order in the court (updated)

Judge rules that city must reinstate staff at turnaround schools

Lawyers for the UFT spoke to reporters about the union's short-term court victory outside of New York State Supreme Court today.

Legal battles between the city and the United Federation of Teachers are typically long, drawn-out affairs. Not today.

In just 40 minutes this afternoon, Judge Joan Lobis of the New York State Supreme Court made up her mind about the city’s request to suspend an arbitrator’s ruling in the UFT’s favor while she considers the city’s formal appeal. There will be no restraining order, Lobis ruled.

That means that hiring and firing decisions that have been made at 24 struggling schools that the city was trying to overhaul will be reversed. The Department of Education will have to reinstate hundreds — and possibly thousands — of teachers and administrators cut loose from the schools as part of the “turnaround” process.

“They no longer have an excuse for not complying with the arbitrator’s award,” Ross said about the city.

Asked by reporters about the education department’s immediate plans for allowing the teachers to reclaim their positions, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said, “Talk to the law department.”

The city’s top lawyer, Michael Cardozo, said in a statement that he was confident that Lobis would side with the city as the case moves forward.

The hearing was a first step in the city’s appeal of a ruling handed down two weeks ago by an arbitrator who found that the city’s hiring and firing decisions — a key aspect of the Department of Education’s turnaround plans — violated the city’s contract with the teachers union.

The city is arguing that the arbitrator overstepped his bounds and wants the entire decision overturned. But today’s court appearance dealt only with the question of whether the city could avoid reversing the hiring decisions before Lobis considers the broader appeal later this month. Her ruling means that it cannot.

To win an injunction, plaintiffs have to prove two things: that they would suffer “irreparable harm” while their case is pending and that they have a strong likelihood of ultimately winning their case.

Lobis said today that she didn’t find the department convincing on either point.

A city lawyer said holding up the turnaround process for any amount of time would “thwart” efforts to improve the schools. “This would undo everything the DOE has done thus far to improve these schools,” said the lawyer, Maxwell Leighton.

But Lobis questioned what harm would really befall the department if it must roll back its efforts for the few weeks before she considers the merits of its request to overturn the arbitrator’s ruling. If the city ultimately wins its case, she said, it could just tell teachers that their reinstatements had been reversed again.

“Maybe you’d have to rescind some letters. How is that irreparable harm?” Lobis asked.

That seems to be a unlikely possibility. The main plank of the city’s appeal is that the arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, did not actually have jurisdiction over the hiring processes.

Lobis pointed out that the department had agreed to let Buchheit rule on whether the staffing issue should be subject to arbitration at all, and he said that it was.

“Just because he said it doesn’t mean it’s true,” Maxwell told the judge.

City and union lawyers went before Lobis in late May after the unions sued to stop staffing processes underway at the 24 schools, and at her urging they agreed to have an independent arbitrator hear and rule on the case.

That decision alone makes the city very unlikely to win an appeal, according to a city attorney who specializes in labor relations.

“The courts place great deference on a decision made by an arbitrator, so the arbitrator can make decisions without fear of being overruled,” said Steven Landis. “If an agreement has been made to arbitrate, the court says, ‘Arbitrate it, don’t come to me.'”

What will happen tomorrow at the schools is not yet clear. But after the hearing concluded, a top union lawyer, Adam Ross, said union officials would “immediately” initiate conversations with the city about reinstating teachers and administrators who were told they could not return to their schools.

City officials did not immediately say whether they planned to engage in those conversations.

“Our goal is to turn around these failing schools and help our students succeed. We appreciate the judge setting an expedited schedule to hear our challenge to the arbitrator’s decision so that we can meet that goal,” Cardozo said in his statement. “The judge also made it clear that she wants to consider the case fully. We believe that, after she reviews our papers, she’ll conclude that the arbitrator was wrong.”

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.”