ain't over til it's over - and it's over

A guide to state lawmakers’ final deal, in which NYC charters emerge as only big winners

As most education groups expressed mild enthusiasm for the end-of-session legislative deal, New York City’s charter school sector looked to be the only clear winner.

Not only does the deal double the number of new charter schools that can open in New York City, from 25 to 50, it also allows them to go through the preferred authorizer of the city’s influential charter school networks. Last-minute changes to teacher certification requirements and enrollment policies further cemented the victory.

The legislation passed in the Senate, 47-12, and in the Assembly, 112-13, and now heads to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk for his approval. The tumultuous session officially came to a close after midnight Friday when the Assembly concluded.

We reviewed the bill, introduced just hours before lawmakers were set to vote on it late Thursday night, for the education-related changes. They include new review requirements for state test questions and a short renewal of mayoral control, summarized below.

Charter schools

Fifty additional charter schools will be allowed to open in New York City, up from 25. Applicants for those charters can apply either through the State University of New York or the Board of Regents. Previously, 24 of the 25 available city-designated charters were controlled by the Regents, which supervises the State Education Department.

Lifting that restriction is a big deal because SUNY previously had just one charter left to issue in New York City. As an authorizer, SUNY is regarded as having stricter and more consistent standards and has increasingly favored operators who are replicating schools. It has become the chosen regulator of the city’s large charter school networks like Success Academy, whose schools are uniformly authorized by SUNY.

The bill makes two other changes to the charter school law. The first allows charter schools to employ a significantly larger share of teachers who aren’t certified under the state standards for district school teachers. State teacher certification standards are in the process of changing, and vary based by grade level and subject. But all district teachers must complete credits at an accredited institution and take a series of certification tests.

The previous maximum was five teachers per school. Now, schools can employ an additional 10 uncertified teachers of any subject, five of whom must be teachers of science, technology, or career and technical education subjects. Those teachers still must still meet certain other criteria, such as have previous teaching experience or “exceptional” experience in other professional fields.

The second change allows charter schools to give the children of staff who work for the school or its support network a preference in admissions lotteries. Children of staff could not constitute more than 15 percent of a school’s total enrollment.

Their last-minute inclusion shows just how dramatically the political dynamics have changed in New York State government. In the past, teachers unions were the groups helping lawmakers introduce last-minute changes to bills they were lobbying for or against, but they were unable to do so this time around. The bill does not add any new requirements related to enrolling high-needs students or scrutinizing the finances of charter school networks, which Assembly Democrats had proposed.

“Thankfully, Albany leaders understand that charter schools play a critical role in the delivery of free, public education in New York,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, whose spending in last year’s state elections helped keep Republicans in control of the State Senate.

The charter school law already requires that charters give preferences to siblings of children already at a school and to students who live in the district where the school is located.

State tests

Starting next year, the state education commissioner must release the questions and answers from the state’s annual English and math tests for grades three through eight by July 1.

It’s not clear how much the law will actually change the state’s current policies, however. The department had already announced it would release questions and answers by July 1 of this year, and the commissioner still won’t have to release all test items. The state will be allowed to limit the release to “avoid hindering or impairing the validity and/or reliability of future examinations,” which is the rationale that the state already has cited for not releasing all exam questions. (The state released about half of the test’s questions and answers last year.)

This year, the state will also have to release the “general student success rate in answering such questions correctly” on the tests by July 1.

Teachers, principals and district administrators will no longer be required to sign a confidentiality agreement requiring them not to discuss the contents of the exam. But they will still have to wait until the test questions are released to the public.

The legislature will provide the department with $8.4 million to cover costs associated with releasing the test items. That’s a budget request that the Board of Regents has made, unsuccessfully, for the last two years.

The State Education Department is now also required to establish a committee that must annually review “all standardized test items” and passages from the English and math tests. The state already has a review committee, but the law requires the group to look out for a few specific things, including whether the questions are “grade level appropriate.”

Mayoral control

The law giving New York City’s mayor control over its school system now expires June 30, 2016. Mayor Bill de Blasio was hoping for at least a three-year extension.

He avoided other changes that could have weakened his power, like changes to the Panel for Educational Policy or checks on the city’s education spending. That relieved some, with Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, saying that the coalition of business leaders she represents was glad the initial agreement reflected “an undiluted extension of mayoral control.”

Teacher evaluations

The legislation includes new language requiring the state’s methodology for evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores to include “consideration” of high-need student groups, including students with disabilities, low-income students, and English language learners. Those characteristics are already factored into the state’s current methodology, but the legislation cements that approach into law.

The bill does not extend the deadline for school districts to develop new teacher-evaluation systems, which the Senate and Assembly had both pushed for after widespread criticism from districts. That means the process agreed to by the Board of Regents earlier this month stands, and districts will have to apply for waivers to be exempt from the November deadline.

Correction: A previous version misstated the number of uncertified teachers that a charter school can employ.

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.