jumping the gun

Bloomberg rep lone vote to keep guns in teacher pension fund

The city’s $46.6 billion teacher pension system sold its shares in the firearms industry yesterday, becoming the country’s largest retirement fund to divest from publicly-traded gun manufacturers since December’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Comptroller John Liu announced today.

But the vote to do so wasn’t unanimous — and the single dissenting ballot came from a member appointed by the city’s most powerful gun control advocate: Mayor Bloomberg.

Ray Sarola, acting as a fill-in for Bloomberg appointee Carolyn Wolpert, voted against divestment during an executive session meeting last week, a spokesman for the Teacher Retirement System said. Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, of the Department of Education, missed the vote but said yesterday at the board’s monthly public meeting that she opposed divestment as well.

“Pension decisions should rarely, if ever, be based on other criteria except what’s best for pensioners, which should benefit taxpayers as well,” Sarola, a senior policy advisor in the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, said in a statement provided by Bloomberg spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua. Passalacqua said Bloomberg is recused of pension investment decisions because his own personal investments made it a conflict of interest.

But supporters of divestment pounced on what they saw as an act of hypocrisy.

“I don’t understand it,” said Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, which had its three trustees vote in support of divestment. “This is the guy that’s out there and wants to be the leader on gun control in the country.”

Bloomberg has been an outspoke critic of the gun lobby and has aggressively pursued laws that would restrict the industry’s ability to manufacture high-capacity firearms, such as the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle used in the Newtown shooting. Bloomberg has spent millions of dollars to support candidates for elected office who support gun control, and oppose those who don’t.

Divestment from firearms holdings has become a growing trend among city and state pension systems since 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14. In January, California’s teacher pension fund voted unanimously to begin withdrawing shares from its firearms holdings.

Trustees are legally required to only invest or divest in shares that are in the best interest of the fund’s long-term health. But Liu, who serves as an investment advisor to the fund, said in a statement that the $13.5 million divestment met fiduciary standards.

“There is no need to support these companies, whose products can destroy lives and shatter communities in the blink of an eye,” Liu said in a statement. “Our investment portfolio gains nothing by doing business with these firms, and this is a sound decision that sends an important message about our commitment to addressing the plague of gun violence in every possible way.”

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.”