Vox populi

Comments of the week: Readers dissect a dead evaluation deal

The long weekend just wasn’t enough time for readers to cool off after last week’s surprising news that a long-awaited teacher evaluation deal had failed. After months and months of negotiations, the two sides walked away from the negotiating table without a system to submit to the state, forgoing $240 million in state aid in the process.

So there was plenty to talk about at the end of last week and as this one began. Many, including Commissioner John King, sided with the UFT’s account of how talks broke down. A review of the hundreds of comments that poured in on posts about the breakdown in negotiations suggested a lot of our readers agreed.

But others weren’t so fast to give the union a pass.

“The real debate,” Night Rider wrote, “surrounds the fact that there is way too much secret dealings going on and the rank and file are not having a chance to have a say in these negotiations. Heck, even if the UFT and the DOE came up with a last minute deal on the evaluations last week, the Delegate Assembly would have had mere minutes to look at the proposal.”

Night Rider also questioned if King had the authority to follow through with his threat to withhold more money if the city doesn’t get a deal done soon:

The billion dollar question is what is going to happen when King/Cuomo start to hold tons of federal Title 1 monies from NYC on Feb 15th. Will the UFT cave on this? I, and countless others think it is just a ploy to get a deal out of us. However, it is NOT A DEADLINE. There is no gun to the head of the UFT or any law in place that says a deal must be signed by Feb 15th. My guess is that there will be a lawsuit by some party to allow the release of the Title 1 monies to NYC.

The failure of the state’s largest city to meet the deadline, a gambit dreamt up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, could have left him governor politically vulnerable. David Bloomfield, Professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at the CUNY Grad Center and Brooklyn College, didn’t see it that way.

This is not a “black eye for Gov. Andrew Cuomo” (yesterday’s GS story). He created a framework for district/union cooperation, winning friends in the accountability and progressive communities — a neat piece of political footwork. Failure to agree in NYC was entirely predictable based on the necessity of unlikely UFT/Bloomberg compromise but Cuomo comes out threading the needle as a champion of test-based teacher evaluations, district discretion, and collective bargaining.

One commenter, “Principal” was already fretting about what the $240 million cut could mean for schools:

I’m demoralized as this will likely mean the loss of our Title I school’s extended day program, funded by federal grants that will now be lost because of failure to strike a deal.  That grant also funds critical professional development.  Anything would be better than the U/S system, which makes baseline competence (the standard an S) the highest bar formally expected or recognized.

Another story that’s had legs is the bus drivers strike, which completed its seventh day today. To mitigate the strike’s impact on low-income special education students, the Department of Education is fronting cab money for students who can show proof that they qualify for free or reduced lunch at school. If only it were that simple, said “Make it stop“.

Some families do not fill out lunch forms. Those who do not have green cards or who work off the books don’t feel comfortable. Many “at risk” students are being hurt by this strike. GS please tell this story. And ask the DoE if the risks to these students’ ed outcomes is worth it.


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.