what to know

Taking the same road to Albany, education lobbying events on divergent paths

The state’s education-policy debates will reach a crescendo in Albany today.

If you believe organizers of two large events planned on Wednesday, nearly 10,000 teachers, parents, students and advocates will converge on the state capital hoping to influence lawmakers before they get serious about negotiating the upcoming year’s budget. They’re lobbying with the same goal in mind — to push policies that will improve public education — but what they’re asking for couldn’t look more different.

Most of that crowd, about 8,000 people, will attend an outdoor rally organized by the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. Featuring a psychedelic soul singer and an all-time great basketball star, the rally’s message will be the city’s entire schools system is in need of dramatic reform. Meanwhile, a smaller and equally passionate group of teachers and union leaders will be inside, working to convince lawmakers that the real problem is a multi-billion dollar funding deficit crippling low-income schools.

Here are four things to know about Wednesday’s festivities.

1. The dueling efforts offer a comparison in political might.

Only a few years ago, the city teachers union was considered New York’s preeminent powerhouse in Albany when it came to political lobbying. The charter school sector’s lobbying efforts, meanwhile, were comparably understated and less influential.

Charter schools didn’t have much to complain about under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But in response to the changing electoral tides, a constellation of charter school operators, well-heeled board members, and advocates organized into two groups, Families for Excellent Schools and StudentsFirstNY, and turned their attention to Albany.

It wasn’t clear how much ground they had gained until last year’s rally, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s most powerful Democrat, appeared and publicly embraced their movement. Within weeks, charter schools received long-coveted access to taxpayer-funded facilities. More recently,  the union lost its top ally in the legislature, former Speaker Sheldon Silver, and his replacement, Carl Heastie, is still untested.

Now, both sides are in Albany on the same day, but it’s the union appears to be in a weaker position.

2. Both sides have plenty at stake.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education-packed budget proposal would toughen teacher tenure rules and increase the state’s role in evaluations. He wants to raise the state’s charter school cap by 100 schools, put $100 million toward a tax credit that would create private school seats, and establish a state-takeover model that could affect teachers working in more than 90 of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

The charter school advocacy groups support most of his agenda, but they’re particularly focused on getting across the point that too many schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, are failing. They’re particularly excited about Cuomo’s plan for struggling schools, which would give the state the option to give them over to outside groups, including charter school organizations.

But charter schools aren’t uniformly thrilled with Cuomo’s proposals. He wants to require all charter schools to set aside seats in their admissions lotteries specifically for low-income students, and he is proposing only a modest increase in per-pupil funding — $75 — in a year when district schools are likely to see a bigger spike. Plus, 68 charter schools in private space remain ineligible for facilities funding, even though new or expanding schools do have access to free space or rent subsidies.

The teachers union sees so many problems with Cuomo’s agenda that they have decided not to focus on any one of his proposals. Instead, they’ve sought to portray the entire plan as hugely damaging to schools, encouraging teachers to make Cuomo himself the target of their advocacy efforts on social media and at public forums.

But the union has its own substantive requests, the first of which is to increase the amount of money allotted to low-income districts by $2.2 billion statewide. The union is also asking lawmakers to eliminate a set of property tax breaks for New York City condominiums and co-ops that would yield $900 million to hire teachers and lower class sizes.

Who gets what won’t be clear for at least another four weeks, when lawmakers must approve a budget.

3. The spectacle will include a Grammy nominee, a superstar athlete, and social media blasts.

Both the teachers union and charter-school groups are trying out a range of strategies in order to be seen and heard on Wednesday.

Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest female basketball players of all time, is speaking at the Families for Excellent Schools rally, and six-time Grammy nominee Janelle Monáe will perform afterwards. State lawmakers are will also speak, though organizers would not reveal the lineup on Tuesday.

The union’s lobbying day will be less star-studded, but include plenty of access to top state lawmakers. UFT President Michael Mulgrew is planning to meet with the state’s education committee chairs Catherine Nolan, an Assembly Democrat, and John Flanagan, a Senate Republican.

And though the union won’t be able to compete with the sheer size of the Families for Excellent Schools rally, it’s trying to make up for it online. More than 1,400 people have signed up to send a pre-programmed message on Twitter or Facebook opposing Cuomo’s education proposals. Staten Island teachers will send out their messages at 7 a.m., followed by Brooklyn teachers at 10 a.m. and Queens, Bronx, and Manhattan teachers at two-hour intervals until at 4 p.m.

4. It will be a show of unity for the sometimes-divided charter school sector.

The city’s growing group of charter school leaders have divergent views on issues like enrollment and the mission of their sector, and disagreements have typically divided Success Academy and other charter management organizations from smaller networks and independent schools.

But charter schools that have distanced themselves from Success Academy-backed political rallies in the past say they support this one. That includes all 18 schools that publicly opted out of last year’s rally and sided with Mayor Bill de Blasio during a space-sharing spat with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

It doesn’t mean that charter school leaders all see eye-to-eye. But the de Blasio administration’s tepid embrace of charter schools, and the City Council’s outright opposition, have had a unifying effect, many said.

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter School, said she’s also been turned off by the de Blasio administration’s unwillingness to work with the members of her group, the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, despite their overtures over the past year.

“We had hoped to get more out of our dialogue with the city than we’ve gotten to date,” Gauthier said. “We’re about good schools. We’re supporting this rally because we think that’s what this rally is about.”

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”