incenting change

Obama official to New York: Change your tenure law or else

joanne-weiss
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Joanne Weiss

The Obama administration official in charge of an educational innovation fund yesterday issued a warning to a New York audience: Unless the state legislature revises a law now on the books about teacher tenure, the state could lose out on the $4.35 billion fund she controls.

Joanne Weiss said the Obama administration aims to reward states that use student achievement as a “predominant” part of teacher evaluations with the extra stimulus funds — and pass over those that don’t. New York state law currently bans using student data as a factor in tenure decisions.

Test scores aren’t everything, Weiss said. “But it seems illogical and indefensible to assume that those aren’t part of the solution at all,” she said, echoing nearly word-for-word Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s remarks last week to the National Education Association.

The pessimism about New York’s policies is a departure from Duncan’s tone during a visit to New York City in February, when he was cheery about the state’s chances in the competition. Duncan also briefly mentioned New York as one of several states whose firewalls around student and teacher data need to come down in a recent speech, and he indicated that New York’s cap on charter schools may also hurt the state’s chances at a slice of the stimulus pie.

Weiss, who worked at the New Schools Venture Fund before heading to Washington, said the “disadvantage” of the tenure law to New York could be counterbalanced by efforts here that the Obama administration admires. She praised a New York City program that is evaluating individual teachers based on their students’ test scores.  One strength of the program, Weiss said, is that city teachers generally accept the evaluations as an accurate and fair assessment of their performance.

The question, she said, is whether the district uses the evaluations in a meaningful way to drive high performance. “Can you pull it together in time and in a coherent fashion?” she said.

Currently, the teacher reports have no bearing on formal job evaluations or personnel decisions, and it was just after their creation that the city teachers union lobbied for the law banning test scores in decisions about tenure. The change stipulates that “a teacher shall not be denied or granted tenure based on student performance data.” The provision sunsets next year, but after the panel Weiss said that the sunset is too far away to help New York’s applications.

Weiss was in town to discuss The New Teacher Project’s report “The Widget Effect,” which was released last month and urged districts to overhaul their teacher performance evaluations. She spoke on a panel at the Carnegie Corporation alongside Rob Weil, the American Federation of Teacher’s deputy director of educational issues.

The federal Department of Education won’t release the exact criteria for receiving the competitive Race the the Top money until the end of July, and New York City is only just beginning to plan an application for a separate $650 million fund available to school districts. (A New York State Education Department spokeswoman did not return a request for comment this morning on the state’s progress.)

But Weiss’s remarks match the fund’s requirement that a state has made “significant progress” in four areas: raising academic standards, improving data systems, turning around struggling schools and improving teacher effectiveness. These are the same “four assurances” that states promised to pursue when they accepted the stimulus money that has already been distributed.

Weil, of AFT, said that the assurances are already affecting conversations around the country, where districts are using them as an excuse to push certain programs. In order to assure federal funding, the district officials tell union leaders, they need to make these changes, Weil said.

One reason federal officials have praised New York City while deriding the state could be that states and local districts are applying for two separate pots of money. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund is dedicated to projects at the state level. An additional $650 million of stimulus funds have been set aside for local district innovations. It’s possible, then, that the fund could award a grant to the city while passing over the state.

Daniel Weisberg, who co-authored The New Teacher Project’s report and who formerly headed up labor policy at the city Department of Education, said that he thought the change in tone at the federal level could drive a change in state law. The turmoil in the state legislature keeps everything up in the air, but he said the pressure from above makes significant reform to teacher evaluation a realistic goal.

“It’s a motivator,” he told me. “Will it get the job done? I don’t know.”

In an interview after the panel, Weiss said that the state will need to get the job done to have top consideration for the grant funds. “We will reward accomplishments, not promises,” she said.

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”