change of heart

After protests, city reverses decision to close Brooklyn school

In an unusual concession to community protests, the city has decided to keep open a Canarsie, Brooklyn, elementary school slated for closure.

The debate over whether to close P.S. 114 has been one of the most heated this year. Its supporters have argued that the city doomed the school by allowing its former principal to mismanage it for years and didn’t help the school before sentencing it to close.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio broke the news of the reprieve to teachers and parents this evening at a rally that had been previously planned to protest the closure plans. Meanwhile, Department of Education officials spread word to the neighborhood’s elected representatives, who have been outspoken in their support of the school.

“We’re absolutely ecstatic,” said Jimmy Orr, the vice-president of the school’s parent association and the father of two P.S. 114 students, who learned of the news at the rally. “We burst into clapping and yelling and hooting and hollering.”

Parents and teachers petitioned the city for years to remove Maria Pena-Herrera, a principal who overspent her budget by $180,000 and was hiring unnecessary staff, before city officials ousted her in 2008. The school was left with thousands of dollars of debt and saw its students’ test scores drop dramatically.

Chancellor Cathie Black said that the decision was made in response to the outpouring of public support the school has received since city officials announced they planned to close it.

“After extensive discussions with the PS 114 community and local elected officials about the struggles this school has faced and its capacity to better serve its students, we have decided to keep PS 114 open,” Black said in a statement. “In the coming days we will work to develop a comprehensive plan for the school that will give it a real opportunity for success,” she said.

The city’s original plan was to replace P.S. 114 with two schools, Explore Charter School and a new district school. The city will move forward with its plan to site the charter school in the same building, city officials said today, but would abandon plans to open the new district school.

Orr credited help from City Councilmen Lewis Fidler and Charles Barron pressuring city officials to re-examine their decision to shutter the school. The citywide school board had been originally scheduled to vote on the closure plan at the beginning of February but had then delayed the vote because of the public outcry. Top city officials had acknowledged that parents and teachers felt abandoned by the city, but until today had indicated they would press forward with their plans to close the school.

“I think what it proves is that you can be heard, and perhaps the more appropriate approach, as opposed to cat calling and all of that, is to work with the city,” said Fidler, who had been a vocal opponent of the city’s plan to close the school. “I think the objective facts at 114 cried out for a different answer than the one [city officials] were giving.”

Fidler had committed to doubling the funding that the school receives from City Coucil from last year to this year, a promise he vowed today to keep.

Parents, teachers, and Canarsie’s elected officials have been lobbying against the city’s closure plan for months. In recent weeks they were joined by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who hailed the city’s decision to keep the school open. Earlier today, de Blasio released a report criticizing the DOE’s decision to shutter the school.

“This is a major victory for this close-knit school community,” de Blasio said. “P.S. 114 deserved a second chance—and now it will have one.”

This is one of the first times that the city has abandoned its plans to shutter a school in the middle of the process. Last year, the city granted a partial reprieve to the Bronx’s Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, choosing to keep one of its technical programs open but closing the rest. This year the city also spared four schools it was thwarted from closing last year, choosing not to try to shutter the schools again because of progress they had made.

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.”