when the iron is hot

At bus driver strike hearing, Walcott bats away council criticism

Chancellor Dennis Walcott takes questions from Robert Jackson during a City Council hearing on the school bus strike.

Agitated City Council members spent more than two hours today grilling Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the city’s refusal to restore job protections for school bus drivers or intervene in their nearly monthlong strike.

The hearing took place more than three weeks into the strike on a day when many families’ tenuous transportation plans were complicated by the start of a snowstorm. Attendance in schools for students with disabilities, which have been hardest-hit by the strike, fell from 76 percent on Thursday to just 50 percent today.

Maria Uruchima, whose nightmarish commute includes 8 buses and 4 trains, said her son wasn’t feeling well, “so I just kept him home because it’s going to be crazy out anyways.”

Even before the inclement weather, at least 2,500 students who attend schools in District 75, which serve special education students with the highest needs, “were still home,” Maggie Moroff, Special Education Policy Coordinator at Advocates for Children, said in her prepared remarks. For students that made it to school, Moroff said parents sacrificed hours of their work days to get them there and many students arrived late anyway. 

The plight of students and families came up occasionally, but the hearing centered more on the ongoing labor dispute between Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the city and the School Bus Coalition, which was absent. The stated purpose of the hearing was “the costs of student transportation,” but that got short shrift as well.

In his testimony, Walcott didn’t say much about transportation costs that the city faced, something that irked council officials who organized the hearing. The one dollar figure that Walcott did cite was the $95 million that the city expected to save from new five-year contracts for prekindergarten busing. Those contracts did not include seniority protections for bus drivers.

School transportation will cost the city $1.1 billion this year, according to the Comptroller’s office, and increase to $1.3 billion by 2014, according to the council, which had asked the education department to come with a prepared breakdown of how that money was spent.

The costs were relevant, Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson said in his opening remarks, because the city has often cited the high costs of bus transportation for why it needs to seek new and cheaper contracts.

“We’ve all read and heard lots of heated rhetoric and half-truths, claims and counterclaims about the cost of busing in New York City, and now it’s time for a reality check,” Jackson said. More than half of that amount is reimbursed by the state, a fact that Jackson said was not mentioned by Mayor Bloomberg during his many press conferences on the issue.

Later in the questioning, officials confirmed some the per-pupil cost breakdowns. Eric Goldstein, Chief Executive Officer of the Office of School Support Services said the city spent an average of $6,900 per pupil on transportation —   $2800 on general education students and $12,800 on students with special needs.

Jackson led the charge of criticism of Walcott. He accused Walcott of misleading the council on the city’s true intentions behind the labor conflict, suggesting he was either ignorant of the issues facing students, families and bus drivers in the strike, or he’s more nefarious than that.

“You’re like an ostrich with his head in the sand not willing to come out and deal with reality,” said Jackson, nearing the end of Walcott’s lengthy testimony, which once escalated into a tense exchange with a confrontational council member.

“I don’t know whether or not it’s about money, chancellor,” Jackson added. “I’m wondering whether or not this is about the Bloomberg Administration willing to attempt to try to break the back of the union.”

In response, the overflow room about 20 feet down the hallway, packed mostly with striking bus drivers, erupted in applause.

Walcott disputed the claim, saying that the city was getting rid of seniority-based job protections for its upcoming contract bidding process because they were legally obligated and to save money.

“We are not trying to break the union, as I’ve said over and over again,” Walcott said. “The union will still be in place even with the new bids.”

Walcott was defensive but remained even-tempered for most the of hearing. The exception came in response to questioning from Councilwoman Letitia James, a candidate for Public Advocate who repeatedly asked — and interrupted to answer herself — Walcott about the city’s interpretation of a 2011 court decision that he said justifies withholding job protections.

“You can come to the panel meetings and act out,” Walcott said, referring to the contentious Panel for Educational Policy meetings. “I’m not going to take it here.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”