turf wars

Space is a "civil rights issue," Lower East Side parents say

Parents and students rallied outside P.S. 20 to protest plans that would require them to share space with a growing charter school.
Parents and students rallied outside P.S. 20 to protest plans that would require them to share space with a growing charter school.

Parents at Lower East Side schools that may soon be asked to share building space told DOE officials last night that a charter school expansion could not come at the expense of successful district schools.

Hundreds of parents packed into the auditorium of P.S. 20 last night to protest three proposed scenarios that would allow Girls Prep Charter School to grow its middle school program by re-arranging building space at neighboring district schools.

All of the proposals would require district school students to give up resource rooms like art and music rooms or science and computer labs, parents told DOE officials and members of the District 1 Community Education Council.

Parents speaking at the meeting repeatedly characterized that loss as a civil rights issue, charging the DOE with removing resources from predominantly poor and immigrant students.

“No matter what option is chosen, what a school in District 1 will lose is a science lab,” said Yuehru Chu, the mother of a kindergarten son at P.S. 184, the Shuang Wen school, one of five district schools that could potentially be affected. “Why is it that whatever option the DOE picks, it will result in the loss of art and music for a school that is overwhelmingly low-income?”

Girls Prep founder and executive director Miriam Lewis Raccah said her school is as squeezed for space as any of the district’s other schools and so she empathized with parents’ concerns. But Girls Prep has been successful in a small, shared space, Raccah said, and so could other schools.

“The civil right is to an excellent education,” she said. “It’s not about having an art room.”

Charter schools are not legally guaranteed public building space, but the Bloomberg administration has granted some charters space in district school buildings. Girls Prep’s Lower East Side elementary school currently shares space with two district schools and wants to keep their middle school in the neighborhood.

A standing room-only crowd packed into the District 1 CEC meeting.
A standing room-only crowd packed into the District 1 CEC meeting.

The CEC meeting was the first step in a relatively new process of soliciting public feedback on proposed changes to school building use in community school districts. The DOE will accept public comment on their three proposals until December 10 and plans to prepare a final recommendation by the end of the year, officials said. A hearing at the affected school will follow, and the citywide Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the final plan at their February meeting.

The large turn-out was organized primarily by parents at Shuang Wen and P.S. 20 who learned that their schools could be affected last week when DOE officials walked through the buildings to determine what space could potentially be used for new buildings. Shuang Wen parents have also launched a website that allows parents to send a template email or fax to elected officials protesting changes to the school.

An aide to City Councilman and Comptroller-elect John Liu said that his office had been receiving the faxes “in masses.” The superintendent for District 1, Daniella Phillips, said that she received between 260 and 270 template emails yesterday. She encouraged parents to provide more substantive feedback like suggestions for alternative proposals or corrections to DOE enrollment or building data.

Several parents asked DOE officials to re-evaluate the formula used to determine whether a school building has available space for more students or a new school. Troy Robinson, a parent and member of Shuang Wen’s School Leadership Team, urged the DOE to determine building needs in a more “comprehensive” way that focused less on mathematical formulas and more on a qualitative judgment of how schools use space.

Debra Kurshan, the interim director of the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Planning, defended the department’s formula. “We have to have some way of measuring across schools,” she said.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”