audacity of hope

To read NY's Race to the Top bid, wear rose colored glasses

New York State’s Race to the Top application is nearly a printer-jamming 1,000 pages, but a quick skim of the documents offers some insight into how the state is presenting itself and its proposals to judges in Washington.

Charter cap:

Throughout the fight over whether and how to lift the state’s charter cap, state education officials and the Board of Regents advocated for more than doubling the number of charters allowed in New York. Lifting the cap would not only improve the state’s chances at winning federal money, they said, it had become necessary as New York was closing in on its 200 school limit.

In December, Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch told GothamSchools: “My opinion is that the charter cap is now at a place where it will prevent us from opening great charter schools.” Yet the state’s application paints a distinctly different picture of the charter cap’s effect:

“Article 56 of New York’s Education Law does include a cap on the number of charter schools that may be formed, other than charter schools formed by conversion of an existing public school, but such cap does not prohibit or effectively limit the number of high-performing charter schools in the state.” (emphasis mine)

It’s commonly known that the state’s charter law allows for 200 schools, but there’s a little-known provision that doesn’t count conversions — district schools that opt to become charter schools — in that limit. With this in mind, the application states that while there may appear to be 200 allowable charter schools, but there are actually 4,740 if you include all the district schools that could convert.

“The total number of charter schools that currently may form in New York are 4,540 conversion charter schools plus 200 non-conversion charter schools, or 4,740.  This represents approximately 104 percent of the total schools in the state that are allowed to be charter schools.”

The wording has charter advocates like New York Charter Schools Association policy director Peter Murphy more than a little flummoxed.

“If New York had a 10-year record of converting its schools into charter schools, that would be one thing and they could make that argument come off as more plausible, but it’s a very legalistic argument to make. And it should not be taken seriously,” he said.

Charter conversion is a rarity in New York, in part because schools that convert remain under the teachers union contract, an idea that most charter school operators find unappealing. In total, there are only 6 conversion charter schools in the state.

“In fairness to the department, the legislature didn’t give them anything to work with,” Murphy said. “They’re putting their best argument forward and it’s a hollow one.”

Tisch defended the application’s language.

“The application clarifies exactly what New York State allows, and frankly conversions are tools that are used,” she said.

SUNY charters
New York’s application gives the number of charter schools that are currently open, but it downplays the number that are set to open next year. It states:

As of the 2009-10 school year-to-date, New York has 140 charter schools currently operating (with an additional 14 charter schools approved to begin operating in 2010-2011 or later).

According to Murphy, there are an additional 17 authorized schools that will open next year, bringing the total to 31. The application doesn’t count schools that were turned down by the Board of Regents and will open under SUNY approval. Under state law, SUNY can independently authorize charter schools, meaning that if the Board of Regents vetoes a charter application, SUNY can override the decision.

Test scores and teachers

In the months that led up to the Race to the Top and in the face of opposition from state and local teachers unions, SED officials said linking test scores to teacher tenure would be part of the plan. But up until now, it they never said how much weight the test scores would have in determining which teachers were successful.

The state’s application says it plans to use five factors in coming up with an “education effectiveness score” for teachers and principals, one of which is test scores. Districts that signed onto the plan will use student data as 30-40 percent of that score, placing “student growth at the center of their evaluation system.

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.