scrambling to the deadline

Race to the Race to the Top: Live-blogging Albany's debate

With just hours before the state’s Race to the Top application is due in Washington, legislators in Albany are scrambling to deal with the cap on charter schools, considered a make-or-break component of the application. Anna will be sending updates from Albany today.

6 p.m. Now the city stakeholders are weighing in. Here’s the response from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in recent days launched a strong public relations offensive against Sampson and Silver’s bill:

“Sadly, some 36,000 New York City students on waiting lists for charter schools – and thousands more who need and deserve better educational choices – were told today to wait longer, because help is not on the way. The Governor proposed a bill that would create options for those children and help the State win $700 million in federal money. It was the only bill that had the support of a majority of Senators, yet the Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly defeated it without even a vote – on the same day the Governor’s budget presented a $1 billion cut to school aid statewide. While others played Russian roulette with our children’s futures, great credit is due to Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, the members of his conference, and Democratic Senator Craig Johnson – the sponsor of the Governor’s bill – who fought to make New York’s Race to the Top application as strong as possible. And while I rarely hesitate to speak my mind when I disagree with someone, I also try to give credit where it is due and want to thank Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. for his help on this important issue. Our children and their parents are owed a second chance from the Legislature. They deserve nothing less.”

And here’s the response from city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew. The UFT issued a report earlier this month on how charter schools serve the city’s neediest students, and many of its recommendations were echoed in the legislature’s bill.

“New York State had a chance to address the glaring inequities in charter school admissions, to increase the transparency of charter operations and to force profiteers out of the charter business,” Mulgrew said. “But charter advocates and their allies resisted these desperately needed reforms, to the point where the Legislature was unable to act.”

5:45 p.m. Senate Republicans are signaling they will use the legislature’s failure to act today as a weapon against Democrats who run for re-election.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Governor’s legislation to enhance New York’s opportunity to secure federal education funds was not brought up for a vote in the Senate,” Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said in a statement. “I’m confident it would have passed and strengthened the state’s application for the Race to the Top program.”

“Once again, when an important deadline was upon us and action was needed on an important issue, the Democrats in both houses were unable to act,” he said.

5:30 p.m. A side not heard much today from those who did not want to see the charter cap lifted at all. In that camp is Senator Bill Perkins, who says he’s concerned about “the charter wars” and the high concentration of charters in his Harlem district. Perkins said he didn’t believe lifting the cap was a prerequisite for a New York Race to the Top win.

5:00 p.m. Senators from both sides of the charter school divide are looking for a bright side in today’s debacle.

“In my opinion, nothing being done is better than a bad bill getting done,” Senator Craig Johnson said, echoing James Merriman. “The Silver bill would have been bad for education reform.”

Asked if not voting had hurt the state’s chances more than voting for the Silver bill, Johnson said, “the Silver bill would have hurt us even more. The governor’s bill would have been perfect.” (Johnson introduced the governor’s bill to the Senate last night.)

Like Johnson, Sampson said that “imprudent legislation” would have put the state at a competitive disadvantage in the federal competition. But he disagreed about which bill was imprudent — he favored the one he sponsored.

“The bill I sponsored with Assembly Speaker Silver would have maximized our eligibility for federal funds, while bringing greater transparency, accountability, and parental input to the charter school process,” Sampson said in a statement.

“We are working towards a bipartisan, bicameral solution today,” Sampson said. “We support the State Education Department’s application as it stands, and hope our federal officials can help us secure Phase One financing. If not, we will reapply for Phase Two, and try once again later this year to bridge the partisan divide to get New York’s school children the funding they need, and property taxpayers the relief they deserve.”

4:20 p.m. Today could have gone worse for charter school advocates, according to a statement just released by James Merriman, head of the NYC Charter School Center.

“While state lawmakers could not a pass a good reform bill today, we can be thankful they did not pass a disastrous one,” Merriman said. “Charter schools should commend Senate Republicans and Democratic Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, who stood up for public charter schools and stopped a bill that would have severely damaged the charter schools movement.”

4:00 p.m. Anna reports that the Senate is still in conference. Senators are preparing to end their session, a Senate source told Elizabeth Benjamin.

“There were people saying raise the cap and people saying don’t raise the cap, or do it with restrictions. We have to balance all these things out and we couldn’t achieve that in our conference,” a Senate official told Anna. The official said the Senate did not want the governor’s bill to come to the floor because the Assembly would not pass it.

