aint over til its over

More than a day after ‘framework’ agreement, questions remain on education issues

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

State lawmakers left work on Wednesday night without finalizing a legislative deal involving New York City education issues.

Legislative leaders announced Tuesday that they had resolved their differences on the most contentious parts of negotiations that had dragged on for more than a week past their original ending date. That deal included a one-year extension of mayoral control, a modest increase to the number of new charters that can open in New York City, and a $250 million consolation prize for private and parochial schools whose push for tuition tax credits were dropped.

But there are still a host of unresolved issues standing in the way of final deal. Chief among those for Assembly Democrats is the strengthening of rent regulations, although changes to the charter-school law were also being discussed.

“There’s nothing closed down. Everything is still open,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said after emerging from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office on Wednesday evening.

Here are the other questions remaining about New York City education issues.

1. Will other changes be made to the charter-school law?

The framework deal clears the way for 25 additional new charter schools to open in New York City and gives the State University of New York more latitude to approve the schools.

On Wednesday morning, the ongoing talks included additional changes. Assembly Democrats said they sought measures to ensure that charter schools serve a more equitable share of high-needs students. A source familiar with the negotiations said one proposal would have required charter schools to serve comparable shares of special education students with more severe disabilities. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans wanted to increase the maximum number of uncertified teachers that a school can employ from 5 teacher to up to 30 percent of an entire staff.

But talks slowed on Wednesday, the source said, who said the most recent discussions involved changing “just the cap and nothing else.”

2. Will anything happen to the hotly contested teacher evaluation law?

After the governor pushed the new law earlier this year, some lawmakers were hoping to slow down the tight timeline in which districts have to negotiate and implement new plans. But nothing in Tuesday’s “framework” announcement suggested that gripes with the new law had factored into the deal — a loss for the state teachers union, which made evaluation changes a priority in end-of-session negotiations.

“We probably didn’t go as far as I hoped,” said Patricia Fahy, a member of the Assembly’s education committee, adding that she also sought to minimize the use of student testing for evaluations. “I’m a little disappointed about that, quite frankly.”

The only tweak announced so far appears to be aimed to appease critics without making substantive changes to evaluations. A law dubbed the “Parental Empowerment Act” will require “a review of growth model,” according to the press release announcing the legislative deal, referring the methodology through which students’ test score gains factor into their teacher’s evaluation.

The press release did say that the act would “require the disclosure of state exam questions and answers,” which a spokesman for the Senate said would be accompanied with $8.4 million in funding for the State Education Department. The state published only about half of questions last year, citing test security and cost concerns amid sharp criticism of the state’s testing program.

3. Will the mayoral-control legislation include any other changes to how New York City’s schools are run?

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over in Albany,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference on Wednesday when asked for his reaction to the one-year extension of mayoral control — a particularly harsh blow after de Blasio lobbied for a permanent renewal earlier this year.

But despite the mayor’s deference to the ongoing negotiations, his allies in the legislature said they were mostly ambivalent about fighting to lengthen the extension.

“I think there were a lot of things that we were fighting for or against and this was part of the discussion, but we didn’t focus on it,” said Linda Rosenthal, an Upper West Side Assembly Member. “There was much more talk about rent and 421-a and all of those” housing issues that have been the focus this year, she said.

The renewal offers lawmakers a chance to make changes to the governance structure. When mayoral control was last renewed in 2009, the legislature extended it for six years but required the city to hold public hearings and study the impact of school closures or space-sharing agreements prior to approving them. That provision became a legal issue one year later, and ended up derailing the Bloomberg administration’s agenda for a year.

But there aren’t any other big changes expected to be included in the one-year renewal.

Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, said a statement that the coalition of business leaders she represents was mostly relieved that legislative agreement “reflects an undiluted extension of mayoral control.”

strike vote looming

Denver district, board members frame teacher contract negotiations as debate over values

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver school board members get the latest on negotiations that have hit a turning point.

With time running out to strike a deal with the teachers union, Denver school district officials in a special board meeting Wednesday portrayed the unresolved issues in contract negotiations as a clash over values.

The hastily called meeting was primarily a briefing for school board members from the district’s chief negotiators and Superintendent Susana Cordova. But it was also a chance for the district — and a board that generally supports its positions — to seize the narrative.

Cordova framed the district’s stance as honoring core district values, including getting teachers into hard-to-staff jobs and high-poverty schools, and keeping them there.

Under negotiation is the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. It offers teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. The union would like to take some incentive money and put it toward higher base pay to lift the salaries of all teachers.

The district’s general counsel, Michelle Berge, on Wednesday said the union wants to take $10 million being used now to incentivize teaching in high-poverty schools and spread the money around “like peanut butter.”

Talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for paying teachers by “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and “lanes” representing education. 

The two sides have bargaining sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has pledged to hold a strike vote Saturday if an agreement isn’t reached.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable.

Cordova acknowledged the two sides are far apart on money. The money on the table for teachers now, she said, “is not enough.” But she said the two sides should reach an agreement, then work together to “fix the core of the problem” — how the state funds schools.

Wednesday’s meeting gave board members a platform as Denver inches closer to what would be its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Board member Jennifer Bacon said a system in which teachers don’t know what they are going to be paid — it can vary from year to year under ProComp — is “crazy.” 

“What are we really negotiating on to make teaching an idolized profession?” said Bacon, one of two board members who often push back against the district’s policies.

Member Happy Haynes said she put a higher priority on rewarding teachers who take hard-to-fill jobs and work in high-poverty schools.

“It isn’t just simply numbers moving around on cells on a spreadsheet,” she said. “There are values that we are articulating here.”

A teachers union representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Union President Henry Roman, however, has previously cited values in articulating the union’s stance.

“We know the district has the money to pay teachers a living wage,” Roman said in a statement last week, “and it’s time that they get serious about budgeting their stated values, so that we can have a deal by the 18th and prevent further stress on educators, students, and the community. Any further delay in getting a fair and transparent compensation system will only serve to aggravate the situation.”

On Friday, district officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more. Taking into account a previously promised cost-of-living raise, the $23 million would increase teachers’ base pay by 10 percent from this school year to the next on average, district officials said.

Board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher, indicated the school district has more work to do to describe its offer.

“When I sit here, I know it sounds good, but I know that is not translating into the teachers in our schools,” Olson said. “The feeling isn’t, ‘This is a great deal.’”

That doesn’t appear to be lost on district officials. Cordova fielded teacher questions for an hour late Wednesday afternoon during a “telephone town hall” with educators after the district blasted them with robocalls informing them of the opportunity.

Teachers, meanwhile, organized informational community meetings at no fewer than three Denver schools Wednesday afternoon or evening, part of an effort to engage parents, said union vice president Christina Medina. In some cases, school administrators took part in those or previous meetings to discuss implications of a strike and explain the district position, she said.

“No one is more invested than parents,” said Medina, a teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval elementary school in northwest Denver. “So connecting with them is important because they love our kids and we love our kids. It’s making sure we are on the same page. Making sure that teachers stay and we have great teachers in Denver.”

First Person

Why I won’t strike: Denver teachers in high-poverty schools, like me, deserve real bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I’m in my eighth year teaching in Denver Public Schools. I have spent my career teaching in Montbello, where a majority of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I have a master’s degree in English, and at High Tech Early College, I teach primarily concurrent enrollment classes, for which students receive both high school and college credit.

For the last five years, I have been rated “distinguished,” the district’s highest evaluation rating for teachers. That rating, plus my degree and the fact that I teach at a high-poverty school, means I benefit from many aspects of our current pay system, known as ProComp.

So I’m watching the Denver teacher’s union negotiations for a new pay scale closely. And I’m concerned.

For one, I believe that my distinguished rating reflects my hard-earned successes in the classroom. The union has advocated successfully to end bonuses tied to evaluations under the new contract, which is disappointing. I see that change as funding less effective teachers at the expense of others, and I worry they could drive strong teachers from the district.

But far more important to me are the existing bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools. The union is advocating to shrink bonuses for teachers in Title I schools to $1,500 from $2,500, and redistributing the rest to increase everyone’s base pay.

I can tell you from experience that schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty — face complex and often painful challenges. We don’t talk enough about how, all over America, most poor kids go to school with poor kids and rich kids go to school with rich kids. That means teachers in schools like mine aren’t working with a few students arriving with challenges — behavior problems, unaddressed trauma, worries about being undocumented, for example — but often entire classes of students who need special attention for those reasons.

If those bonuses keep shrinking, what incentivizes teachers to teach at schools like ours? If it’s the same pay at two schools, what will bring teachers into the places where we need them the most? A sense of vocation and moral purpose, for sure, but that ignores reality. Turnover at my school is relatively high, and evening out teacher pay could make it worse. Students at those schools deserve great teachers who stick around.

To be clear, I love High Tech, and I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not anti-union. All teachers should be compensated for the hard and important work that they do, and I’m excited to see pay rise for everyone. I don’t believe that strong base pay and bonus money for qualified educators are mutually exclusive.

But the union’s stance on high-poverty schools is indefensible. I hope it reconsiders.

Alison Corbett is a teacher at High Tech Early College and was a 2017-18 Teach Plus Colorado Fellow.