race to the race to the top

Paterson proposes a bill to abolish New York's charter cap

With roughly a week to go before the deadline to apply for Race to the Top funds, David Paterson proposed a bill he hopes will put New York State in a better position to win the $700 million grant.

The bill calls for eliminating the state’s charter cap, which currently limits the number of charter schools to 200, and offers several other proposals, many of which are deeply unpopular with the state teachers union. Among these is a proposal to move up the sunset date for a state law that bars the use of student test scores in teacher tenure decisions from June to January 15, four days before the grant application is due.

Two other proposals in the bill call for giving the Board of Regents the power to temporarily takeover failing school districts by appointing a “receiver” to oversee them, and giving the state Dormitory Authority the power to give charter schools money to build facilities.

The governor said he wants the bill passed by January 14.

“After consulting with the Obama Administration, legislative leaders and the New York State Department of Education, I am confident that this piece of legislation will increase our competitiveness to be awarded funding in the first round of Race to the Top grants,” Paterson said in a statement.

“I urge my colleagues in the Legislature to swiftly pass this bill so that our application is as strong as possible.”

How swift that passage will be depends on a legislature that is, by nature, slow-moving. Thus far, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has given no indication that he would support eliminating the charter cap or any of the other measures in the governor’s bill.

The bill may get a friendlier reception in the State Senate, where the three leaders of the Democratic body have endorsed, or will soon endorse, increasing the number of charter schools in the state.

Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson announced his support for raising the charter cap on Monday, Senate President Malcolm Smith has long been a vocal supporter of lifting the charter cap, and Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada will announce his support for the governor’s bill at a charter school in the Bronx tomorrow.

President of the New York State United Teachers Richard Iannuzzi told the Albany Times Union today that lifting the charter cap was a “bogus issue.”

“The bottom line here is that nothing of value is going to get done in seven calendar days, which I’m going to guess is two or three legislative session days,” Iannuzzi said.

Though the governor’s bill calls for eliminating the charter cap, the state’s Education Department has taken a more moderate tactic: calling for the cap to be increased. Both State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch have said they favor increasing the cap rather than doing away with it entirely.

Steiner and Tisch have, however, supported allowing the law that bans the use of student test scores in teacher tenure decisions to expire.

In response to calls for the charter chap to be lifted, New York City’s teachers union is attempting to push certain restrictions on charter schools, possibly in exchange for increasing the number of them. UFT President Michael Mulgrew wants laws that will force charter schools to admit more high needs students — those who are not proficient in English or are special education students. Overall, district schools enroll more of these students.

“The real issue should not be whether to lift the cap, but about how the state can make sure that these inequities are addressed as New York moves forward with its Race to the Top application,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Paterson’s press release:

Governor David A. Paterson today submitted Program Bill No. 214 to maximize New York’s opportunity to receive as much as $700 million in Race to the Top competitive grant funding included in The America Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

“It is incumbent upon us as lawmakers to take any and all action necessary to ensure that we are successful in this process,” Governor Paterson said. “I have personally spoken with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and federal officials about New York’s eligibility for Race to the Top funds and the specific steps we need to take to be competitive in this process. After consulting with the Obama Administration, legislative leaders and the New York State Department of Education, I am confident that this piece of legislation will increase our competitiveness to be awarded funding in the first round of Race to the Top grants. I urge my colleagues in the Legislature to swiftly pass this bill so that our application is as strong as possible.”

The Governor has asked the Legislature to pass his proposed bill by January 14 in order to have the specific Race to the Top requirements signed into law by the January 19 application deadline. The legislation includes:

  • Eliminating the Charter School Cap that is presently set at 200 and of which fewer than 40 are still available;
  • Allowing the Dormitory Authority to finance charter school capital funding for approved charter schools;
  • Allowing the Regents to appoint a temporary receiver to address chronically under-performing schools;
  • Changing the sunset date from July 1, 2010 to January 15, 2010 of a law which limits student performance data for teacher tenure determinations.

Race to the Top awards will go to states that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reforms. The Regents and the State Education Department are creating a highly competitive application for the January 19 deadline. The inclusion of the Governor’s proposed legislation will ensure that New York State is a true competitor for the funding.

“Our children, our schools and the economy of the State of New York cannot afford to wait for the Legislature to implement these changes. For the sake of our children, we must not risk the opportunity to compete for, and win, Round 1 funds,” the Governor added. “The money received will benefit all of our children, not just those who attend charter schools.”

Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for states and local school districts throughout the country as they, too, are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come. The funding from Race to the Top will benefit public schools as well as charter schools across New York State.

Current State law includes a 200 charter school cap. By eliminating this cap, New York State will maximize its ability to receive application points tied to charter schools. With respect to the assessment of teacher and leader effectiveness, the application requires that there be no impediments to using student performance data. By advancing the sunset to expressly permit full use of this data as part of the tools to be available for reviewing performance, New York stands to gain significant application points.

In addition, while the State Education Department currently is empowered to take over poorly performing schools, this bill would provide a new streamlined approach to enable the Regents to act more swiftly and to appoint a temporary receiver to take-over chronically poor performing schools.

“Race to the Top provides an unprecedented opportunity to reform our schools and challenge an educational status quo that is failing too many children. President Obama and Congress have provided significant financial support for school reform,” Governor Paterson said. “This is a chance to change our schools and to accelerate student achievement, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that we are more than eligible to receive as much federal funding as possible.”

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.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”