put on the brakes

PEP okays special ed funding plan, despite requests for caution

As predicted, the Panel for Education Policy approved a budget formula Wednesday night meant to hasten the integration of special education students into general education classrooms.

But before the vote, Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez defended the spending plan — and the broader special education reforms that it is meant to facilitate — against charges that the city is asking schools to move too quickly on increasing inclusion of students with special needs. Critics say that Rodriguez’s departure from the Department of Education next month should cause the city to pause the reforms, which are set to go citywide this fall after being delayed once before.

Under the new formula, students who receive special education services for only a portion of the day would bring more city funds than students in self-contained settings for the entire day.

No one at the meeting opposed the objectives behind the Department of Education special education reforms. But some worried that lack of understanding about special education students could cause confusion for parents, students, and teachers alike.

“Everybody’s on the same page,”  said Wilfredo Pagan, the board member appointed by the Bronx borough president. “Most of us agree with the opportunity this reform brings to the table.”

“But let’s slow it down here and see how we’re going to re-approach this situation,” he said.

But Rodriguez said the integration of children with special needs cannot wait. She cited a large achievement gap between special education students and their general education peers, especially in graduation rates.

“By design, the work is urgent because the children haven’t done as well as we want them to do, and as they can do,” she said.

She said a pilot of the special education reforms in 250 schools resulted in increased integration of students with special needs into general education classes and a decreased number of students inappropriately labeled as having a disability. Past studies, she said, show special education students who spend time in standard classrooms achieve at higher rates.

But board member Dmytro Fedkowskyj questioned if one year of data from the pilot program was sufficient to justify such sweeping changes.

Rodriguez said it was, and that teacher training and a teacher task force — that met for the first time Wednesday morning — would help smooth the transition to increased integration. She said department officials were asking principals to focus on identifying teachers who would make good “matches” for classrooms that include students with special needs.

“We want to really focus on where the opportunities are and the teacher matches, and expand from there rather than change everything at once,” she said.

State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, the chair of a subcommittee on students with special needs, spoke during the public comment period. A special education teacher for decades, Benedetto said he wholeheartedly supported the department’s reforms. But referring to a memo to principals that promised “intensive audits” of student placement decisions, Benedetto said he worries some of the department’s language sounds threatening,

“It could say, ‘Put the kids in the places we want them, or else,'” he said. “I’m sure that’s not the intention, but there are people out there who are worried,” he said.

The elected parent council from Manhattan’s District 2 wrote to Rodriguez with similar concerns last week. The council members also expressed concern that the budget formula would takes away money from special education students who need it the most.

But Michael Tragale, the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, stressed that schools will not find themselves with too little money to provide the services that students require.

“There is a sufficient money in existing per capita that will fund those programs, and the baseline budget will not be impacted,” he said.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s panel appointee, worried that the changes to the special education program facilitated by the new budget formula would not be properly implemented without Rodriguez’s expertise. Rodriguez leaves her post at the end of June.

But Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he was not worried, and that Corinne Rello-Anselmi is well qualified to take over as deputy chancellor. Rello-Anselmi began her career as a special education teacher but most recently was working in a different branch of the department.

“We’re lucky to have a timely transition,” Walcott said.

The board also voted in favor of the co-location of Leadership Preparatory Charter School at I.S. 211 and P.S. 279 in Canarsie. Parents and Assemblyman Nick Perry expressed concern that sharing space could hurt I.S. 211, one of the only schools in the district with an “A” on its city progress report.

And parents and students from the Bronx New School, P.S. 51, insisted Walcott meet with them about the toxin whose discovery prompted the department to relocate the school last summer. The parents have been a persistent presence at public meetings. Walcott and Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm promised ongoing support for the families but urged them to seek aid from the Department of Health as well.

Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: 

vying for vouchers

Grilled by lawmakers, Betsy DeVos says voucher rules should be set locally — even if some kids are shut out

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifying Wednesday.

Betsy DeVos faced tough questions Wednesday from lawmakers on whether private schools in voucher programs would be allowed to exclude students, including LGBT students and students with disabilities.

The budget plan the Trump administration released this week asks for $250 million to fund pilot programs that would use public funds to pay tuition for students at private schools. Those voucher programs are a focus of U.S. Education Secretary DeVos, who has said they are critical for helping low-income families who need more good choices for educating their children.

The budget is unlikely to be enacted by Congress, but it’s put more attention on a key aspect of how these voucher programs work: outside of the public school system and without the same rules for accountability and access.

Rep. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked DeVos about a Christian school in Indiana that participates in that state’s voucher program and whose handbook says students may be denied admission if they have a gay family member.

“If Indiana applies for this federal funding, would you stand up that this school be open to all students?” Clark asked. “Is there a line for you on state flexibility?”

“For states that have programs that allow parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that,” DeVos responded.

“So that’s a no,” Clark said.

DeVos noted that the education department’s Office of Civil Rights would continue its work. All private schools are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin, but they can discriminate based on sexual orientation — in fact, no voucher program in the country prohibits participating schools from discriminating against LGBT students.

Private schools may also be able to deny admission to students with disabilities. DeVos herself visited Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis on Tuesday, a Catholic school that participates in Indiana’s voucher program and whose admissions website warns that it has “limited ability to offer services” for students with disabilities.

Some voucher programs are designed specifically for those students. In turn, those students typically give up some or all of their rights under IDEA.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, challenged DeVos on whether new voucher programs would actually help needy students with few options. In Milwaukee, home to the country’s longest-running voucher program, Pocan noted that many voucher recipients already attended a private school and came from wealthy families.

“The 28,000 students that are attending school by the choice of their parents in Milwaukee — that is a success for those students,” DeVos responded. “Those parents have decided that’s the right place for their children to be.”

Pocan mentioned recent studies out of Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. showing that students using vouchers lose ground on standardized tests after attending private schools. (“I think you were asked recently about this and I know you were on your way out and didn’t have a chance to answer, so I’m glad that today we’ve got a chance to ask some of these questions,” he said.)

Pocan said his experience had led him to conclude that Wisconsin’s school voucher programs had failed. However, research on Milwaukee’s voucher program found it has had a positive effect on students’ likelihood of attending and staying in college.

Pocan also asked DeVos about how any new voucher programs that used federal dollars would be held accountable for their success. DeVos responded by discussing the responsibility of each state to craft accountability rules under ESSA, the new federal education law, which private schools are generally not subject to.