public opinion

Poll: NYers don't see Cuomo's ed proposals as top priorities

New York state voters said they aren’t crazy about the idea of a longer school day, a new poll shows.

Fewer than four in 10 voters responding to a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University’s survey center said they believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s extended learning day proposal should be a priority for Cuomo and state legislators. The poll focused on five of the proposals Cuomo floated during his ambitious State of the State speech three weeks ago, three of which are education-related.

New York voters were more open to his proposals to improve teacher quality, including a tougher “bar exam” and merit pay.

Cuomo is pushing most of his education ideas through competitive grants, and he wants to fund them with a pot of money set aside specifically for recommendations made by his Education Reform Commission. Of the $75 million set aside in his 2013-2014 budget, Cuomo is proposing to give a total of $20 million to districts that adopt extended learning time models, and $11 million for top-performing teachers.

The poll didn’t ask about two other education proposals that he mentioned in the speech, full day pre-kindergarten and more schools that provide health, mental health and other non-academic services. He has proposed to give those proposals a combined $40 million in grants.

It also did not ask about Cuomo’s proposal to continue tying state school aid to whether districts have teacher evaluation systems in place, the education proposal that is shaping up to be the most contentious.

New York voters told the poll that they wanted Cuomo and the legislature to tackle equal pay for women and campaign finance reform before education proposals. Equal pay for women should be the highest priority for Cuomo and lawmakers, 53 percent of poll respondents told Qunnipiac.

The education proposal that received the most support was merit pay for teachers. Forty-five percent of respondents said they thought it should be a high — though not highest — priority. Cuomo’s proposal doesn’t specifically call it “merit pay,” a term the state and city teachers unions staunchly oppose because they say it doesn’t lead to improved teaching. Cuomo’s proposal would give top teachers an extra $60,000 over four years to mentor other teachers in the profession.

Forty-three percent of voters said a bar exam should be a high priority. The idea has received support from a broad swath of people in education, including American Federation of Teachers President and former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, who say it’s a crucial step toward raising the profession’s standard.

But polling respondents said they thought the least pressing education issue was extended learning. Cuomo has proposed to fund schools that can figure out efficient ways to add about 300 hours of learning onto their school year. In his speech, Cuomo pointed to higher test scores for students in extended learning environments as evidence of its success.

Just 17 percent of voters saw it as the top priority for Cuomo and the state legislature to pursue this year, compared to 26 percent for merit pay and 28 percent for a bar exam.

The idea was more favorable to black and lower income respondents, the poll found. Twenty-six percent of black respondents and 29 percent of respondents from households with less than $50,000 income said it should be a top priority.

Education in general was not the most pressing issue for many of the poll’s respondents. When asked what they believed was the most important problem facing the state today, 32 percent said it was the economy and 17 percent said it was taxes. Nine percent said education.

Another part of the poll, released yesterday, focused on Gov. Cuomo’s job approval ratings, which 15 points from 74 percent to 59 percent. The dip in his approval, still relatively high, has been attributed to the gun control bill that Cuomo and the legislature passed on the first day in session, circumventing the a three-day bill review period required by the state constitution.

But Maurice Carroll, director of Quinnipiac’s polling center, said he believes the dip could also have to do with Cuomo’s embrace of more progressive ideals during his state address. Cuomo has also hinted at a more progressive education agenda.

“Did you ever see a State of the State speech that listed about 42 different super-liberal proposals?” Carroll said in a radio interview yesterday.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s an awful lot of dissatisfaction with the gun control proposals, but the other stuff is also dramatic,” Carroll added.



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.