like old times

Spitzer talks up Albany school funding record on campaign trail

Eliot Spitzer with state Senator Marty Dilan and supporters outside a Brooklyn school.
Eliot Spitzer with State Sen. Marty Dilan and supporters outside a Brooklyn school.

Correction appended

Eliot Spitzer is touting his education record during his time as governor in the race for New York City comptroller, pledging to use the same approach he took in Albany in order to scrutinize the city school system.

In what has become a closely watched race, due mainly to Spitzer’s late entrance, many aspects of Spitzer’s brief tenure as governor have been sharply scrutinized. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, has focused on a few, including legislative gridlock, a politically charged police surveillance program, and the prostitution scandal that ended with his resignation after just 15 months in office.

But an area that Stringer’s campaign has stayed mum on so far is Spitzer’s record on education, which several funding advocates praised today. Though his time in Albany was short, they said Spitzer fought hard to convince the legislature to fulfill a school funding mandate for poorer districts to the fullest extent as part of a settlement that came out of a lengthy lawsuit called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

“Governor Eliot Spitzer was a clear champion on CFE,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which was formed to lobby and organize on behalf of the campaign.

When Spitzer entered office in 2007, the lawsuit, which sought to bring more money to school districts with many poor students, had stalled for more than a decade due to appeals from the state. Michael Rebell, a lead lawyer who handled the case, said Spitzer quickly settled the lawsuit, then struck a deal with the legislature to set aside more than $5 billion for New York City schools over five years, a larger sum than what the courts mandated.

The extra funding showed up in two years of state budgets while Spitzer was in office. It dissolved after the 2008 recession significantly curtailed spending and has not been been restored since. This year the state increased city funding by $364 million, down from $616 million in 2007.

“I have my differences with Eliot Spitzer about a number of issues and I’m not getting into about who I’m supporting for comptroller, but when it comes to education funding in 2007, he was as strong a supporter of New York City’s funding needs as any governor could be,” Rebell said. “He was terrific.”

It was praise that has been in short supply for Spitzer during his two-month candidacy. He’s received scant support from elected officials, unions, and advocacy organizations like the one that Easton runs.

Many groups had already endorsed Stringer, who lags behind Spitzer in polls. But Spitzer’s solicitation of prostitutes has been a major impediment in his efforts to attract support even from past allies.

Still, City Councilman Robert Jackson, a plaintiff on the CFE lawsuit, said he had no trouble acknowledging Spitzer’s role as an ally during the case.

“It’s the truth,” said Jackson, who endorsed Stringer and is running to succeed him as Manhattan borough president. “I’m not going to hide from the truth.”

At a press conference across the street from a Brooklyn school this afternoon, Spitzer brought up education funding often while discussing his priorities as a prospective comptroller. The comptroller is the fiscal steward for the city and does not control how schools are funded. But Spitzer said he’d use the position’s auditing authority to continue to work on education spending, specifically by scrutinizing budgets at schools in wealthy neighborhoods to determine if schools are funded equitably.

Another area within the Department of Education that Spitzer said he’d audit is how standardized testing has affected schools. The state requires that students take annual reading and math tests, but Spitzer said he would focus on what happens in city classrooms before the exams.
“What are the materials? Are we skewing and misdirecting our class activities for the test rather than using a broader curriculum?” said Spitzer, who was surrounded by a small group that included State Sen. Marty Dilan. “Those are the sorts of issues, pedagogical issues as well as mechanical issues, that we can absolutely audit.”

A spokeswoman for Stringer did not respond to a request for comments. But she pointed to budgetary uncertainties that surrounded education funding before and after Spitzer resigned in March 2008.

Spitzer’s budget proposal that year cut the city’s projected funding increase by $100 million, an announcement that drew criticism at the time.

Geri Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which had waged a 13-year legal battle to win more state money for city schools, said at the time that the budget would mean fewer teachers, larger classes and less money spent on programs such as extended school days and Saturday school.

“The governor and the legislature have made a long-term commitment to these kids,” Palast told the New York Times. “We have an obligation to get them to fulfill that commitment.”

Correction: A previous version misstated the 2013 school aid increase that New York City received. 

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.