the freshman

New Brooklyn lawmaker wants first crack at school closure ban

Walter T. Mosley
Walter Mosley, with Hakeem Jeffries, speaking to supporters on Election Day last year. (Credit: The Local: Fort Greene / Clinton Hill)

Brand new Brooklyn Assemblyman Walter T. Mosley  wants to pick up where his high-profile predecessor left off: trying to block Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to close schools.

Before he was elected to Congress last year, Hakeem Jeffries was the lead sponsor on a bill that called on a two-year moratorium for closures in New York City. It passed overwhelmingly in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, but then lost momentum. First, it died in the Republican-controlled Senate and then lost its sponsor when Jeffries headed to Washington, D.C.

Now, union officials and other advocates who oppose the Bloomberg administration’s school closure policies are looking for a new lawmaker to carry the torch for this year’s session.

“There’s quite a few people who are looking at doing it,” teachers union president Michael Mulgrew told GothamSchools this week.

Despite his long-shot chances as a freshman lawmaker, Mosley said he stands ready to take the reigns.

“Other lawmakers might want to take it as their own, but right now we’re proposing it as our own,” said Mosley, who said he campaigned in part on the promise that he’d breathe life into Jeffries’s old bill.

“To me, it’s only right that we press the pause button and reevaluate what we’re doing from a government standpoint to make sure that every child is treated fairly,” Mosley added.

The bill seeks to immediately halt school closures in New York City and would last through the 2015-2016 school year. During the moratorium period a state-controlled committee of education experts would be convened to review the impact that closures have the school system.

Union officials familiar with the bill said that they doubted the bill could be passed and signed into law before March, when the city’s school board is scheduled to vote on — and likely approve — 26 school closures.

Closures are a hallmark policy of the Bloomberg’s brand of education reform in New York City and 140 schools have been shuttered on his watch.  Many of the schools were large, low-performing high schools, which the city has replaced with hundreds of smaller schools that have, on average, yielded higher graduation rates while serving less needy students.

But to close a school is a contentious process that brings fierce and organized opposition from the school community and the teachers union. Recently, criticism has come from new places as well. Three of four Democratic mayoral candidates recently called for a moratorium and top-ranking state education officials have expressedconcern  that the closures disproportionately affect students with the highest need.

Bloomberg has also replaced them with 163 charter schools, many of which share space in district school buildings in an arrangement called co-locations.

Another bill, introduced last week for the second year in a row by Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, would give communities the power to approve co-location proposals for their local schools.

Sources say that it’ll be difficult for Mosley to end up as the bill’s lone sponsor since those decisions are made by Assembly leaders.

Mosley, a former district leader, won with both Jeffries’s and Mulgrew’s endorsement. Despite his opposition to school closures, Jeffries also supported charter school co-locations and drew praise from education reform groups during his Congressional race. The UFT chose not to endorse him in his primary race against Councilman Charles Barron.

Mosley wrote on his campaign web site that he wants to “ensure that parents have a choice about where to send their child to school,” but he said in an interview that charter schools “are not an option for everyone.”

“They are an exception, an alternative way of educating our children,” Mosley said.

Whoever ends up the Assembly sponsor, Avella thinks the bill has legs this year in the Senate, where legislation that threatens Bloomberg’s education agenda has historically gone to die.

Avella told GothamSchools yesterday that he is hoping to tap into the Senate’s new power-sharing dynamic, which includes a coalition of five Democrats who are voting as an independent conference.

The leader of that coalition, Jeff Klein, has in the past battled with the teachers union for voting to raise the charter cap and do away with seniority layoffs. But he sided with the union on school closures. 

Klein’s Bronx district includes Lehman High School, which has been the chopping block for years. A year ago, Klein joined with the school community to oppose a closure proposal.

“The community, teachers and administration have been working tirelessly on their own ‘turnaround’ policy for the high school which is showing positive results in just the few months it has been implemented,” Klein wrote in a letter to the department last year, according to the Bronx Times. “I would ask that phase-out be stalled for at least another year to give the new principal and administration more time to implement their programs.”

As a co-leader of the Senate — alongside Republican Dean Skelos — Klein now wields far greater power over what bills get voted on and could decide to back the bill. Avella said he hoped to win Klein and the other four Democrats in the independent coalition over.

Klein’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

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.