transfer-mation

As schools' closure hearings begin, their students get a way out

Students who attend schools the city is shuttering for poor performance will be allowed to leave, under a new policy that the Department of Education is rolling out at school closure hearings that begin tonight.

For the last decade, the Department of Education has closed schools — more than 150 in all — through a phase-out process in which no new students enter but existing students stay on until they graduate, up to three years after the closure decision. By the time the schools finally close their doors, only barebones staff and program offerings remain for the final students.

“The past policy was sort of like saying, ‘We’re going to get divorced in two years but we have to live together until then.’ It was not tenable,” said Clara Hemphill, who has reported about the impact of closures on schools and students as the editor of Insideschools. “It seems only fair that children should not be trapped in a school that the DOE has deemed to be failing.”

Now, the department will give each student in phaseout schools a list of higher-performing schools to which they can apply as part of the regular transfer process. When the department decides which transfer requests to approve, students from phaseout schools will be assigned first, starting with the neediest students who are looking for a new school.

With the first crack at open seats going to students in closing schools, other students eligible under federal rules to leave their struggling schools could have a harder time getting transfers.

The policy change comes as the Bloomberg administration’s school closure policies come under increasing attack — including from mayoral candidates and legislators. It also is the latest shake up of enrollment rules since State Education Commissioner John King warned the city that its policies had created unacceptably high concentrations of needy students in low-performing schools. At many schools the city has closed, performance had fallen as populations of English language learners, poor students, low-scoring students, students with disabilities, and overage students increased, often after other nearby schools were shuttered.

“How do we ensure where there are concentrations of [high-need students], there are adequate supports?” King said last year. “If not, how do we think about the enrollment system to make sure that students have access to schools that will provide the support that they need?”

Last year, the department committed to distributing midyear enrollees, who tend to be higher-need, across a wider array of high schools. It also pushed selective schools to admit more students with disabilities. Still, the schools it proposed for closure this year have many high-need students.

King has signed off on the new transfer policy, according to Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of school closures and new schools. He said department officials would promote the change at closure hearings that are set to take place at more than two dozen schools over the next two weeks. “We’ve got to do our job to make families know that this is an option,” he said.

Sternberg said the department made the change “because of a moral imperative we feel to provide all families with options.” He said he had been particularly struck by speaking with the mother of a third-grader at P.S. 64 in the South Bronx, where parents have asked the department to intervene in the school’s poor performance.

“This mother and child have been zoned for a school that has not been getting it done and now she will have the opportunity to exercise her right to choose a better option,” Sternberg said.

The transfer option will be extended to all 16,000 students at the 61 schools that are in the process of phasing out or will begin phasing out if this year’s closure proposals are approved next month by the Panel for Educational Policy. (The panel has never rejected a mayoral proposal.) But Sternberg said the department could not guarantee that all transfer requests will be honored.

“We do not — despite our best efforts — have the volume of quality seats that we need,” he said. “We will do our best to accommodate as many of those applicants as we can.”

Students whose transfer requests are not approved or who do not ask to change schools will still get the support they need, Sternberg said. The department groups phaseout schools in support networks that are focused on their unique issues, and officials say performance often ticks upward in schools’ final years, as students and teachers grow more focused.

Jawaun Daniels, a ninth-grader, said he would try to leave Bread and Roses High School, one of the schools with hearings tonight, if its closure is approved — “especially if the teachers get changed,” he said.

But Jaquan Strong, a 10th-grader, said he would want to say, as did Davontay Wigfall, who said he would not want to give up Bread and Roses’s basketball team.

Mary Conway-Spiegel, an advocate who works with students in some schools that are facing closure, said she would want evidence that higher-performing students would not end up leaving most often. She also said she worried whether principals would want to take in high-need students from low-performing schools, or be able to serve those students if they did enroll.

Letting students transfer, Conway-Spiegel said, is a poor substitute for not assigning them to strong schools in the first place. “It seems like it’s too little, too late,” she said.

And Hemphill said she thought the transfer policy would be unlikely to improve conditions in the school or even for students who decamp for other environments.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Hemphill said. “The schools will be in a death spiral for a couple of years, there’s still going to be some kids to save, and it still causes lots of disruption for the kids — but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”