big plans

Thompson: Let mayor keep school control, but limit his options

Comptroller Bill Thompson. (Via Azi's Flickr)
Comptroller Bill Thompson. (Via ##http://flickr.com/photos/azipaybarah/2376506857/##Azi’s Flickr##.)

As the debate over mayoral control mounted this winter, Comptroller William Thompson, himself a mayoral hopeful, conspicuously did not address the essential question of whether the mayor should control a majority of members on the city school board. Today, Thompson revealed his position: The mayor should appoint every board member — but he shouldn’t have unlimited choice.

Instead, according to a plan that Thompson outlined before Assembly members at a hearing on school governance in Brooklyn this morning, the mayor should select board members for two-year-long terms from a slate of candidates put forth by a 19-member “nominating committee” representing a diverse set of interests. Under the plan, the committee would be composed of

  • Five members appointed by the Mayor;
  • One member apiece appointed by Borough Presidents;
  • Four parent members chosen by the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council;
  • A teacher selected by the United Federation of Teachers;
  • A principal chosen by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators;
  • A college or university president selected by the New York State Education Commissioner;
  • A member of the business community appointed by an organized business entity selected by the Mayor; and
  • An education school faculty member selected by the college or university president member

In a statement, Thompson said the arrangement would allow the mayor to set education policy but would ensure that the perspectives of parents, teachers, and education experts are included in the decision-making process. A chief complaint of Mayor Bloomberg’s control over the schools since 2002 is that those constituencies have been ignored.

The man most considered most likely to join Thompson in the mayor’s race (other than Bloomberg himself), Rep. Anthony Weiner, has said he supports “unfettered” mayoral control, with the mayor continuing to control most seats on the city school board.

Thompson’s full statement, which includes his proposals for strengthening parent involvement and monitoring education department data, is below the jump.

THOMPSON UNVEILS PLAN TO IMPROVE MAYORAL CONTROL OF NEW YORK CITY SCHOOL SYSTEM 

Thompson plan establishes stronger educational board, improves parent input, and calls for independent audit of test scores and graduation rates

New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. today unveiled a proposal to improve accountability and transparency in the New York City Department of Education by establishing a committee to appoint a stronger educational board and increase involvement of parents in the education of their children.

“As we look ahead to the sunset of mayoral control, we should reauthorize the law, but we must strengthen it and do a better job of enforcing its existing provisions,” Thompson said in testimony before the New York State Assembly Education Committee in Brooklyn. “With an enormous stake in their children’s educational success, parents must have a true voice in the decisions that impact their children’s schools…It is time to put the ‘public’ back in public education.”

You can view the Comptroller’s testimony at www.comptroller.nyc.gov. This was the second time Thompson testified before the Committee on mayoral control. The Comptroller testified at a February 6 hearing, expressing his support for mayoral control but sharply criticizing the Mayor and Schools Chancellor for shutting out parents and allowing no-bid contracts to balloon.

At today’s testimony, the Comptroller proposed that the Department of Education’s (DOE’s) current Panel for Education Policy (PEP) be replaced with a 9-member school board appointed by the Mayor from a pool of nominees recommended by a nominating committee comprised of a cross-section of New Yorkers committed to student success. The board would serve fixed, two-year terms, be responsible for all matters of policy and serve as an appeal board for certain actions of the Chancellor.

Additionally, Thompson proposed that the nominating committee have 19 members, consisting of:

  •        Five members appointed by the Mayor;
  •        One member apiece appointed by Borough Presidents;
  •        Four parent members chosen by the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council;
  •        A teacher selected by the United Federation of Teachers;
  •        A principal chosen by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators;
  •        A college or university president selected by the New York State Education Commissioner;
  •        A member of the business community appointed by an organized business entity selected by the Mayor; and,
  •        An education school faculty member selected by the college or university president member.

Accordingly, the committee would nominate three candidates for each of the nine positions on the board – to be chosen by the Mayor. At least four of the nine must have a professional background in education, finance or business management.

“Under this system, based on models from Boston and Cleveland, the Mayor would continue to appoint the Chancellor,” Thompson said. “The mayor and the Chancellor would also continue to exercise broad authority to direct policy, with the difference that – unlike the current system – voices representing students, parents and individuals with a wide range of education expertise will have a means to be heard.”

Thompson concluded his testimony in noting that he and others are calling not for an end to mayoral control, “but a commitment to making it more transparent, more accountable, and more inclusive.” Thompson added: “We must commit ourselves to the goal that every child entering the New York City school system is given the best opportunity to walk out of high school prepared for college and ready to take his or her place in the new economy of the 21st century.”

Additionally, the Comptroller unveiled other proposals to improve mayoral control:

School Leadership Teams

Thompson recommended amending State Education Law to specifically state that District Superintendents’ annual evaluations of principals consider a principal’s record in developing an effective, collaborative School Leadership Team. “There must be a meaningful effort by principals to engage parents, not just lip service,” Thompson said.

Community Education Councils

The DOE routinely ignores existing statutes governing Community Education Councils (CEC), rarely consulting them before schools open or close and not involving them in developing district report cards. The DOE has narrowly interpreted the Councils’ statutory role in school zoning, denying them a voice in program offerings in their districts and schools. Thompson said the law should clarify the Councils’ role in school zoning to ensure that they have a voice in deciding what programs are offered.

Additionally, Thompson noted that 9 of the 11 voting members of the CEC must be a parent of a child attending a school in the district and is selected by the President and Officers of a Parent Association (PA) of Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). Thompson instead proposed that all PA and PTA leaders in a district meet and select from their members the nine to sit on the CEC.

District Family Advocates

Thompson noted that many District Superintendents spend a substantial amount of time outside of their home districts, which takes them away from reviewing school budgets, evaluating principals and assisting parents. As Superintendents have been pulled away from their role in assisting parents, the Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy has tried inadequately to fill the gap. There currently are at most only two Family Advocates per district, and many districts only have one.

Said Thompson: “Because they report to Tweed rather than the District Superintendent, their ability to resolve parent concerns is limited.  Families currently have no place to go for effective help other than the principal – or Tweed. For that reason, I believe that the District Family Advocates should be reassigned to report to the Superintendent.”

Testing

Thompson called for an independent body to audit test scores and graduation rates. He said that concerns over data manipulation have arisen over the Department’s trumpeted gains in test scores and improvements in graduation rates. “If the public is to trust the City’s claims of gains, we must remove both the incentive and the opportunity to manipulate results,” the Comptroller said.

“This goes to the heart of the educational mission to give our young people the skills they need – and the city needs – to compete in the new century,” said Thompson.

Thompson noted that the DOE’s budget nearly doubled – from $12.5 billion to $21 billion – since the mayoral control law was passed. “A lack of improved achievement to align with increased resources,” he said, “threatens not only our students’ future, but the very future of our city.” 

Procurement

In earlier testimony, Thompson faulted the DOE for avoiding fair and open competition in the awarding of City contracts, noting the soaring rate of non-competitively bid contracts. Thompson said the DOE has executed millions of dollars in contracts forged outside of the competitive bidding process.

“With its top-down approach, the current administration has sought to avoid debate and public scrutiny, while fundamental decisions regarding education reform have been made by executives with no education background,” Thompson said.

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.