mr. steiner goes to washington

Steiner, King and Hughes to lead New York's Race to the Top team

Yesterday, we wondered who would make up the team traveling to Washington to pitch New York’s Race to the Top proposal to federal officials.

Today, we know: State Education Commissioner David Steiner will be joined by his deputy commissioner, John King, along with Robert Hughes, president of the school support organization New Visions for Public Schools. Two other officials from the state education department, Ira Schwartz and Laura Smith, will also travel to D.C. to make the presentation, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today.

Steiner and King, the top two officials at the state education department, are not surprises. Both have been among the most visible public faces of the state’s reform agenda, and Steiner’s plan to overhaul the way teachers are trained and certified is one of the centerpieces of the state’s Race to the Top application.

While not an official in the state or local education departments, Hughes is also well versed in the changes Tisch and Steiner have planned for the state.

Hughes’ organization started the city’s first “teacher residency” program, a model of teacher training praised by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that pairs student teachers with experienced mentors in the classroom as they simultaneously take graduate education classes. The program, which New Visions launched in partnership with Steiner in his previous post as dean of the Hunter College School of Education, is already being funded by a federal grant as part of Duncan’s push to improve teacher quality. Hughes has also said that New Visions would be a likely applicant for a program, proposed by the Regents, to allow alternative organizations to bypass education schools to certify teachers.

Tisch also cited Hughes as an expert on how schools can effectively use data to guide their work with students and on launching high schools, an area that will become key as the state attempts to replace its lowest-performing schools.

“Bob has a track record on this, and he is respected in every corner on this subject,” Tisch said. “I trust him, I trust his judgment.”

The two assistant commissioners traveling to Washington represent senior and freshman takes on the state education department. Steiner appointed Smith to the department in January, and since her arrival she has helped write the state’s Race to the Top application, Tisch said. Before her work with the state, Smith worked at the New York City Department of Education under Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf and has also worked for the New York City Charter School Center. Schwartz, on the other hand, is a state education department veteran who heads the school accountability and improvement office, which will also play a key role in the state’s school “turnaround” efforts for low-performing schools.

The selections reinforce Tisch’s view that the strength of the state’s Race to the Top application lies in its proposals for teacher training, data systems and school turnaround. While the state legislature’s failed attempt to lift the cap on charter schools captured national attention and led many observers to believe that restrictions on the growth of charters could cripple the state’s application, Tisch has asserted that these other areas are the core of the application.

Other finalists are relying more heavily on their states’ political leadership to signal their commitment to reform. Governors of at least five of the 16 finalist states, including Florida Governor (and Senate candidate) Charlie Crist, are planning to appear. In announcing her appointments, Tisch took a small dig at states who plan to bring their biggest names to the presentations.

“What we’ve decided to do is truly put together a team of educational reformers,” Tisch said. “I know some other states will be sending some dignitaries…I hope people will understand we went with quality.”

Initial conversations with the federal Department of Education begin tomorrow, Tisch 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.”