hail mary

Assembly members float alternative to tax credits for private schools

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie on the Assembly floor.

Lawmakers in the State Assembly say there is a way to offer more support for private and parochial schools without agreeing to generous tax credits for those able to make big-ticket donations.

Instead of reimbursing donors who support private-school scholarship funds for low-income students, the lawmakers said existing reimbursement programs within the state education department could be used to funnel more money to nonpublic schools. The idea would be coupled with a tax deduction for middle- and low-income families that spend up to $3,000 on education expenses for their children each year, and came up during closed-door meetings between Democrats in the Assembly as a counterproposal in contentious negotiations.

“It’s a compromise,” said David Weprin, an Assembly member from Queens.

The lawmakers mentioned the idea, which they cautioned may not yet be on the table among legislative leaders, as they prepared to file out of Albany on Friday. The legislative session was scheduled to end on Wednesday but has been extended until at least next Tuesday, and lawmakers have come to no resolution on a host of outstanding education issues — including mayoral control of city schools, charter-school growth, and revisions to an unpopular teacher-evaluation law — that have been preempted by more urgent negotiations over housing laws.

The most the legislature has been able to agree to so far has been an extension of rent regulations for long enough for lawmakers to go home for a couple of days.

On Friday, Assembly Democrats dropped a months-long call for stronger rent laws and introduced legislation that would simply renew for two years the regulations that expired earlier this week. The bill, first reported by the Daily News, also reintroduces the Assembly’s three-year renewal of mayoral control, conceding nothing to the Senate’s one-year proposal that includes perks for charter schools.

“The Assembly Democratic conference will not be held hostage by the Senate,” Assembly spokesman Michael Whyland told the Daily News. “These are important issues for millions of New York City residents and residents throughout the state.”

Negotiations among the state’s leaders will continue through the weekend, and the rest of the legislature will return Tuesday to resume their work. On Friday, Speaker Carl Heastie said that almost everything was still on the table, adding somewhat begrudgingly that even the prospect of allowing more charter schools to open in New York City was being discussed.

“For the most part, the Assembly conference is not big supporters of charter schools,” Heastie said in brief remarks to reporters. “Charters are something that Senate Republicans like to support. They never want them in their districts. I don’t get that one. But that’s something they may have requested.”

“As long as the clock hasn’t run out on the session, I guess a lot of things are on the table,” Heastie said.

When lawmakers return on Tuesday, there will be just a week left before mayoral control expires.

“We can’t let it lapse,” said Linda Rosenthal, an Assembly member who represents the Upper West Side.

“The fact is that the upstate senators — what is it to them to extend mayoral control? Why is that a bad thing?” Rosenthal said. “It’s clearly another issue they want to take the city hostage on.”

Some of Rosenthal’s Democratic colleagues, however, are more ambivalent — or simply opposed.

“You know, back in the days, when the oft-criticized community boards ran education, we had some wonderful districts,” said Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Assembly member and former teacher for nearly three decades at P.S. 160 in Co-op City. (Benedetto voted in favor of the Assembly’s three-year mayoral control extension.)

“Having school boards isn’t fool proof, but the community needs some say in how their children are being educated, as opposed to one person having control over billions of dollars,” said Latrice Walker, an Assembly member from East New York and Brownsville who was one of the few Democrats who voted against the Assembly’s mayoral control bill last month.

Lawmakers in the Assembly said they hoped to find some common ground next year on how to support private and parochial schools. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has aggressively pushed for a set of tax credits in a bid to help nonpublic schools, which he says would offer needed help to Catholic and other schools. Teachers unions and many lawmakers oppose the plan, which they see a way to direct taxpayer dollars away from public schools. They have also bristled at a tax policy that would provide a 75 percent reimbursement to donors who give up to $1 million, a scheme they see as a giveaway to the rich.

The compromise that the Assembly has floated would boost the amount provided to nonpublic schools through the state’s largest reimbursement program, called mandated services aid. The program, first established in 1974, and others like it reimburse schools for costs associated with reporting daily attendance, administering state tests, giving immunization shots and buying textbooks and technology. Last year, the city’s budget included $64.6 million for nonpublic schools, according to the Department of Education website.

But the programs have not been fully funded for much of the last decade and owes nonpublic schools an estimated $225 million in “delinquent reimbursements,” according to the New York State Catholic Conference last year.

Lawmakers said they preferred using an existing funding stream instead of establishing an entirely new one, as the tax credits would require.

“We’re already doing mandated services and these are resources that private schools have access to,” Walker said.

The state set aside more than $170 million in money to reimburse nonpublic schools this year, Assembly member Catherine Nolan said. Reimbursement money on top of that, the exact amount of which Weprin said was still a moving target, wouldn’t be earmarked to serve low-income families the way the tax credits are, but schools could use it for similar purposes.

“The schools would be in a better financial position which would enable them to potentially reduce tuition, potentially have more scholarship money for students,” Weprin said. “The money is fungible.”

Representatives for the governor’s office and the Senate did not respond to requests for comment.

Bob Bellafiore, a spokesman for the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, which has aggressively lobbied in support of the tax credits, criticized the alternative proposal because it would not include as much funding for needy families.

“For poor and middle-income parents, you need to have the same access to choice that wealthy people have,” Bellafiore said. “Throwing some peanuts to some schools is not going to do that.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.