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.

computer science for all

Report: Brooklyn schools lack laptops, strong Wi-Fi, as city expands computer science education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio learns about computer science from a student at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the Bronx.

As the city embarks on a massive push to expand computer science education, many Brooklyn schools lack laptops, adequate access to Wi-Fi, and computer science teachers, according to a new report released Thursday by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

The report, which surveyed 136 Brooklyn schools, found that only about 20 percent of students have access to laptops at any given time, and only 30 percent of schools have an established computer science curriculum. These findings provide a glimpse at how difficult it will be for Mayor de Blasio to achieve his ambitious goal of offering computer science in every city school by 2025.

“We have a lot to do,” said Borough President Eric Adams. “It has to be some real concrete action. We have to sign on and make this happen.”

The mayor’s Computer Science for All initiative has been hailed by many as a bold plan to prepare city students for the 21st century working world. But its critics have questioned whether the city has the infrastructure and teaching force to bring the plan to fruition.

This report, which breaks down findings by district and school, paints a detailed picture of which schools in Brooklyn need extra support. Throughout Brooklyn, schools rated their Wi-Fi at about a 3.2 on a 5-point scale, which likely means the school’s Wi-Fi slows when too many students are logged on, said Jeff Lowell, the borough president’s deputy policy director.

Just over half of schools felt they had a qualified computer science teacher, and some districts have laptops for as few as 11 percent of students. Students may have access to computer labs in lieu of tablets or laptops, but in order to create a robust computer science curriculum, Lowell estimates more students will need access to devices they can use outside of a computer room.

Despite these hurdles, the mayor and education department officials have remained optimistic. De Blasio announced this September that fundraising for the initiative is “ahead of schedule” and education department officials said 246 schools are already participating in the program. Officials also praised Adams for his spirited support of computer science education.

“We thank Borough President Adams for his partnership in bringing computer science to every public school,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

The mayor’s initiative is meant to ensure that low-income students have the same access to computer science as their wealthier peers. The report provides a mixed picture on how equitably computer access is currently spread across Brooklyn schools. Some of the poorest districts in the report, such District 16, which encompasses Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, had above-average access to laptops, while others like District 32, which includes Bushwick, have below-average access.

Still, Adams said, high-poverty schools are in great need of Wi-Fi and computer support.

“Just as they don’t have access to Wi-Fi [in schools], they typically don’t have access in their community or in their home,” Adams said. “We need to do more to stop that.”

A new hope?

Colorado school funding advocates take early steps toward possible 2018 ballot measure

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School works on a project in class.

Stung that a proposed 2016 ballot initiative that would have sent millions of dollars to Colorado classrooms was abandoned, a coalition of school funding advocates is quietly meeting to consider crafting a different package for the 2018 election.

Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, has pulled together education leaders and community organizations to discuss the issue. How big the ask might be and details such as potential ballot language are unknown because the group’s work has just begun, said Lisa Weil, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We have to prepare the ground for something to be successful,” Weil said. “This work is to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity.”

The working group is made up of representatives from organizations such as the Colorado PTA and the Colorado Rural Alliance. Faith leaders and organizations that advocate for people of color and those with disabilities also are participating.

Weil declined to identify the organizations but said “we have to have a broad organization thinking about this.”

For any push to be successful, Weil said, it will take advocates talking to voters in all corners of the state, not just “television ads and slick mailers.”

Earlier this year, Weil’s group and many others in the education community rallied behind a proposal to ask voters to approve additional taxes to pay for education, roads, mental health and services for seniors. But organizers suspended gathering petitions over the summer, citing concerns that they couldn’t raise enough money for the campaign.

Colorado voters were last asked to pump money into public schools statewide in 2013, with Amendment 66. The constitutional amendment, backed by more than $11 million in campaign donations, would have added about a billion dollars to the state’s school system and triggered a new formula for how the state funds schools. The measure was defeated by 30 percentage points.

Nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties voted no on the amendment. Voters in Boulder and Denver — reliably liberal and tax-friendly counties — barely approved the increase.

Leaders at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that led the charge against Amendment 66, said history is on their side when it comes major tax increases.

“People are more interested in how money gets spent, not just how much,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst for the institute. “I would be interested in having a discussion about how we allocate the huge amount of money we put into K-12 education before we start talking about raising taxes.”

Colorado, a low-tax state with constitutionally restricted spending caps, often falls at the bottom of lists that rank how much states spend on schools.

Those who want the state to spend more money often point to the so-called “negative factor” as proof that the state is shortchanging schools.

The negative factor is the difference between how much the state should fund its schools as defined by the constitution and what it actually provides based on available revenue. Currently, it amounts to about $830 million.

“Our current funding system is not up to the task we’re asking of it, that we should ask for it,” Weil said.

Despite projections that show the shortfall growing next year, most schools would get slightly more money than last year if the General Assembly approves Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal.

Weil said she still has hope that the governor and lawmakers will come up with a long-term solution.

“What the legislature might do, what can they do, that’s part of the conversation” about whether to press forward with another ballot initiative, Weil said.

Local school districts, under the impression that the state will never make up the shortfall, have increasingly asked local voters to approve smaller tax increases — either bonds for capital needs or mill levy overrides to support education programs or increase teacher salaries.

This year saw a record number of districts — including those in Denver, Aurora and Greeley, and Jefferson and Adams counties — ask for local tax increases. Voters approved about two-thirds of them.

Nora Brown, secretary for the Colorado PTA and a member of the group weighing a 2018 ballot measure, said educating voters about how the schools are funded and what restrictions the state has will be one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“I think people’s minds are open to the discussion,” she said. “The challenge will be to educate and make this relevant to others to get involved and engaged in the conversation.”

Another potential test to the group’s effort could be the passage of Amendment 71, which makes it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution.

If the group proceeds with a constitutional amendment, it will be required to collect signatures from each of the state’s 35 senate districts. If any amendment makes the ballot, 55 percent of voters must approve of the ballot language for it to become law.

The group could also submit a proposition to the voters, which would create new state law without changing the state’s constitution. Unlike voter-approved amendments, state lawmakers can easily repeal propositions through legislation.

“It’s way too early to say whether this is going to be an amendment or a proposition,” Weil said. “But in terms of talking preparation, Amendment 71 means we have to be prepared more broadly.”