the tenure track

Exclusive: Teacher tenure approvals tick up, continuing a de Blasio-era shift

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

New York City teachers were more likely to earn tenure last school year than at any point in the previous five years, but approval rates remain far lower than they were just a few years ago, when virtually every eligible teacher won the job protection.

Sixty-four percent of the 5,832 eligible teachers were granted tenure during the 2014-15 school year, up from 60 percent the year before, according to data released Thursday to Chalkbeat. Another 34 percent had their decisions deferred, and 2.3 percent were rejected, effectively ending their teaching careers in the district.

The numbers show that eligible teachers are slightly more likely to receive tenure under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch. But they also show that the de Blasio administration has not reversed the approach of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration made attaining tenure dramatically more difficult not by rejecting tenure applications, but by delaying a larger share of those decisions to a later year.

Under Bloomberg, who promised to move toward “ending tenure as we know it,” tenure approval rates plummeted from 89 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 53 percent the year before de Blasio took control of the city school system. Bloomberg argued that too many teachers were earning tenure too quickly, and the city began delaying decisions for a large portion of eligible teachers.

Over his first two years, de Blasio has slowly changed course. In his first year, tenure rates inched up to 60 percent, a 7 percent increase that de Blasio said reflected his administration’s interest in rewarding and retaining top teachers. And last year, the approval rate increased again to 64 percent.

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The number of teachers whose tenure prospects were deferred fell slightly to 34 percent, down from a high of 44 percent in Bloomberg’s final year. Under both administrations, rejection rates have hovered around 2 percent.

“This process is working,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We’ll continue to focus on retaining quality teachers and expediting the process for those who don’t belong in the profession.”

Six percent of teachers whose tenure decisions were previously delayed faced outright denial, up from 4 percent the previous year, which a department official emphasized as a sign of a rigorous tenure process.

But a more important statistic is that overall rejection rates have largely remained unchanged, according to David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The publicity surrounding this is like, ‘we’re getting rid of bad teachers from the classrooms,’” he said. “The fact that the denials are flat – that’s always been the important point.”

The education department only released the tenure numbers — which have historically been distributed months earlier — to Chalkbeat after multiple requests. Observers say that reticence could reflect the political reality that both union supporters and advocates who want stricter tenure rules can use the data as a political bludgeon.

“What’s maybe going on is a peculiar calculus that the number of grants of tenure has gone up and somehow that makes them look bad,” Bloomfield said. “The raw data is likely to be used by the mayor’s opponents no matter what it is.”

For their part, union officials said they were not aware of last year’s tenure numbers until Thursday.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, said the new data “reflects the trend that we have seen, fewer teacher complaints about probation extensions and fewer requests for legal reviews” of those extensions.

Tenure rules have been the subject of increased national scrutiny in recent years, and there are active lawsuits from Minnesota to New York that claim the protections keep underperforming teachers in the classroom and violate students’ right to an adequate education. (An appeals court in California recently struck a blow to that argument, saying the tenure rules in that state did not deprive low-income students of their civil rights.)

A key feature of the national debate is how long teachers should be in the classroom before being considered for the job protection. U.S. Secretary of Education John King recently waded into that conversation, saying that two years is not enough. Under a recent change to state rules, teachers can be considered for the job protection only after four ‘probationary’ years.

Meanwhile, New York City school leaders are already making the next round of tenure decisions. Most of this year’s recommendations were due from principals April 30; teachers should be notified of those decisions by late June.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.