gang of 20

Cuomo names appointees to state education reform commission

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in January that he would convene a commission to set a course for reforming New York’s schools, insiders said many members would likely come from out of state.

That wasn’t true when Cuomo revealed the composition of the commission in Albany today. All but a handful of the 20 commission members are based in New York, and about half are based in New York CIty.

But the commission is still a far cry from the last panel Cuomo convened, a “think tank” of educators and advocates who advised the state in its bid to escape some federal accountability measures. Few of its members work in organizations that interact directly with children, even fewer are advocates, and there are no district representatives. There is also no parent advocate on the commission, even it is being asked to devise strategies to increase parent engagement.

Instead, commission members are drawn from the highest levels of state government, the state and city university systems, and nonprofit organizations. They include State Education Commissioner John King, Assembly Education Committee Chair Catherine Nolan, and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

“It’s very blue-ribbon,” said CUNY education professor David Bloomfield about the panel’s composition. “The establishment nature of the commission makes it less likely that they will come up with anti-establishment recommendations.”

Working under the leadership of chair Richard Parsons, a former head of CitiGroup and Time Warner; and top Cuomo deputies, they will have seven months to make recommendations about how to boost student achievement and make education spending more efficient. Cuomo said today that he wanted the recommendations to form “an action plan” for his administration.

The commission’s tasks, set by Cuomo in an executive order, include finding ways to improve teacher recruitment and evaluation, proposing strategies to boost test scores, scrutinizing education funding, figuring out how schools should use technology, and examining issues facing urban and rural students.

The commission is also being asked to consider streamlining the state’s education system to reduce expenses, an issue that is unlikely to affect New York City but could be potentially explosive upstate, where there are more than 700 districts with their own staffs, services, and sports teams.

Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, decried the lack of local school board representation on the commission.

“The perspective of those who are elected by their communities to provide leadership and direction, oversee millions in taxpayer dollars, and make decisions about programs that impact students for the rest of their lives ought to have a place at the table,” Kremer said in a statement.

One commission member actually is a school board member, technically: Eduardo Martí, a CUNY official, is a mayoral appointee to the city’s unelected school board, the Panel for Educational Policy. Other appointees also have close connections to the Bloomberg administration, including Irma Zardoya, a former superintendent who now runs the city’s principal training program, and Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

But other members have been more critical about the city’s and state’s education reform agendas. Randi Weingarten, the former UFT president who now heads the American Federation of Teachers, is on the panel but was not in Albany today to announce its formation. Another member, Michael Rebell, led a successful effort to sue the state over funding inequities and has hinted that another lawsuit could be on the horizon.

The panel will “meet several times and gather input and information from across the state” before submitting recommendations by Dec. 1, according to a press release from Cuomo’s office. That timing would allow Cuomo to incorporate recommendations he wishes to follow into his State of the State address and legislative agenda in 2013.

The full list of panel members and their affiliations is below.

Richard (Dick) Parsons, Retired Chairman, Citigroup, Chair of the New NY Education Reform Commission
Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
Geoffrey Canada, Founder & CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
Irma Zardoya, President & CEO, NYC Leadership Academy
Elizabeth Dickey, President, Bank Street College of Education
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, President, Say Yes to Education
Lisa Belzberg, Founder & Chair Emeritus, PENCIL
Michael Rebell, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equity
Karen Hawley Miles, President & Executive Director, Education Resource Strategies
José Luis Rodríguez, Founder & CEO, Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, Inc.
Sara Mead, Associate Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
Eduardo Martí, Vice Chancellor of Community Colleges, CUNY
Thomas Kane, Professor of Education & Economics, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Jean Desravines, CEO, New Leaders for New Schools
Michael Horn, Executive Director & Co-Founder, InnoSight Institute
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor, SUNY
Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor, CUNY
John B. King, Jr., Commissioner, New York State Education Department
Senator John Flanagan, Chair, Senate Education Committee
Assembly Member Cathy Nolan, Chair, Assembly Education Committee

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.