Education issues remain unresolved as Albany pushes past session’s official end

With just hours left in the last official day of the legislative session on Wednesday afternoon, there looked to be some action on two important New York City-centric education issues.

The Senate had added a charter school bill with a one-year extension of mayoral control onto its agenda, meaning it would come up for a vote. It didn’t have much of a chance of passing, but there issues could at least get some public debate.

But by 9 p.m., the bill had been shelved. And with the session now continuing past its official end, mayoral control of city schools, changes to the state’s cap on charter schools, tax credits for private schools, and possible amendments to the new teacher evaluation law all remain unresolved, as lawmakers haven’t yet moved past other pressing issues like rent regulations for New York City and a real estate tax credit.

“There’s no reason for us to be on the final day like this,” said George Latimer, a Democrat the ranking minority member on the Senate’s education committee. “We’ve wasted the bulk of April and the bulk of May not having any of these conversations. And I think it’s on purpose.”

A few things did get done on Wednesday. Lawmakers agreed to strengthen sexual consent laws on college campuses, and came to a deal on tighter regulations for the city’s nail salon industry. The Senate even debated — and narrowly passed — a bill naming the wood frog the state’s official amphibian, prompting speculation that it might end up on the late-night circuit as the most recent example of Albany’s dysfunction.

Standing outside the Senate chambers on Wednesday afternoon, Latimer said he welcomed a transactional approach to extending mayoral control and allowing more charter schools to open in New York City, two issues that have little to do with the suburban Westchester schools he represents. He and several lawmakers said they hope negotiations include talks about amending the new teacher evaluation law to delay the deadline for districts to switch over.

The Senate has proposed a three-month delay, while the Assembly has proposed a full-year delay. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who pushed for the new teacher evaluations in state budget negotiations this year, has said he is opening to giving districts more time to finalize their new systems, although he hasn’t said if he will support changes to the law. (The Board of Regents recently approved a waiver system that would allow eligible districts to apply to delay implementing the new system under current law.)

In addition to Cuomo, the people in charge of the talks are Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, both of whom ascended to their leadership positions in recent months after their predecessors were felled by corruption scandals. Cuomo met with each separately behind closed doors on Wednesday, and Heastie and Flanagan also met together. But those meetings seemingly yielded little.

East Harlem Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez said the Assembly’s top priority remained renewing rent regulations, which expired on Monday and has created uncertainty for the rental costs of 2.5 million people who live in rent-regulated apartments, most of which are in New York City. But he said at this point education and housing issues were all likely part of the same conversation at this point.

“It looks like all those things are on the table and being addressed simultaneously,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t want to say it’s linked or not linked, but simultaneously all those conversations are moving forward.”

Rodriguez also said that changes to the state’s cap on charter schools were on the table in the Assembly in addition to the Senate.

“I think the Senate has an interest in increasing [charters], and the Assembly has an interest in managing how that’s done and making sure it’s done effectively and thoughtfully based on what’s currently available under the previous cap,” Rodriguez said. “So they’re being discussed under both houses.”

Correction: A previous version misstated the area the Assembly member Rodriguez represents.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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