dollars and cents

Taking aim at the DOE, City Council proposes more budget cuts

City Hall (via Flickr)
City Hall (via Flickr)

Data specialists, new small schools, and empty seats in gifted programs could all go the way of cash bonuses to top-scoring schools if the City Council gets the budget cuts it wants.

The Council is proposing $170 million in additional budget cuts, on top of the millions Mayor Bloomberg already suggested, in an attempt to preserve a $400 rebate to homeowners that the mayor says the city can’t afford.

Almost $80 million of the proposed cuts would come from the Department of Education, the largest amount from any single city agency. Nearly $40 million of that would be programs associated with the department’s flagship Children First initiative, such as the school-based “inquiry teams” that analyze data about individual students. Other cuts would come in the form of delays, such as opening fewer schools each year and tabling plans to buy new data systems to manage enrollment and hiring information. And the proposal would require teachers to do jury duty on their own time, during the summer, so that schools won’t have to pay for substitutes.

The Council’s proposal comes weeks after Mayor Bloomberg rolled out his plan for how to shave the city budget. No cuts will be official until both sides of City Hall sign off on a compromise plan. A final version is expected in January.

Education committee chair Robert Jackson said council members didn’t consider cuts that would affect the classroom. From the press release:

“We have difficult choices to make in reducing the Department of Education’s administrative budget while making sure dollars are not cut from our children’s classrooms,” said Education Committee Chair, Robert Jackson. “I want to thank my colleagues in the Council for their efforts to reduce spending without diverting vital resources from the classrooms.”

Here are all of the education cuts the council has suggested:

  • Reduce budget for “Formative Assessments.”
  • Slow pace of new school openings. By temporarily slowing the creation of new schools, trimming the office of Portfolio Development and transferring the existing resources of closing schools to new schools, DOE could achieve savings.
  • Eliminate Data Specialist Allocation.
  • Eliminate Children First Inquiry Team allocation to schools. Require principals to review student & teacher performance.
  • Delay Special Projects. In FY09 DOE replaced private support for unspecified “Children First Intensive” project with City funds. Postpone project or find new private funding.
  • Delay implementation of [Open Market Hiring System] scanning project
  • DOE dedicated $6 million in FY09 for per diem arbitrators to clear backlog of administrative trials, but has not yet shown a corollary savings.
  • Delay Office of Student Enrollment and Placement enrollment RFP. Use existing resources to improve student enrollment process.
  • Reestimate Cost Increases. In FY09 DOE dedicated $50 million to covering special education “related services” cost increases and growth. Estimate is too large.
  • Fill Gifted and Talented empty seats. In FY09 DOE budgeted $2 million, but allocated only $1.24 million to schools for empty seats. In FY10 DOE should improve seat assignment to avoid empty seats in G&T classrooms.
  • Reduce Funding for Parents Coordinators. Support part-time or shared parent coordinators in smaller schools.
  • Extended Day Busing. Eliminate bus routes serving the extended day by matching extended time schedules with busing needs.
  • Require teachers to perform jury duty during summer months.

Download the full list of cuts proposed for all city agencies.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.