Newsroom

Mayoral hopefuls split on taking donations from StudentsFirstNY

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools took aim at StudentsFirstNY's ties to Mitt Romney during a rally at Department of Education headquarters today.

Hours after the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools launched a campaign to tie the education advocacy group StudentsFirstNY to the political ideologies of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, 2013 mayoral candidates began chiming in on whether they would accept StudentsFirstNY’s support.

Of the three campaigns that responded to requests for comment from GothamSchools, one said no StudentsFirstNY money would come into its coffers. The other two said they would have no problem accepting support from the group, which seeks to advance many of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies. A fourth candidate says he hasn’t made up his mind yet.

Comptroller John Liu said he would reject any support, although a spokesman acknowledged that funds from StudentsFirstNY were unlikely to be directed toward Liu’s campaign.

“I doubt the group would send us any contributions,” said the spokesman, Chung Seto. Liu, who hasn’t declared for mayor and whose campaign finances are the subject of a federal investigation, is considered a candidate likely to align with the teachers union.

Speaker Christine Quinn, an early favorite in the Democratic primary bid, would happily accept support from education groups, no matter their school reform ideologies, a campaign consultant said today. 

“Chris will accept contributions from [Students FirstNY] just as she has from the teachers union in the past,” the consultant, Mark Guma, emailed. “Chris will accept the support — and counsel — of people with differing opinions on how to improve our schools.”

Tom Allon, a former teacher at Stuyvesant High School who is running on an education platform, said he would be “honored if they donated to my campaign.”

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who came in second to Quinn in a poll this week, told Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah in a statement that he hasn’t made up his mind about StudentsFirstNY.

“The allegations in the report, if true, raise questions about StudentsFirstNY’s financial backing and reporting,” Thompson said. “The last thing we need is super-PAC-like organizations attempting to influence education policy with little transparency and accountability. I reserve judgment for the moment and look forward to learning more about the organization and its agenda.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, two other prospective candidates, did not respond to requests for comment.

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools is hoping to use ties between the Romney campaign and board members to discredit StudentsFirstNY as the group tries to buoy support for Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies. StudentsFirstNY has called the criticism groundless, noting that most of its board members, who include former mayor Ed Koch and Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, are registered Democrats. But the union coalition has focused specifically on a number of board members that are actively working to unseat President Obama in November as a reason to oppose the group.

This afternoon, leaders from unions and community groups that make up New Yorkers for Great Public Schools gathered on the steps of the Department of Education’s headquarters to issue a preemptive condemnation of any elected officials who consider StudentFirstNY’s support.

Billy Easton, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, which is funded by the United Federation of Teachers, said the coalition was not yet trying to tell people for whom to vote. But he warned politicians that “taking StudentsFirst money is bad for New York.”

StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Micah Lasher said the general response from the mayoral candidates so far was evidence that the union coalition’s campaign was baseless.

“New Yorkers don’t like being bullied and they don’t like politicians who are easily bullied,” Lasher said. “It’s sad that we can’t have a serious conversation on education without the union acting like they’re in a school yard.”

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.”