open question

City actually undecided about charter parents' call for inclusion

The city is “sympathetic” to — but not ready to embrace — charter parents’ desire to win spots on district parent councils, officials said today.

On Tuesday, more than 1,200 charter school parents traveled to Albany as part of Lobby Day. Their main ask was that legislators set aside seats for them on the city’s elected parent councils. The councils, known as Community Education Councils, frequently discuss charter schools but have no formal authority over them.

A Department of Education spokesman told me on Tuesday that the city’s position on the request had not changed since 2009, when officials argued that seating charter parents on CECs would represent an inappropriate conflation of charter and district school management.

As it turns out, that’s not quite true. The city hasn’t actually made up its mind about whether to support a bill introduced by two legislators — Assemblyman Peter Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, and State Sen. Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn — that would reserve one of the 11 seats on each council for a charter school parent.

I heard today from Micah Lasher, the city’s chief lobbyist in Albany, who said that the city had taken a deeper look at the issue on request from charter advocates and found merit in their argument.

“There’s a recognition that the CECs are a primary arena in which education debate play out on the local level and at the moment charter parents’ voices are largely not part of those debates in large measure because they are not well represented on the CECs,” Lasher said. “We’re quite sympathetic to that concern.”

But at the same time, he said, charter schools are distinct from district schools for a reason. The Bloomberg administration has encouraged charter schools to proliferate and has promised to fast-track dozens of new schools.

“Our longstanding concern about preserving the independence and autonomy of charter schools that has been so critical to their success remains a concern,” Lasher said.

A Department of Education spokesman, Frank Thomas, explained today that the department supports opportunities for all parents to get involved, no matter what kind of school they attend. But he suggested that installing charter school parents on CECs could undermine a movement that has been based on separation from the traditional district school bureaucracy.

“We want to see all parents of public school children — whether they attend a charter or a non-charter school — get more involved, and applaud the Charter Center for pursuing this goal,” Thomas said in a statement. “At the same time, real autonomy has been critical to the success of the city’s public charter schools, and we would not want to erode that independence and inadvertently give those pushing an anti-charter agenda the power to throw up more roadblocks.”

He added, “Given these goals and concerns, we will follow the discussion in Albany and reserve judgment on this legislation.”

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.”