making his case

Arguing for mayoral control, de Blasio sparks a spat over charter school funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio appealed to state lawmakers Tuesday to let him keep control of the city schools, he took a shot at charter schools that could hurt his case.

Without mayoral control of city schools, thousands of toddlers would be without pre-kindergarten classes and the entire system would be “fragmented and inefficient,” he said during a budget hearing in Albany.

But he also spoke out against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal to increase funding for charter schools, saying it would place an unfair financial burden on the city. Since Cuomo and some Republican lawmakers view the mayoral control debate as more a referendum on de Blasio’s education policies than a governance question, and both embrace charter schools, de Blasio’s remarks could undermine his argument to them.

“We hold a basic belief that every single child in this state is equally important,” de Blasio said about the proposed boost in charter-school funding, “and we do not support initiatives that take from one group of children to give to another.”

Cuomo recently proposed ending the current freeze on the public funding New York City charter schools receive for each student. That would raise funding for the city’s charter schools one year ahead of the rest of the state’s charters, which have not seen a funding increase for five years.

De Blasio said Tuesday that lifting the freeze would cost the city over $30 million next year, and pointed out that no other municipality is being asked to pay for such an increase. He said the city would welcome state money to cover the cost, but added that he would not want the state to “take away funding from other pressing needs.”

Charter advocates were quick to criticize the mayor’s comments.

“The Mayor’s position today conflicts with his recent inclusive tone around charter schools, and that is unfortunate — though not entirely unexpected,” said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

De Blasio’s strong stance against raising per-pupil charter school funding is unlikely to please either Cuomo, who has again said he would support a three-year extension of mayoral control, or from Republican lawmakers, who are already skeptical about de Blasio’s bid.

Otherwise, the mayor’s testimony hewed closely to themes he established last year when he asked for a permanent extension of mayoral control, which had expired after a six-year stint. Legislators ultimately granted him a one-year renewal and invited him to return this year to try again.

The short extension set the stage for another debate this year over de Blasio’s education policies. Now, state lawmakers will decide whether de Blasio’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools, his vast expansion of pre-K program, and his stance on charters warrants the permanent extension of mayoral control, or at least a seven-year renewal, which de Blasio is asking for.

In making his case Tuesday, he cited the relatively smooth pre-K rollout and the city’s record-high graduation rate last year. He also gave an implicit nod to his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who first convinced legislators to give the city’s mayor authority over the nation’s largest school system, then used the power to make sweeping changes — including disempowering local school boards, overhauling admissions systems, and closing hundreds of schools. Though Bloomberg’s policy prescriptions remain controversial, graduation rates rose and corruption waned during those years.

“Over time, we’ve seen that mayoral control works,” de Blasio said.

But the governor and some lawmakers take the position that the tool of mayoral control cannot be separated from the policies of the person who wields it.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office said in a statement this month that he plans to scrutinize de Blasio’s long-term vision for city education, especially the city’s progress at turning around underperforming schools, and dive into specific issues like allegations of grade-fixing.

“Senator Flanagan supports mayoral control for New York City schools, but not at any cost,” according to the statement from his press office.

Since the now-annual debate over mayoral control gives de Blasio’s critics in Albany a chance to publicly evaluate his policies, it’s unlikely they will grant him a long-term extension this session, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Why give up a fun toy?” he said.

De Blasio and his allies say the mayor’s policy positions should not influence lawmakers’ answer to the theoretical question of who should control the city’s schools system. Others say the repeated battles over the specifics of mayoral control have become a distraction.

“This is another issue that takes away from the issues that we want to focus on if we have to go back to the table each year and debate mayoral control,” said Randi Levine, a project director at Advocates for Children.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.