long night ahead

City says three separate closure protests won't derail PEP's vote

A snapshot from one of two Panel for Educational Policy meetings about school closures in 2011.

Boisterous protests against school closures have long been accused of lending a circus-like atmosphere to the annual meetings where the Panel for Educational Policy votes on closures. This year, though, the opposition will actually have three rings.

Three separate groups are planning protest actions during tonight’s PEP meeting, where the citywide school board is set to vote on — and presumably approve — 23 school closures and truncations. (Changes to two schools were taken off the table yesterday.)

City officials have vowed not to let the protests disrupt the panel’s proceedings, suggesting that panel members and protesters alike could be in for a long and potentially combative night. Last year, the panel approved 22 closures in two separate meetings that each lasted well past 1 a.m. In 2010, the panel’s vote on 20 school closures took place just before 4 a.m., after more than 10 hours of protests and public comment.

Tonight, the United Federation of Teachers, which has orchestrated the most substantial protests in the past, is planning to start its protest outside Brooklyn Technical High School but then constitute an alternate event, a “People’s PEP,” at P.S. 20, an elementary school with a 600-seat auditorium six blocks away that the union has rented for the evening. Union officials said teachers from the schools up for closure would be invited to give presentations about their schools at the P.S. 20 meeting.

Another group that has been active in opposing the closure proposals, the Coalition for Educational Justice, is taking a different approach: Instead of walking out from the meeting, CEJ members and those active in affiliated groups, including the Alliance for Quality Education and the Urban Youth Collaborative, are marching in protest to it. After a 5 p.m. rally, they’ll walk five blocks east on Dekalb Street to Brooklyn Tech, where they will continue to protest against the city’s proposed closures.

A press advisory for the CEJ event warns that protesters will use the “people’s mic” to amplify their voices during the panel meeting. And they won’t be alone using that strategy. A third protest set for tonight is by “Occupy the DOE,” which grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement that popularized the human microphone tactic.

The stated goal of the Occupy protesters is to stop the panel from conducting its business by holding an alternate, “democratic” meeting in the same space. Occupy the DOE protesters derailed a special meeting of the panel last fall, and students steeped in Occupy tactics caused Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to cut short a town hall meeting in the Bronx last week.

A key difference is that tonight’s votes must happen — and, according to the state’s open meetings law, they must happen in public, after public input.

But Walcott said he would not let tonight’s meeting be driven off course by protesters and accused the union of masterminding the Occupy protest in addition to its own.

“There are important proposals up for discussion tonight and my hope is that we will have a respectful process where people can be heard,” Walcott said in a statement. “But if all the UFT wants to do is bus in Occupy Wall Street to disrupt public meetings — which provides absolutely no benefit to students — then we will just have to work around that.  We are prepared to move forward even if there are disruptions.”

The UFT provided some support for the Occupy movement this fall, but it is not providing transportation expressly for Occupy protesters, according to union officials. Still, they said, it is possible that some Occupy-affiliated protesters might board the 13 buses the union is running for families and teachers at schools up for closure. Most of the buses will come from schools in the Bronx, eastern Brooklyn, and Staten Island that could be closed tonight, and Harlem’s Wadleigh Secondary School for Performing and Visual Arts is expected to fill two buses even though its middle school is no longer at risk.

If the protests prove overwhelming for city officials and panel members, state law does allow the votes to be delayed. While the PEP has typically voted on closure proposals in early February, it can legally approve closure proposals up until the end of the school year as long as it has met deadlines for informing the public about the proposals and holding public hearings at each of the affected schools.

Hearings for the 23 schools up for closure tonight took place over the last few weeks. In the coming weeks, the department is poised to formally propose as many as 33 additional closures under the federally mandated school improvement strategy known as “turnaround.” If the city moves forward with those plans, which Mayor Bloomberg announced during his State of the City address last month, it would need to hold additional public hearings and the PEP would need to vote on the proposals. The city has said that would likely happen at the panel’s April meeting.

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.”