wheeling and dealing

In new arrangement, teachers' pensions to fund infrastructure

President Bill Clinton was joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten (behind him) and other union and city officials today to announce a $1 billion investment of the city's teacher pension fund into Hurricane Sandy recovery projects.

One billion dollars of the city’s teacher pension fund will be used to finance construction and repair projects for city roads, bridges, and homes, President Bill Clinton and other officials announced Thursday.

Clinton joined UFT President Michael Mulgrew, AFT President Randi Weingarten, City Comptroller John Liu, and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan to announce the pledge, which Clinton called “a remarkable commitment” to “properly rebuild in the aftermath of Sandy.”

“This storm exposed weaknesses in our infrastructure that must not only be repaired, but we must rebuild in a different way,” said Donovan, who is now in charge of federal Sandy recovery efforts.

This will be the first time the city’s teacher pension funds are used for infrastructure projects, Liu said, even though the idea has been around for years.

“There’s always been apprehension about, is it going to work, is it potentially a vicious circle? So what I’ve seen is everybody is waiting for somebody else to do it, and therefore nobody does it. I’m very proud that, in this case, New York City is taking the lead,” Liu said after the announcement.

Until now, funds in the Teachers’ Retirement System have all been invested more traditionally, in stocks and bonds and other financial products. Under the new arrangement, the pension fund’s investment will support the construction of projects such as bridges or housing complexes that generate revenue, through tolls and rent or mortgage in those cases. Those revenue streams will return funds to the pension system over time.

Liu wouldn’t predict the rate of return, but he said he was confident that the investments would “earn good returns” and said that each project would be evaluated individually. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System has done something similar in the past two years, pledging to invest $750 million in infrastructure projects — though that’s less than one half of 1 percent of its total $152.5 billion. Weingarten said today that California is starting to see “real returns” from those investments.

Liu said no decisions have been made about which projects would be funded. But Clinton pointed to his foundation’s work to rebuild storm-safe and eco-friendly buildings in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as an example of the possibilities.

The improvements likely will not include the construction of new schools, since the focus so far has been on projects that will generate revenue, Liu added. All but six of the dozens of school buildings that were damaged by the storm have since reopened.

The pledge, which the city Teachers Retirement System agreed to last week, is part of a larger project of the Clinton Global Initiative to encourage the use of pension funds for infrastructure investments, which began in 2011. The $1 billion amounts to just over 2 percent of the $46 billion Teacher Pension Fund.

Clinton clearly shared the enthusiasm of the other officials, who were effusive in their praise for each other’s work. After everyone else had spoken, he could not resist going up to the microphone one last time.

“I think it’s great that teachers are leading the way here,” Clinton said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.