sound of silence (update)

Mayoral hopefuls mum, other politicians shun StudentsFirstNY

Most of the 2013 mayoral contenders are still keeping an arm’s length from a union-backed campaign to tie StudentsFirstNY’s agenda to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. But that hasn’t stopped a slew of other political hopefuls from throwing their support behind the effort.

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a coalition of public unions, community-based organizations and liberal advocacy groups, has released a list of 33 elected officials and candidates who have signed on to a pledge to refuse support from StudentsFirstNY, which is seeking to advance the education polices started by the Bloomberg administration. The list includes candidates for Manhattan and Brooklyn Borough President, Public Advocate and a slew of City Council members and state legislators.

Noticeably absent are frontrunners in the one race that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools and StudentsFirstNY hope to influence the most: the 2013 mayoral election. Only one prospective candidate, John Liu, has said he’d reject StudentsFirstNY’s support.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said last week she’d be fine accepting their support, as did long-shot Tom Allon. Former Comptroller Bill Thompson was non-committal in his response and one other candidates, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has stayed mum on the subject.

UPDATE: A spokesman for Public Advocate Bill de Blasio just emailed over to say that he would reject any support from StudentsFirstNY. The spokesman added that de Blasio would not, however, sign onto the pledge sent out by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools earlier today:

“Bill is committed to working with people on all sides of the education debate to improve our schools. But given the honest policy disagreements he has with StudentsFirst, he would respectfully decline contributions from the group’s PAC.”

But plenty of other elected officials and candidates for office were willing to speak out against StudentsFirstNY, according to New Yorkers for Great Public Schools. The statements that accompanied a release sent out this afternoon covered a broad range of education issues.

U.S. Congresswoman Nydia Vasquez called on class-size reduction and an end to rent-free charter school co-locations. State Senator Liz Krueger said that fairer student funding formulas and greater professional support for teachers were “common sense” reforms. And Councilman Mark Weprin criticized the StudentsFirstNY’s support of standardized testing, which he called a “scourge.”

There were also plenty of references to a report last week that showed some board members of StudentsFirstNY were actively working to defeat President Obama through fundraising and personal donations. New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which published the report, has sought to use this link to argue that StudentsFirstNY’s policies would lead to a privatized education system that would threaten jobs and put bottom-line business interests above all else. 

City Councilman Robert Jackson, a candidate for Manhattan Borough President, said the connections were “alarming and disturbing.” State Senator Eric Adams, a candidate for Brooklyn Borough President, called StudentsFirstNY an “ALEC-like organization,” referring to a national group of politicians, businesses, and think tanks that write and push for conservative legislation.

Glen Weiner, deputy director of StudentsFirstNY, said in a statement that it wasn’t surprising to see some that some elected officials were coming out in support of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools.

“A press release stating the teachers union can buy off or bully a couple of dozen politicians who think the current education system is just fine is hardly news,” Weiner said. “In fact, it’s one of the reasons StudentsFirstNY was formed.”

Below is a list of the 33 elected officials and candidates who said they have agreed to refuse funding from StudentsFirstNY:

Senator Eric Adams, Candidate for Brooklyn Borough President

Assemblyman Jeff Aubry

City Council Member Charles Barron

Assemblywoman Inez Barron

Assemblyman Michael Benedetto

Assemblyman William Colton

City Council Member Leroy Comrie, Candidate for Queens Borough President

City Council Member Daniel Dromm

City Council Member Julissa Ferraras

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick

Jesus Gonzalez, City Council candidate

Noah Gotbaum, Candidate for Public Advocate

Senator Shirley Huntley

City Council Member Robert Jackson, Candidate for Manhattan Borough President

City Council Member Letitia James, Candidate for Public Advocate

Senator Liz Krueger

City Council Member Brad Lander

City Council Member Stephen Levin

Comptroller John Liu, Candidate for Mayor

Assemblyman Alan Maisel

City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito

Jason Otnaño, Candidate for State Senate

Senator Kevin Parker

Assemblyman Nick Perry

City Council Member Diana Reyna

Antonio Reynoso, Candidate for City Council

Donovan Richards, Candidate for City Council

Senator Gustavo Rivera

Community Board 7 Member Helen Rosenthal Candidate for NYC Council

City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez

City Council Member Mark Weprin

City Council Member Jumaane Williams

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.