Duncan dispatch

Duncan: "Emergency action" needed now to avoid teacher layoffs

A P.S. 214 first-grader tells U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the story of Rumplestiltskin today.
A first-grader at Brooklyn's P.S. 214 told U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the story of Rumplestiltskin today.

City, federal and union officials clash on the best way to lift the state’s charter school cap. They dispute the fairest way to lay off teachers. And they could barely agree on what school U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan should visit today.

But brought together for that visit, Duncan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and teachers union president Michael Mulgrew could agree on one thing — the city needs federal dollars and it needs them soon.

Duncan was in town to promote his $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant competition and to call attention to the effect sweeping budget cuts could have on city schools. Duncan also took the opportunity to call on Congress to quickly pass a proposed $23 billion bill to avert teacher layoffs. A swift move on the bill is required, Duncan said, because districts like New York City are planning next year’s school budget now.

“The consequences of inaction are huge,” Duncan said. “We need emergency action and we need it now.”

The schools Duncan visited today were chosen to draw attention to two major policy changes city officials see as key to winning up to $700 million in Race to the Top funds. Bloomberg cited Kings Collegiate Charter School as the type of school the state’s charter cap is preventing the city from replicating. Cypress Hill’s P.S. 65 was selected as an example of a school whose young teachers would be hard hit by layoffs, the Daily News reported.

And P.S. 214 was added to Duncan’s itinerary at the last moment at the insistence of national teachers union president Randi Weingarten. Mulgrew told reporters the school was chosen because it is a high-needs school staffed by teachers with a range of experience levels and would lose both teachers and many special services in the case of harsh budget cuts.

Mulgrew also insisted, as he has done often, that the union opposes the State Senate’s version of the charter cap lift bill, not charter schools overall. “I’ve been very upfront that I support the lifting of a charter bill, with reforms,” he said.

And Duncan, when asked to assess the root of opposition to the charter school movement, denied that opposition exists.

“I don’t think there’s anybody not in support” of good charter schools, Duncan said. “I think there is honest disagreement about what we should do.”

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.”