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De Blasio offers charter school mea culpa while still calling for change

In his first major education address, Mayor Bill de Blasio painted a picture of a system in crisis.

“We need to be able to say that despite the good efforts of so many, the school system is still broken in so many ways,” the mayor said.

It was the theme of de Blasio’s first lengthy attempt to offer his vision for the city’s school system, outside of debates about charter schools and pre-kindergarten funding that have dominated his first three months as mayor. But before getting to some of the big ideas, he offered a mea culpa over his handling of some recent charter school decisions.

“I have to tell you, I didn’t measure up when it came to explaining those decisions to the people of this city,” de Blasio told the Sunday crowd at Morningside Heights’ Riverside Church.

The mayor was indirectly referring to his administration’s decision to nix three space-sharing plans involving Success Academy charter schools, which has metastasized into a public relations mess for de Blasio—even though the city gave the green light to 19 other charter school plans.

Those reversals, and de Blasio’s laser focus on his campaign to increase New Yorkers’ access to pre-K for their four-year-olds and after-school programs for their middle schoolers, have meant the mayor has spent little time defining his vision for the rest of the city’s school system.

De Blasio didn’t mince words in Sunday’s speech, calling the status quo “a tragedy.” He cited the fact that less than two-thirds of the city’s students graduate on time and only 20 percent of students of color are at grade level by the third grade.

“So many parents are simply looking for the best for their children. And sadly, they don’t see it enough in their neighborhood school,” de Blasio said. “That’s a reality I won’t accept. I want that parent to know that we will not accept a neighborhood school that fails them.”

“I know Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña feels the same urgency I do,” he continued. “Our mission is to create a city in which regardless of zip code, your neighborhood public school is a great option for your child.”

That phrasing combined the rhetoric of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, who spoke of the urgent need to reform the city’s school system,  and many of de Blasio’s allies, who are much cooler toward charter schools and want the city’s focus to be on improving traditional public schools.

De Blasio didn’t offer any new proposals, instead calling for a unified acknowledgement of the “root causes” of the city’s problems.

“I know people of every ideology who want to shake the foundations. I know teachers in traditional public schools who want to shake the foundations. I know charter school teachers who want to shake the foundations. But what can unify us is that sense of urgency,” he said.

That’s a very different tone than de Blasio’s schools chancellor has been taking in her first three months. Fariña has focused more on building rapport with teachers and principals than on explaining how the system isn’t up to par or spelling out specific goals for academic achievement or graduation rates. De Blasio, whose administration is also currently negotiating a contract with the teachers union, has been less shy about saying he thinks the city has a long way to go.

On charter schools themselves, de Blasio offered a mix of positions, some of them contradictory.

He said he wanted to “re-engage” with the idea that charter schools can develop models for traditional public schools to learn from, but also implied that he disapproved entirely of encouraging the charter sector to improve things for only a subset of the city’s students.

“The answer is not to find an escape route that some can follow and some can’t. The answer is to fix the entire system,” he said.

For de Blasio, that starts with pre-K. As budget proposals near completion in Albany, it seems likely that de Blasio will soon be outmaneuvered when it comes to funding his expansion of pre-K and after-school programs, since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to pay for the plan for without raising taxes seems to have a broader appeal among lawmakers in Albany than de Blasio’s plan among lawmakers, who must approve the funding source.

Still, de Blasio was eager to portray the city as being on the cusp of big changes, thanks to Albany’s decisionmakers.

“I know in the next few days, the world will change before our very eyes,” he said.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede