scrambling to the deadline

Race to the Race to the Top: Live-blogging Albany's debate

With just hours before the state’s Race to the Top application is due in Washington, legislators in Albany are scrambling to deal with the cap on charter schools, considered a make-or-break component of the application. Anna will be sending updates from Albany today.

6 p.m. Now the city stakeholders are weighing in. Here’s the response from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in recent days launched a strong public relations offensive against Sampson and Silver’s bill:

“Sadly, some 36,000 New York City students on waiting lists for charter schools – and thousands more who need and deserve better educational choices – were told today to wait longer, because help is not on the way. The Governor proposed a bill that would create options for those children and help the State win $700 million in federal money. It was the only bill that had the support of a majority of Senators, yet the Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly defeated it without even a vote – on the same day the Governor’s budget presented a $1 billion cut to school aid statewide. While others played Russian roulette with our children’s futures, great credit is due to Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, the members of his conference, and Democratic Senator Craig Johnson – the sponsor of the Governor’s bill – who fought to make New York’s Race to the Top application as strong as possible. And while I rarely hesitate to speak my mind when I disagree with someone, I also try to give credit where it is due and want to thank Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. for his help on this important issue. Our children and their parents are owed a second chance from the Legislature. They deserve nothing less.”

And here’s the response from city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew. The UFT issued a report earlier this month on how charter schools serve the city’s neediest students, and many of its recommendations were echoed in the legislature’s bill.

“New York State had a chance to address the glaring inequities in charter school admissions, to increase the transparency of charter operations and to force profiteers out of the charter business,” Mulgrew said. “But charter advocates and their allies resisted these desperately needed reforms, to the point where the Legislature was unable to act.”

5:45 p.m. Senate Republicans are signaling they will use the legislature’s failure to act today as a weapon against Democrats who run for re-election.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Governor’s legislation to enhance New York’s opportunity to secure federal education funds was not brought up for a vote in the Senate,” Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said in a statement. “I’m confident it would have passed and strengthened the state’s application for the Race to the Top program.”

“Once again, when an important deadline was upon us and action was needed on an important issue, the Democrats in both houses were unable to act,” he said.

5:30 p.m. A side not heard much today from those who did not want to see the charter cap lifted at all. In that camp is Senator Bill Perkins, who says he’s concerned about “the charter wars” and the high concentration of charters in his Harlem district. Perkins said he didn’t believe lifting the cap was a prerequisite for a New York Race to the Top win.

5:00 p.m. Senators from both sides of the charter school divide are looking for a bright side in today’s debacle.

“In my opinion, nothing being done is better than a bad bill getting done,” Senator Craig Johnson said, echoing James Merriman. “The Silver bill would have been bad for education reform.”

Asked if not voting had hurt the state’s chances more than voting for the Silver bill, Johnson said, “the Silver bill would have hurt us even more. The governor’s bill would have been perfect.” (Johnson introduced the governor’s bill to the Senate last night.)

Like Johnson, Sampson said that “imprudent legislation” would have put the state at a competitive disadvantage in the federal competition. But he disagreed about which bill was imprudent — he favored the one he sponsored.

“The bill I sponsored with Assembly Speaker Silver would have maximized our eligibility for federal funds, while bringing greater transparency, accountability, and parental input to the charter school process,” Sampson said in a statement.

“We are working towards a bipartisan, bicameral solution today,” Sampson said. “We support the State Education Department’s application as it stands, and hope our federal officials can help us secure Phase One financing. If not, we will reapply for Phase Two, and try once again later this year to bridge the partisan divide to get New York’s school children the funding they need, and property taxpayers the relief they deserve.”

4:20 p.m. Today could have gone worse for charter school advocates, according to a statement just released by James Merriman, head of the NYC Charter School Center.

“While state lawmakers could not a pass a good reform bill today, we can be thankful they did not pass a disastrous one,” Merriman said. “Charter schools should commend Senate Republicans and Democratic Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, who stood up for public charter schools and stopped a bill that would have severely damaged the charter schools movement.”

4:00 p.m. Anna reports that the Senate is still in conference. Senators are preparing to end their session, a Senate source told Elizabeth Benjamin.

“There were people saying raise the cap and people saying don’t raise the cap, or do it with restrictions. We have to balance all these things out and we couldn’t achieve that in our conference,” a Senate official told Anna. The official said the Senate did not want the governor’s bill to come to the floor because the Assembly would not pass it.

Asked whether the Silver/Sampson bill was meant as a political hit on New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the official said: “this was not an anti-Klein bill.”

3:40 p.m. And the Assembly has adjourned for the day, without taking action on either of the charter cap bills. It’s over, education committee chair Cathy Nolan confirms. Anna reports that no one is quite sure whether the Senate is still conferencing.

3:10 p.m. Anna reports that a rumor is spreading among legislators that the U.S. Department of Education extended the deadline. A USDOE spokesman, Justin Hamilton, said no, it’s not true.

3:00 p.m. The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that fights for equitable funding for schools across the state, just sent out a statement criticizing charter school advocates for blocking the Sampson/Silver bill.

“The charter cap bill has stalled because apparently it is more important to the charter school industry to keep accountability, transparency, and meaningful parent and community input out of charter schools than it is to have New York State compete effectively for $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding,” the statement reads.

2:55 p.m. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told me today that if the legislature fails to vote to raise the charter cap today, it would be a “serious black mark” on the state’s Race to the Top application. Her view contrasts with that of the city and charter school advocates, who argue that passing the Sampson/Silver bill would be worse than doing nothing at all.

When I spoke to her this morning, Tisch expressed optimism that legislators would raise the cap today. Otherwise, she said, they will have to answer to voters about a missed opportunity in a dismal budget year.

She also played up other elements of the state’s application, which include, among other things, significant changes to the way teachers are trained and certified.

“I think [NYSED has] articulated a bold strong application and when people in this state understand how good it is…they will be infuriated that this opportunity is slipping through their hands,” she said.

2:15 p.m. The New York Post says parents are angry about the Sampson/Silver bill, but Anna reports that there are no charter school parents or students present at the debate today. Charter advocates said they thought about bringing people, as they have to other hearings, but they already have a lobby day scheduled for February 2nd and there wasn’t time to rally the forces. As it stands, Anna reports, there’s no face to this issue in the building — either in favor of charter schools or opposed.

1:50 p.m. John Sampson is asking Sheldon Silver not to pass the bill in the Assembly unless there are enough votes for it to pass in the Senate, reports Elizabeth Benjamin at the Daily News.

1:45 p.m. I just checked in with Tom Dunn, NYSED’s spokesman, how the application was getting to Washington, D.C., where it is due in hard copy at 4:30. “We are completing the application and will deliver it,” he said. But no word yet on how it’s getting there.

1:35 p.m. Senate Republicans, who have also come out in support of the governor’s bill, apparently are planning to introduce an amendment from the Senate floor to substitute Paterson’s bill for Sampson and Silver’s. (Last night, the Republicans tried to bring Paterson’s bill to a vote and were ignored by Senate Democratic leaders.) Now it seems that Senate Democrats are looking for a way to avoid bringing the bill to the floor, rather than be embarrassed if a hostile amendment passes, Anna reports.

1:20 p.m. Walking into the room, Senate President Malcolm Smith was asked if he thought the Senate would bring the bill to a vote today, Anna reports. “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” he said.

1:10 p.m.: The fate of the charter cap fight appears to be resting with the State Senate.

The bill to raise the cap to 400, proposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic Majority Conference Leader John Sampson, faces much greater opposition in the Senate than it does in the Assembly. The Assembly appears likely to pass the bill this afternoon.

The key players are Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, Sr, Anna reports. Both support the compromise bill that Governor Paterson introduced yesterday, which would lift the cap to 460 and ditch many of the provisions in Silver’s bill that charter advocates oppose. Johnson introduced the governor’s bill on the Senate floor, and Diaz issued a statement today calling on Sampson and Senate President Malcolm Smith to bring the governor’s bill to a vote.

A vote on the governor’s bill looks unlikely, though, so Johnson has just told charter advocates that he or Diaz may introduce a hostile amendment to the Silver/Sampson bill. The two senators are currently huddling with charter school advocates and Micah Lasher, the city Department of Education’s director of external affairs.

Charter school advocates are arguing that as far as the state’s Race to the Top application is concerned, no bill is preferable to the Silver/Sampson bill because the restrictions the bill places on charters would inhibit charter growth and cause the application to lose points. Silver has said he does not think the restrictions would harm the state’s application.

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?”