gang of four

Mayoral candidates unite to target Bloomberg's school policies

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a 2013 mayoral candidate, talks about school closures at a press conference outside City Hall.

A press conference about the city’s school closure policy looked a lot like a campaign stop for four men eyeing 2013 mayoral runs.

Four leading mayoral candidates — Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, and former comptroller and 2009 mayoral runner-up Bill Thompson — spoke at the event on the steps of City Hall. The press conference was organized by the Coalition for Educational Justice, a nonprofit that has spearheaded protests against many of the 25 closures proposed this year.

Flanked by advocates and parents, the men echoed concerns outlined in a report CEJ released last week about the inclusion of students with special needs in new small schools. (That report responded to a report by an independent research firm that found the schools had increased students’ chances of graduating.) The candidates all said the Bloomberg administration had been too quick to close schools without trying other interventions and had “warehoused” high-needs students in schools that are now facing closure.

They also demanded that the city release details about what happened to students who had not yet graduated when their schools closed — information that is required by law to come out tomorrow.

But they stopped short of explaining how they would do things differently if they became mayor and gained control of the schools. The closest anyone got was Stringer, who took aim at an Achilles’ Heel for Bloomberg: the way the Department of Education engages parents and communities.

Referring to the backlash against school closures, Stringer said, “You can get your point across if you realize that mayoral control gives an opportunity to work with people.”

Absent from the lineup was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, seen as Bloomberg’s pick to succeed him. She was invited but was not able to attend, according to a CEJ representative. A spokesman from Quinn’s office distributed a press release that praised the city’s small schools but said they were “no magic bullet for transforming schools.”

“I am also concerned that high-needs students get the education they deserve in this city, and look forward to hearing about Chancellor Walcott’s plan to hold schools accountable for enrolling equal amounts of students with high needs,” she said in a statement. Walcott told selective schools earlier this month that they would have to accept more students with disabilities or risk having them enrolled by the department.

The press conference comes a day before the city is required to release data about what happened to students who were enrolled in phase-out schools last year the day the schools closed their doors for good.

Department of Education officials said that information would be released tomorrow in accordance with legal deadline set by the City Council. But in response to the press conference, the department released a snippet of the data to be unveiled tomorrow.

They said 189 students who remained enrolled when 15 schools completed phasing out last year transferred to 90 schools established enough to receive a city progress report. Of those students, 44 percent wound up at a school with an A or B on the city’s progress report and 37 percent transferred to a C-rated school. Nearly 20 percent of the students wound up in a school rated D or F, making it eligible for closure, and 19 students transferred to schools that were already in the process of closing.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.