line by line

Mayor's budget keeps after-school cuts, counts on teacher evals

Advocates protest the city's proposed cuts to after-school programs during a rally outside City Hall today.

The city would spend $387 million more on its schools next year and hire more teachers under the budget proposal Mayor Bloomberg unveiled today.

But it would also slash spending to after-school programs, leaving 27,000 children who currently attend city-funded programs without care.

“I’m concerned,” Bloomberg said about the after-school cuts during a press conference about the budget today at City Hall. He said the programs are “extremely valuable” for working families but had unfortunately fallen victim to scarce resources. “We cannot do everything for everybody,” he said.

Advocates from Upper Manhattan gathered on the steps of City Hall in protest right after Bloomberg’s presentation, and critics of the mayor’s budget said the child-care cuts would prove short-sighted.

“These are dollars that allow parents to go to work and pay taxes; cutting them will only force more families to seek public assistance and add to taxpayer costs,” said Manhattan Borough President and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer in a statement.

But both the mayor and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn signaled that the toll could be lessened by the time a final budget is set by July 1.

At a press conference shortly after Bloomberg’s presentation, Quinn said reversing the child-care cuts would be her top priority during the next two months of budget negotiations. Last year, the budget negotiation process ended with some restorations for child care and, at the last moment, averted thousands of teacher layoffs that Bloomberg had threatened.

“If there is an openness to negotiations then I’m very optimistic,” Quinn said about the opportunity to shift more funds to after-school programs. Reversing the cuts would be a political win for each City Council member and especially for Quinn, who is seen as Bloomberg’s choice to succeed him.

Robert Jackson, the council’s education committee chair, vowed to turn back the cuts, which would eliminate thousands of child-care slots in his Northern Manhattan district. “If we have to dance to come to the end and reach an agreement, we will dance,” he said.

Quinn and other members of the council took credit for one change that happened between Bloomberg’s preliminary budget proposal and now. As Chancellor Dennis Walcott had promised and City Council sources indicated on Wednesday, the city is not calling for any reduction in the size of the Department of Education’s teaching corps. Instead, Bloomberg said today, it would actually add teaching positions for the first time after years of budget cuts.

Last year, the city lost 1,800 teaching jobs to attrition. Bloomberg said today the city would replace all teachers who leave and also likely add positions, for a total of 2,500 new hires.

The mayor’s preliminary budget, released in February, had also called for a $30 million cut in funds for overtime payments to Department of Education employees. That cut was eliminated, and a Department of Education spokesman, Matthew Mittenthal, said principals could opt to pay for after-school programs of their own using the “per session” funds.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew gave the budget a positive review but did not address the after-school cuts. “New York City has lost thousands of teachers over the last few years and it’s good news to hear that we will be adding educators to the system,” he said. “I can’t thank the City Council enough for making education a priority.”

But Mulgrew chided Bloomberg for saying during his press conference that he hoped the union would engage in “serious discussions” around new teacher evaluations, noting that the city, not the union, had walked out of talks in December.

“There’s no substantive reason why a final agreement should not be reached very quickly,” Bloomberg had said. “The longer the UFT waits, however, the longer it will take our schools to get the money they need and that they deserve.”

That’s because Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pledged to attach next year’s increases in school aid to teacher evaluation agreements: Districts that don’t finalize new evaluations by January 2013 won’t see their state aid grow. Not meeting the deadline could force the city to forgo $300 million for the year — nearly the same amount by which the DOE’s budget is slated to grow — and make deep midyear cuts to the Department of Education.

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.