Asked whether the Silver/Sampson bill was meant as a political hit on New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the official said: “this was not an anti-Klein bill.”

3:40 p.m. And the Assembly has adjourned for the day, without taking action on either of the charter cap bills. It’s over, education committee chair Cathy Nolan confirms. Anna reports that no one is quite sure whether the Senate is still conferencing.

3:10 p.m. Anna reports that a rumor is spreading among legislators that the U.S. Department of Education extended the deadline. A USDOE spokesman, Justin Hamilton, said no, it’s not true.

3:00 p.m. The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that fights for equitable funding for schools across the state, just sent out a statement criticizing charter school advocates for blocking the Sampson/Silver bill.

“The charter cap bill has stalled because apparently it is more important to the charter school industry to keep accountability, transparency, and meaningful parent and community input out of charter schools than it is to have New York State compete effectively for $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding,” the statement reads.

2:55 p.m. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told me today that if the legislature fails to vote to raise the charter cap today, it would be a “serious black mark” on the state’s Race to the Top application. Her view contrasts with that of the city and charter school advocates, who argue that passing the Sampson/Silver bill would be worse than doing nothing at all.

When I spoke to her this morning, Tisch expressed optimism that legislators would raise the cap today. Otherwise, she said, they will have to answer to voters about a missed opportunity in a dismal budget year.

She also played up other elements of the state’s application, which include, among other things, significant changes to the way teachers are trained and certified.

“I think [NYSED has] articulated a bold strong application and when people in this state understand how good it is…they will be infuriated that this opportunity is slipping through their hands,” she said.

2:15 p.m. The New York Post says parents are angry about the Sampson/Silver bill, but Anna reports that there are no charter school parents or students present at the debate today. Charter advocates said they thought about bringing people, as they have to other hearings, but they already have a lobby day scheduled for February 2nd and there wasn’t time to rally the forces. As it stands, Anna reports, there’s no face to this issue in the building — either in favor of charter schools or opposed.

1:50 p.m. John Sampson is asking Sheldon Silver not to pass the bill in the Assembly unless there are enough votes for it to pass in the Senate, reports Elizabeth Benjamin at the Daily News.

1:45 p.m. I just checked in with Tom Dunn, NYSED’s spokesman, how the application was getting to Washington, D.C., where it is due in hard copy at 4:30. “We are completing the application and will deliver it,” he said. But no word yet on how it’s getting there.

1:35 p.m. Senate Republicans, who have also come out in support of the governor’s bill, apparently are planning to introduce an amendment from the Senate floor to substitute Paterson’s bill for Sampson and Silver’s. (Last night, the Republicans tried to bring Paterson’s bill to a vote and were ignored by Senate Democratic leaders.) Now it seems that Senate Democrats are looking for a way to avoid bringing the bill to the floor, rather than be embarrassed if a hostile amendment passes, Anna reports.

1:20 p.m. Walking into the room, Senate President Malcolm Smith was asked if he thought the Senate would bring the bill to a vote today, Anna reports. “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” he said.

1:10 p.m.: The fate of the charter cap fight appears to be resting with the State Senate.

The bill to raise the cap to 400, proposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic Majority Conference Leader John Sampson, faces much greater opposition in the Senate than it does in the Assembly. The Assembly appears likely to pass the bill this afternoon.

The key players are Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, Sr, Anna reports. Both support the compromise bill that Governor Paterson introduced yesterday, which would lift the cap to 460 and ditch many of the provisions in Silver’s bill that charter advocates oppose. Johnson introduced the governor’s bill on the Senate floor, and Diaz issued a statement today calling on Sampson and Senate President Malcolm Smith to bring the governor’s bill to a vote.

A vote on the governor’s bill looks unlikely, though, so Johnson has just told charter advocates that he or Diaz may introduce a hostile amendment to the Silver/Sampson bill. The two senators are currently huddling with charter school advocates and Micah Lasher, the city Department of Education’s director of external affairs.

Charter school advocates are arguing that as far as the state’s Race to the Top application is concerned, no bill is preferable to the Silver/Sampson bill because the restrictions the bill places on charters would inhibit charter growth and cause the application to lose points. Silver has said he does not think the restrictions would harm the state’s application.

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.”