race to the race to the top

Assembly lifts charter cap; Senate still divided over for-profits

The State Assembly passed a bill this morning to more than double the number of charter schools allowed in New York State.

The deal, hammered out in negotiations that lasted into the early morning, raises the cap on charters from 200 to 460. But charter operators hoping to open new schools will have to jump through a new hurdle, a new Request for Proposals process managed by the Regents and the State University of New York charter authorizers.

The bill includes several measures dear to charter school critics. It bans for-profit charter operators from managing schools, allows the state controller to audit the schools, and creates new regulations around how the schools serve special education students and English language learners. And the bill sets up new rules that govern how New York City charters share building space with district schools.

The bill includes one change from the version of the bill that was being circulated this morning. The Assembly passed a chapter amendment that clarifies that SUNY can act as an authorizer independently from the Regents.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where sources tell us that Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson is ready to vote the bill up. But Republicans are holding up the bill because they oppose its prohibition of for-profit charter operators.

Many of the key players in the debate, including authorizers, are just seeing the legislation in detail for the first time this morning. Lots of questions, including exactly how the RFP process will work and how the bill will affect where charters will be able to open, should become clearer over the course of the day.

The full press release from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office is below. The full text of the bill that just passed is here.

ASSEMBLY APPROVES SWEEPING EDUCATION REFORMS TO SUPPORT NEW YORK STATE’S APPLICATION FOR RACE TO THE TOP FUNDING

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Education Committee Chair Catherine Nolan today announced the passage of legislation to reform the state’s charter school system.

The legislation (A.11310) would raise the cap on charter schools from 200 to 460, helping to ensure that New York State will have one of the nation’s most competitive applications for federal funding under the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program in time for the June 1 deadline. This measure, in conjunction with a strong teacher evaluation system authorized earlier in the week and funding for long-term assessment of student achievement, will help ensure that New York State receives maximum RTTT funding.

“These sweeping reforms will help put an end to divisive fighting over school space and give a meaningful voice in the process to traditional public school parents,” said Silver (D-Manhattan). “The legislation also increases transparency by giving the State Comptroller auditing power over charter schools, while ensuring that they enroll and retain children with special needs. This measure will undoubtedly encourage the creation of more successful charter schools in New York State.”

“This bill will allow New York State to submit a competitive application for federal Race to the Top funding and increase our chances at receiving up to $700 million for our schools,” said Nolan (D-Queens). “I would like to thank New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Senior Deputy Commissioner John King for their leadership, cooperation and hard work.”

The legislation creates a new request for proposals process for the creation of 260 new charter schools. The new system favors applications which best respond to certain Race to the Top objectives such as increasing high school graduation rates and addressing student achievement gaps in reading/language arts and mathematics. Requests for proposals for new charter schools would be issued by the Board of Regents and SUNY trustees after undergoing a public review process.

In addition, the legislation would:

  • Institute a four-year period over which the 260 new charter schools would be created;
  • Prohibit for-profit organizations from operating or managing any new charter schools;
  • Ensure that charter schools serve more children with disabilities, English language learners and free- and reduced-price lunch program participants;
  • Require the chancellor to develop building usage plans for fair allocation and usage of space;
  • Require matching capital improvements to the traditional public school portion of a building when such an improvement is made in excess of $5,000 to the co-located charter school;
  • Authorize the State Comptroller to audit charter schools at his or her discretion; and
  • Increase accountability by new disclosure and ethics provisions.

The Assembly also passed legislation today that would provide financial support for a state longitudinal data system to measure long-term student achievement (A.11309). Earlier this week, the Assembly passed legislation enhancing the statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals (A.11171).

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”