Early Childhood

During hearing, de Blasio's pre-K gatekeepers scrutinize his plan

Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in Albany discussing Brooklyn hospitals. The duo played down tension around their competing visions for funding universal pre-kindergarten.

ALBANY — The gatekeepers who stand in the way of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top priority — overhauling the city’s pre-kindergarten services and lengthening the middle school day — got their most prominent chance yet today to publicly scrutinize, praise and denounce the details of his plan.

In more than two hours of testimony this morning, state lawmakers lobbed a range of questions about his proposal, which he wants to fund with a local income tax hike and begin implementing immediately. Just 20,000 city 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in full-day pre-K programs, and de Blasio believes the city can more than triple that number in less than two years.

Lawmakers wanted to know why de Blasio needed new taxes to pay for something that could be covered by the state, pointing to an alternative funding proposal that Gov. Andrew Cuomo floated last week. Several asked why charter schools have been absent from the proposal’s details, with a Bronx senator threatening to withhold his support over the issue.

And some fretted about de Blasio’s ambitious implementation schedule. New details of his plan, released this morning, estimate that the city is prepared to create or renovate enough space and hire enough new teachers to bring full-day pre-K programs to an additional 55,000 students between now and the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

“We’re a little gun shy up here when it comes to the rollout of educational things over the last couple of months and years,” said Michael Cusik, a Democratic Assemblyman from Staten Island, alluding to the state’s bumpy implementation of Common Core standards and new teacher evaluations. “So I think a lot of the questions are based on implementation of these plans that you put forward.”

De Blasio argued that any challenge standing in the way of his plan paled in comparison to the educational “crisis” facing New York City’s schools. As evidence, he repeatedly cited a New York Times editorial that included the long-reported data point that three-quarters of city students lack the skills necessary to take college-level classes after four years of high school. 

“We are in the midst of an inequality crisis,” de Blasio said, echoing the progressive theme that he campaigned on during in the mayoral race last year. (De Blasio did not comment on the main point of the Times editorial, which was about preserving Mayor Bloomberg’s school evaluation system.)

De Blasio’s inaugural venture to the joint legislative budget hearing was an unusual one. Typically, local government leaders and others use the annual hearings to make their respective cases for more money in the state budget.

But de Blasio delivered the opposite message to lawmakers, saying he didn’t need the state’s money to fulfill his pre-K plan. He only needs the vote of approval required any time a local municipality wants to raise local taxes. De Blasio’s tax hike would target city residents who earn over $500,000.

“We’re not asking Albany to raise the state income tax by a single penny to pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs in New York City,” said de Blasio, debunking what he called a “myth” that had proliferated in the debate over how to fund his plan. Cuomo has proposed a less expensive state-funded plan that he says would draw on existing funds.

Some lawmakers wholeheartedly endorsed de Blasio’s proposal. Staten Island Democratic Senator Diane Savino said Cuomo’s alternative funding plan would not begin to equal the costs of what the city says is needed to fulfill its expanded pre-K and after-school programs. She also noted that it was not unusual for the legislature to approve municipalities’ proposals for local tax hikes.

“It is not uncommon for local elected bodies to come to the legislature with a local request to establish a funding stream just for their locality,” said Savino, noting that the Senate was expected to pass five such measures in its session today.

But there was also plenty of skepticism about de Blasio’s proposal from both Democrats and Republicans, and from lawmakers both inside and outside of the city. While no one took issue with the idea of expanding access to pre-K, they critiqued de Blasio’s implementation plans.

“My concern simply revolved around maybe biting off more than we can chew right away,” said William Magnarelli, a Democratic Assemblyman from Syracuse.

There are “areas of government where I couldn’t agree with you more,” de Blasio responded. But he said his plan can handle an aggressive implementation schedule because it is based on “powerful existing models for pre-K and for after school.”

And de Blasio faced pushback around his omission of any mention of the role of charter schools in his plan.

“Your idea of pre-K is great, but it has to include charter schools,” said Sen. Ruben Diaz, Jr., a Democrat from the Bronx, adding that he’d side with Cuomo’s funding proposal, which includes funding access for charter schools. “That would be one of the things that will [help] me make up my mind on how to vote and which plan to support.”

Including charter schools in any pre-K expansion is a sentiment that other minority lawmakers said in interviews they agreed with, including Assembly member Karim Camara and Senator Kevin Parker, both of whom represent districts in Brooklyn.

An exception was State Sen. Bill Perkins, of Harlem, who said he hoped that any final plan would block charter schools from receiving state pre-K funds, as is currently the case. Perkins has been a consistent critic of charter schools for years.

De Blasio dodged questions about whether he supports a change in state law that would make it easier for charter schools to access pre-K funds. He repeated that he was open to the idea, but also said that some organizations, naming Harlem Children’s Zone in particular, already had models that effectively managed charter schools and pre-K programs as separate, but affiliated entities.

After the testimony, de Blasio sat next to Cuomo at a press conference about the grim finances of status of Brooklyn’s hospitals, during which they projected a united front. But questions quickly turned to their strategies for expanding pre-K programs.

“It’s about the money,” Cuomo said. “It’s about the money.”

De Blasio immediately responded, “It’s an ongoing dialogue. It’s an ongoing dialogue.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: