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.”

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”