendance, and assessment requirements. But the term is widely applied to any effort to help students pass courses that they would otherwise fail because of incomplete or below-standard work. These students substitute the extra work for regular assessments by writing a paper, taking a test, or providing some other evidence of proficiency in a narrow course topic. Under the new state policy, schools would need only create a committee (which would not include the student's teacher) to approve a student's customized credit recovery plan for a course. The same committee would then review evidence of student proficiency once the plan was completed. The State does not require minimum class attendance or proof that the plan addresses all subject matter deficiencies. If a teacher says a book report suffices to show proficiency, the committee would not need to inquire beyond the teacher's word. No record of how many courses a student passed using CR would be maintained. There would be no monitoring of assignments’ rigor or the frequency of CR’s use by teachers, schools, or the system as a whole. What is the problem, though, with giving students a second chance at passing or completing a course by filling in the gaps?