strike that reverse it

Changing course, state says English learners are "at risk"

Bowing to pressure from both internal and outside groups, the state has abruptly reversed a policy that banned charter schools from giving admissions preference to students who are not fluent in English.

On December 23, two days after I wrote about the New York State Education Department’s policy, state education officials informed the city’s Department of Education about the change in plan. The new policy, which will allow charter schools that want to focus on English Language Learners to give them preference in their admission lotteries, will directly and immediately affect one school: Inwood Academy for Leadership.

Initially, Inwood Academy’s principal Christina Hykes applied for a charter that would set aside 50 percent of the school’s seats for ELL students, creating two separate lotteries. But state officials told Hykes that only students “at risk of academic failure” could be singled out and given admissions preference. ELL students were not among these, officials said.

“Given recent data showing that English Language Learners have the lowest graduation rates and lowest persistence rates in college of any NCLB accountability group, the Department is changing its practice to permit charter schools to designate ELLs as an ‘at risk’ category,” said SED spokesman Tom Dunn.

Hykes said members of the Board of Regents pushed for the change, as did State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education John King.

Michael Duffy, director of the city’s office of charter schools, said he welcomed the change and that he’d heard the news from state official Ira Schwartz the day before students left for winter break.

“He said it was a Christmas present,” Duffy said.

The change in policy came after Inwood Academy’s application, stripped of any language giving preference to ELLs, was approved by the Board of Regents. Now, Hykes will have to reapply and have her new application considered in February.

If Inwood Academy’s new application is approved, the school will hold two lotteries in April. Students who have been designated as ELLs can apply in the first lottery and if fewer than 50 apply, the remaining seats will be given to students living in District 6. However, if more than 50 apply, those who don’t make the first cut can take their chances again in the second lottery. Though Hykes said she’s aiming for a 50/50 split, she could still end up with fewer or more ELL students, depending on how many apply.

“I think we’ll have a high number,” Hykes said. “I think the possibility in our community is there but it will have to be a lot of word of mouth among recent immigrants.”

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.”