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.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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