under the radar

City skipped mandatory public hearings on spending plan

The last months’ governance craziness overshadowed what had become a summer ritual: The process by which the city proposes how it wants to spend state Contracts for Excellence dollars, and the public gets to respond with its thoughts at formal hearings.

The hearings happen because Contracts for Excellence dollars are only doled out to districts that prove they will spend the money in certain kinds of programs pre-approved by state school officials.

But this summer, the New York City Department of Education skipped over the mandated date for hearings, which are supposed to occur in all five boroughs, without holding them. A public comment period will be postponed until the fall, but New York state plans to send the city the funds anyway, before that happens.

“Funds that are continuing last year’s Contract can be used,” a state education spokesman, Jonathan Burman wrote in an email. The “commissioner’s approval is required before funds allocated to new purposes can be used.” The state’s grim financial picture has meant that the city won’t receive any more Contracts dollars than it did last year.

An official at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, whose lawsuit alleging that the city schools are historically under-funded by the state led to the creation of the Contracts for Excellence fund, said that the state’s logic makes little sense given the tough fiscal climate.

“Because there’s no new money this year, the critical importance of this year’s hearings is to ensure that the money continues to be invested with the neediest schools and students,” Geri Palast, the executive director of the campaign, said. “And to ensure that the money continues to be spent in the 6 strategic areas so we can continue to demonstrate that the money does makes a difference in students’ performance.”

Burman said the state had yet to settle on a schedule for the city’s public hearings. Asked why the hearings had been delayed, he responded, “Why don’t you ask NYC?”

According to a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Education, Ann Forte, the hearings were detained by “uncertainty” about what this year’s education budget would look like.

“Last spring, there was much uncertainty about what school budgets would look like for the 2009-2010 school year,” Forte wrote in an email. “At that time, federal stimulus dollars were still being allocated to schools. We are now working with the State to finalize a new Contracts for Excellence timeline.”

Burman said that the state had not yet approved Syracuse and Rochester’s contracts. City officials in these cities did not return calls for comment.

Amber Dixon, the director for evaluation, accountability, and project initiatives for the Buffalo school district, said Buffalo had held the hearings on schedule. “Buffalo was never asked to postpone anything about the Contract for Excellence. We submitted it on time, we held our hearings on time, and we approved it,” she said, adding, “Our budget is nothing compared to the New York City budget.”

“This is just another of the DOE’s evident lack of interest in complying with state law,” Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City nonprofit, said. “They just don’t care and it’s time that the state calls them on it,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the state had allowed the city to skip the hearings process. The hearings have only been delayed. Burman also clarified that while the state has not yet approved Syracuse and Rochester’s contracts, that process has not been delayed.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.