Looking back

The year that was: Looking back at 2010's education headlines

It’s the last day of 2010 and we’re flipping back our calendars to the very beginning for a look at the education goings-on of this past year and what they bode for the future. That is, tomorrow.

January

The year began with a 20-day race through public hearings on the city’s plans to close 19 schools. At Beach Channel High School, Jamaica and Columbus high schools, in front of Mayor Bloomberg’s house, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, and other schools (but not Kappa II), teachers, parents, and students rallied against the closure plans. Yet the mayoral appointees on the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, at a meeting that lasted until 4 a.m., voted to approve closing all of the schools.

Meanwhile, in Albany, legislators were negotiating changes to state law that would improve the state’s chances in the Race to the Top competition, which offered millions of federal dollars in exchange for education reforms. Gov. Paterson proposed eliminating the charter school cap altogether, in accordance with the Obama Administration’s preferences, and lawmakers spent the day of Race to the Top’s deadline trying — and ultimately failing — to reach an agreement. The state submitted its bid anyway, initially refusing to release it and ultimately revealing a host of long-shot promises and bizarre furniture requests.

Other changes were afoot in Albany. Because of our reporting, the state reversed a policy that barred charter schools from giving priority in admission to students identified as English language learners.

Back in New York City, it was mostly business as usual, with a new round of budget cuts, the fifth in two years, an impasse in union contract negotiations, and yet another reorganization of how schools get support from the central administration.

February

The shortest month was long on conflict. First, the teachers union sued to stop the 19 school closures that were approved in January. We looked at what would happen to their teachers — hint: the group of teachers without positions, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, would swell — and to their students.

A second front opened over whether to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, something national union president Randi Weingarten said she could support and local United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew initially said he couldn’t. When the city unveiled a new tenure process that would use test scores, the UFT immediately put up a legal challenge, arguing that the city had violated the union’s contract. Tying test scores to teacher evaluations wasn’t in the city’s list of contract demands (which were accidentally released about this time) but it might as well have been. Topping the list: flexibility in firing.

And communities in Harlem, the Lower East Side, Queens, and Red Hook were divided by vicious fights over charter school siting.

March

New York State was named one of 16 Race to the Top finalists but went home empty-handed, just as it had been expected to. Officials vowed to try again in the competition’s second round.

Also entering round two: The school closure showdown. High school decision letters went out late because of the court battle. Two days after decision letters were sent to students the State Supreme Court ruled the closure votes “null and void”, finding that the city hadn’t followed the complex state law governing school closures. We explained the implications, which included the placement of some students at schools the city said were too bad to keep open.

That’s not to say that the city and union couldn’t agree on anything. In fact, they worked on a deal to close the rubber rooms. And together they quaked at the doomsday budget being floated in Albany, which would have slashed $400 million from the city’s schools.

In other news: the number of teachers without positions decreased. New York State’s NAEP reading scores stayed flat and the city’s graduation rate went up. NYU historian Diane Ravitch’s book about came out and so did our own Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine article on making a better teacher. The city restricted bake sales and parents protested, yelling, “Viva el cupcake!”

April

April was the month the Department of Education eliminated its division of teaching and learning and announced a major push toward online education. It was also the month that lawyers for the city revealed their argument for why the school closures should go through as planned: At least we tried to follow the rules.

Michael Mulgrew won his first full term as UFT president in a landslide vote but met some up-and-coming adversaries in the group Educators 4 Excellence, formed to lobby against “last in, first out” layoff rules.

The city announced it would close rubber rooms by the end of the year but it didn’t reach any agreement with the union on other contract issues, including “last in, first out.” We judged the rubber room timeline too optimistic.

We visited one school where classes felt like rubber rooms of their own and met students from several other schools who had defied the odds.

Looking toward Race to the Top’s second round, the State Senate introduced a bill to double the number of charter schools, while Harlem Senator Bill Perkins held his own heated charter school hearings.

May

The charter cap bill zipped through the State Senate but stalled in the Assembly. After a month of delay, legislators hashed out a last-minute deal to more than double the charter cap to 460. But questions remained about how other components of the new charter school law would be implemented.

The city planned for $750 million in cuts to schools and massive teacher layoffs, the nitty-gritty of which we explained. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stopped in New York City (and altered his itinerary at the request of the teachers union) to call for a federal schools bailout.

The city looked for extra change by charging schools for lunches that students left unpaid and permitting schools to fire parent coordinators.

The State Education Department and the teachers union inked a deal to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; the city pushed back against the court ruling barring its school closures; and State Senator Eric Adams told baggy-panted students to Stop the Sag.

June

We read the state’s bulked-up second-round Race to the Top application so our readers didn’t have to. The state promised to replicate city initiatives; meanwhile, the city promised the feds it would “turn around” a host of struggling schools.

Mayor Bloomberg cut teacher raises to save money and prevent teacher layoffs— postponing speculation that layoffs would happen to 2011 — and teachers rallied against budget cuts. Devising their 2010-2011 budgets, principals started excessing teachers. Also shedding numbers: The schools kept open by court ruling, where we revealed that the city had discouraged enrollment.

We said goodbye to the rubber rooms and DOE press secretary David Cantor and hello to hip-hop Regents prep. The city and union ended the school year fighting over when the next one would begin: The city tried to delay the first day of school until after Rosh Hashanah, which fell during the week after Labor Day, but abandoned the plan, blaming the union.

July

Bad news abounded in July. The state admitted that test standards had been too low for too long. Thousands of students had been misled into thinking they had proficient skills, and once standards were raised, the proportion of city students passing the state reading tests dropped by more than 25 percent. After years of announcing gains, Mayor Bloomberg was left scrambling for a message. The city promised extra attention but not extra money for struggling students.

