setting the agenda

Cuomo will push to raise charter cap, slow tenure, revamp evals in sweeping overhaul tied to new funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

Gov. Cuomo promised an aggressive education agenda this year, and he delivered.

Cuomo announced plans to push for a broad overhaul of state education policy on Wednesday, which will include raising the state’s cap on charter schools, increasing the state’s role in teacher evaluations, and lengthening the time it takes for teachers to earn tenure.

Cuomo’s plans aren’t guaranteed to become policy: The changes require legislative action, and the negotiations that precede a final budget deal often lead to unexpected outcomes and concessions. But they form the broadest, most ambitious set of changes he’s proposed as governor, and set the stage for fierce policy fights with teachers unions and other advocates.

“Our education system needs dramatic reform, and it has for years,” Cuomo said. “This is the year to roll up our sleeves and take on the dramatic challenge that has eluded us for so many years and for so many reasons.”

In exchange for the legislative changes, Cuomo said he would increase funding by $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent — essentially meeting teacher unions halfway, as they have requested a $2.2 billion increase.

Here’s a breakdown of the governor’s proposals.

Teacher evaluations: Cuomo’s proposal would increase the portion of a teacher evaluation controlled by the state from 20 percent to 50 percent, which for many teachers would boost the significance of state test scores. It would also diminish the principals’ role by relying on the observation of an independent evaluator.

The state’s roughly 700 school districts have a patchwork of evaluation plans, which Cuomo described as “baloney” on Wednesday. His proposal is an attempt to stop what he has called “local inflation” of scores, which has been more evident outside of New York City.

Cuomo’s proposal would restrict district plans by requiring the other half of a teacher’s rating to come from classroom observations, and would make high scores on both halves necessary to earn an overall “effective” or “highly effective” rating.

Cuomo stressed that he wants the evaluations to create incentives, too. He proposed offering bonuses of up to $20,000 to teachers with highly effective ratings, just as he did in last year’s speech. Those bonuses would require the agreement of the district and the local teachers union, though, and UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he still wasn’t interested.

“Individual merit pay? It’s been completely debunked,” Mulgrew said.

Teacher tenure: Cuomo is proposing that teachers only become eligible for tenure after five consecutive years of “highly effective” or “effective ratings.” That would be a significant increase from the current three-year probation period, and if a single “developing” rating could derail a teacher’s path to those job protections, it would add to the pressure associated with teacher evaluations.

Other legislation Cuomo is proposing would keep a student from being assigned two teachers with “ineffective” ratings two years in a row. (The plan does not specify how that would work for middle and high-school students with multiple teachers.)

Charter schools: Cuomo’s proposal would add 100 charter schools to the state limit, bringing the total to 560, and remove the regional distinctions that restricted some charters to New York City and others to parts of the state where there was less demand. That could set up future fights over the cap the next time the limit nears — and with the Success Academy network recently applying for 14 charters at once, for example, that might not be so far into the future.

The governor said he would also be proposing “anti-creaming legislation” to ensure charter schools are teaching their “fair share” of English language learners, low-income students, and students with disabilities. The provision would require schools to submit enrollment rates for each of those groups of students to the state at the beginning and end of each school year and bi-monthly — providing a trove of new data to support or refute the idea that high-needs students leave charter schools during the school year. It would also require charter schools to add lottery preferences for low-income students, students enrolled “in a failing school,” and children of staff members.

Cuomo would also increase per-pupil funding for charters by $75 — not a full win for charter school advocates, who want their school funding increases to be commensurate with increases for district schools.

Struggling schools: Cuomo called for a new law that would appoint nonprofit groups, school-turnaround experts, or other school districts to oversee schools that have fallen on the state’s lowest performing list for three years.

Based on a turnaround model used in Massachusetts, the law would give those “receivers” the authority of local superintendents, allowing them to restructure struggling schools, overhaul their curriculums, and offer extra pay to attract successful teachers. It would also let them to override labor agreements in order to hire “underperforming” teachers and administrators.

The receivers would be required to bring a bevy of support services for students and their families to the schools — a plan to turn them into “community schools” that mirrors New York City’s program for troubled schools.

Cuomo proposed setting aside $8 million for those overhauls. The schools would also get priority for state grants that fund pre-kindergarten, extra learning time, and early-college high school programs.

Teacher training: Cuomo proposed closing down teacher training programs where 50 percent of graduates fail to pass a state certification exam in three consecutive years.

He also proposed paying the CUNY or SUNY tuition to “top candidates” who commit to teaching in state schools for five years after graduation, creating a statewide teacher residency program, and mandating new GPA and GRE requirements for education programs.

School governance: Cuomo threw support behind the renewal of mayoral control of New York City schools, and encouraged other cities to apply for mayoral control as well.

Teacher discipline: Teachers facing accusations of physical or sexual abuse should get an expedited hearing process, Cuomo said.

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here: