Taking it to Albany

Support for a moratorium on school closures gains steam

After protesting in New York City for years, critics of school closures and co-locations are taking their fight to Albany.

Three mayoral candidates joined parents, advocates, and union representatives on the steps of City Hall today in calling for a moratorium on school closures and co-locations,  centerpieces of the Bloomberg administration’s education policy.

The press conference was organized by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a group formed to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies in the lead-up to the mayoral election.

Earlier this month, State Sen. Tony Avella introduced a bill that would impose halt school closures until a state committee determines whether they benefit students.

Now advocates are looking for a sponsor in the Assembly as well, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today. Hakeem Jeffries, the politician who sponsored a similar bill last year, has left the Assembly for the U.S. Congress. Asked who would sponsor a bill now, Mulgrew said, “There’s quite a few people who are looking at doing it.”

The Democratic mayoral candidates at the rally have opposed school closures in the past, but the stakes are higher now: The bill Avella proposed would prevent Bloomberg from setting in motion closures the next mayor would have to handle.

“School closing is not an educational strategy, and the Bloomberg administration has embraced it as such,” former comptroller Bill Thompson said. “They act as if school closings are real policy. They are not. If anything it’s an admission of failure.”

“It’s clear that the lights are out and no one is listening in the Tweed building or at City Hall,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said. “The only solution now is a moratorium.”

In between speeches, parents, advocates, and union representatives shouted, “Fix our schools, don’t just close them” and “Enough is enough.”

Candidates also echoed concerns expressed in a report critical of co-locations, released today by the community organization New York Communities Organizing Fund. The report reviews the effect of co-location on schools and urges the Department of Education to adopt a guidelines for future co-location decisions, designed to “increase the possibility that a co-location will be successful for all the parties involved.”

Several speakers said the time has passed for simply tweaking the process. “The DOE’s closure and co-location policies are so deeply flawed that they need to be completely re-evaluated before they can continue,” Comptroller John Liu said.

Avella thinks a moratorium has a good chance in Albany, even in the State Senate, which has historically been less friendly to policies set forth by critics of the Bloomberg administration. “I think [the bill]  has possibilities because I think everybody recognizes, whether Republicans want to admit it or not, that the school closings are really a sham,” he said.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, who chairs the education committee, and several other speakers said school closures produce a domino effect, distributing students to other struggling schools that are not prepared to serve new students well.

In response to the press conference, advocates of charter schools said a moratorium is misguided. “A moratorium on co-locations—which would affect both charter and district schools—would prevent new, high quality public schools from opening while forcing countless students to remain in classrooms that haven’t worked well for generations. That’s not a policy for success, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz said in a statement.

James Merriman of the New York City Charter School Center also characterized the moratorium as rash. “Instead of a real plan to improve parents’ choices, three of our Democratic mayoral candidates want to restrict them through a mindless ban,” he said in a statement. “Co-locating both district and charter schools…has expanded high quality options for tens of thousands of the city’s school children.”

The fourth Democratic mayoral candidate, Christine Quinn, did not appear at the rally. She has said in the past that school closures should be a last resort but that co-locations are necessary for the charter sector to survive.

Mulgrew stayed on message during the event, but his words took on new significance after last week’s failed teacher evaluation deal.

“Why are we here asking for a moratorium?” Mulgrew asked the crowd, then answered, “Because we’ve given up working with this administration. We’re giving up.”

Colorado's 2017 General Assembly

Colorado students could earn biliteracy credential on diploma

A 2010 graduation ceremony of Denver's Bruce Randolph School (Hyoung Chang/ The Denver Post).

Colorado high school graduates next year likely will be able to earn a new credential that proves to colleges and employers they can communicate in at least two languages.

The House Education Committee on Monday approved Senate Bill 123, which lays out the criteria students must meet to earn a biliteracy endorsement.

The bill already has won support from the state Senate and faces one last debate in the House of Representatives before going to the governor’s desk.

Three school districts began issuing their own bilingual endorsements in 2016.

Last year, the State Board of Education rejected a resolution that would have encouraged more schools to develop their own seal of biliteracy. Republicans on the board voiced concern about a lack of statewide criteria and that the endorsement would be handed out unevenly.

If this bill becomes law, that would change.

For a students to earn the seal, they would need to prove they’ve mastered both English and another language by earning at least a B in all of their language classes, earning high marks on the English portion of the SAT, and pass both an English and foreign language test provided by either the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.

If such a test doesn’t exist for a language the student has studied, the school may either create a test that must be vetted by the state education department or the student may submit a sample of work for review.

Ella Willden, a seventh grader at Oberon Middle School in Arvada, told Colorado lawmakers she and her fellow students are excited for the chance to earn the diploma seal, and that it would mean a better shot at a good college or career after high school.

“I know many of my classmates will jump at the chance to earn this seal if given the opportunity because they want to get into some of the top schools in the nation and they want every advantage they can get,” she said. “Whether I go to college or I go to work, this seal will open doors for me throughout the state.”


Lawmakers take first step to ease testing burden for young English language learners

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
Justin Machado, 9, reads on his iPad during his 3rd grade class at Ashley Elementary in 2015.

State lawmakers from both political parties are seeking to undo a controversial State Board of Education decision that called for schools to test thousands of Colorado’s youngest students in English — a language they are still learning.

House Bill 1160 cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday with unanimous support from the House Education Committee.

The bill would allow school districts to decide whether to use tests in English or Spanish to gauge whether students in kindergarten through third grade enrolled in dual-language or bilingual programs have reading deficiencies.

The bill is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Reps. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat, and Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

If the bill becomes law, it would overrule a decision by the State Board of Education last year that required testing such students at least once in English. That meant some schools would need to test students twice if they wanted to gauge reading skills in a student’s native language.

Colorado’s public schools under the 2012 READ Act are required to test students’ reading ability to identify students who aren’t likely to be reading at grade-level by third grade.

The bill is the latest political twist in a years-long effort to apply the READ Act in Colorado schools that serve a growing number of native Spanish-speakers.

School districts first raised concern about double-testing in 2014, one year after the law went into effect. The state Attorney General’s office issued an opinion affirming that the intent of the READ Act was to measure reading skills, not English proficiency. The state board then changed its policy to allow districts to choose which language to test students in and approved tests in both English and Spanish.

But a new configuration of the state board in 2016 reversed that decision when it made other changes in response to a 2015 testing reform law that included tweaks to early literacy testing.

The board’s decision at the time was met with fierce opposition from school districts with large Spanish speaking populations — led by Denver Public Schools.

Lawmakers considered legislation to undo the board’s decision last year, but a committee in the Republican-controlled Senate killed it.

Capitol observers believe the bill is more likely to reach the governor’s desk this year after a change in leadership in the Senate.

Some members of the state board, at a meeting last week, reaffirmed their support for testing students in English.

Board member Val Flores, a Denver Democrat who opposed the rule change last year, said she opposes the bill. In explaining her reversal, Flores said she believes the bill would create a disincentive for schools, especially in Denver, to help Spanish-speakers learn English.

“If the district does not give the test in English, reading in English will not be taught,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he still believes the intent of the READ Act was to measure how well students were reading in English.

“I think this is a serious departure from what the legislature intended initially,” he said last week. “The READ Act had everything to do with reading in English.”

Hamner, one of the sponsors of House Bill 1160, also sponsored the READ Act in 2012. She disagrees with Durham and told the House committee Monday that the intent was always for local school districts to decide which language was appropriate.

“We’re giving the local educators and districts the decision-making authority on what’s best for the students,” she said.

Multiple speakers on Monday said the requirement to test native Spanish speakers in English was a waste of time and money, and provided bad information to teachers.

“A teacher who teaches in Spanish will not be able to use data from an English assessment to drive their instruction, much like a hearing test would not give a doctor information about a patient’s broken arm,” said Emily Volkert, dean of instruction at Centennial Elementary School in Denver.

The bill only applies to students who are native Spanish speakers because the state has only approved tests that are in English and Spanish. Students whose native language is neither English nor Spanish would be tested in English until the state approves assessments in other languages.

“The question is can you read and how well,” said bill co-sponsor Wilson. “We’re trying to simplify that.”