Also falling short: The city’s appeal in the school closure legal fight. An appeals court upheld the ruling barring the closures, though the city said it would stay the course on opening new schools.

New York State ended the month a Race to the Top finalist for the second time, but with improved prospects for winning. And the city started getting ready to adopt toughened, national curriculum standards.

August

City and state officials went to Washington, D.C., to pitch the state’s Race to the Top application and brought home about $700 million in school funds, of which about $300 million would go to the city. The federal “edujobs” bill sent about $200 million — and hope for a layoff-free year — to New York City.

Otherwise, the month was about as boring as a fifth-grader’s summer homework. Breaking the monotony: Chancellor Klein threatened to use emergency powers to expand a Lower East Side charter school (but didn’t), and protesters distressed by lower state test scores derailed the month’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting. We also revealed that a Brooklyn charter school was holding classes in illegal space and dug up 1974 footage of Muhammad Ali’s visit to PS 41.

September

The school year started — and then started again — with too many teachers (though too few in classrooms), not enough kindergarten spaces, and scheduling problems. We live-blogged the first day of school, traveling with Chancellor Klein to all five boroughs.

During September, we met the Independent Budget Office’s new education watchdog, teachers who built their own data systems to make up for problems in the city’s, and fans — and foes — of the education documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” The city quietly released lower progress report grades based on diminished test scores. We learned some bad news — just half of the year’s summer school students were promoted — and some good news: City students reversed a trend and posted an SAT score boost.

We also got a hint of the policy issues that would define the school year: more budget cuts, major problems on the value-added teacher data reports, and changes to tenure policy, for which Mayor Bloomberg promised new rules, the union be damned.

October

In collaboration with WNYC, we launched “The Big Fix,” a reporting project about the city’s various efforts to fix failing high schools. Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx escaped the chopping block only to start the school year with a stripped down budget, growing needs, and students who mostly wanted to be there. William Grady High School banked on a new principal for needed improvements. And officials at Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School moved student by student toward a higher graduation rate.

Aiming to avoid more legal problems, the city started laying the groundwork for school closures early.  It closed out the month with 47 schools on the at-risk list and conflict with the teachers union over whether the city had tried to help them or neglected them. The city didn’t improve its relationship with the union when it said it would flout an agreement and release individual teachers’ value-added scores. The union immediately headed to court to halt the release.

The state told districts how to spend their Race to the Top spoils, we looked into the chancellor’s school visit history, and Eva Moskowitz got permission to open a charter school on the Upper West Side. The GothamSchools team found time during this busy month to travel to North Carolina for its first wedding (mine!).

November

Not much happened in November. We threw a party. And Joel Klein shocked the city (and most of his own deputies) by announcing his resignation after eight years as chancellor. Jaws dropped even further when Bloomberg announced that Cathie Black, a publishing executive with no experience or apparent interest in education, was his pick to take Klein’s place. We joined the scrum of journalists analyzing Black’s preparedness, Bloomberg’s mysterious search process, and the circumstances of Klein’s abrupt departure.

Parents, teachers, voters, and lawmakers took a stand against Black’s appointment, but Gloria Steinem gave her okay. That wasn’t enough for a special state panel convened to consider whether Black should receive the waiver required for non-educators to become chancellor — a majority of its members voted against her. City and state officials worked through the Thanksgiving weekend to reach a deal that would let Black become chancellor as long as a DOE official, Shael Polakow-Suransky, became her second in command in charge of academics. The next week, Black made her first visit to a city public school since her appointment.

Rupert Murdoch, Joel Klein’s new boss, bought Wireless Generation, a major education technology company based in Brooklyn. Looking forward, it’s unclear what Klein’s relationship will be with the company. But that’s for the future. For the past, here’s our take on Klein’s career at the DOE.

In non-Cathie Black news, Andrew Cuomo, no friend of teachers unions, was elected governor, but union-backed candidates won many other races. A preliminary budget brought back the specter of teacher layoffs, this time 6,100 in 2011. The city said it missed its rubber room deadline for just 16 teachers. And new, lower high school progress report grades came out, but some schools got higher grades that paved the way for them to stay open.

Then, bedbugs struck.

December

Where was Cathie Black? The DOE wouldn’t say, so we joined the NYC education press corps in calling on the city to reveal her whereabouts. We found her on the phone and on TV, but not at any low-performing schools.

Parents and elected officials filed lawsuits to block Black’s appointment. But during the year’s last days, a State Supreme Court judge dismissed all three of the suits, clearing the way for Black to take over on January 3, the first day of school after the winter recess.

Black’s first piece of business — assuming there’s no remaining fallout from a riot over bathroom access at Murry Bergtraum High School — is likely to be presiding over the latest round of school closures. The city finalized its intentions to close 26 schools, fewer than the maximum number possible but still the most in any year. Mulgrew promised a serious fight over the closures, suggesting the city might see a repeat of 2010’s school closure showdown in 2011.

There’s much more to look forward to in 2011, from changes to the way school safety data gets reported, continued sparring over teacher data reports, a new tenure process for new teachers, and, if Klein’s final missive is to be trusted, a push to address the ATR situation. The city is also looking at more federally mandated turnarounds next year, although federal reforms could be in jeopardy as the balance of power shifts in Washington. If nothing else, we can at least count on a musical performance featuring the PS 22 chorus during the Oscars in February.

You made it to the end of 2010! Have a happy New Year’s Eve and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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?”