pay raise

Hinting at education platform, GOP's Joe Lhota backs merit pay

A screenshot from the Daily News' livestream coverage.
A screenshot from the Daily News’ livestream coverage.

Joe Lhota wants to bring performance-based pay for teachers to New York City finally and he thinks he can convince a union that’s long been opposed to the idea.

Making his debut on education in a forum hosted by the New York Daily News last night, Lhota said he would seek to replicate Newark’s new merit pay system if he became mayor.

He hailed the Bloomberg administration’s record on education and aligned himself with the mayor on policies of closing low-performing schools and supporting charter schools. But he said the Bloomberg legacy was incomplete.

“The one piece that’s missing is working with the union for merit pay and changing their approach,” Lhota said in an interview after the forum.

Lhota also said teachers should receive pay bumps if they teach a high-demand subject or work in the toughest schools.

Pressed to explain how he’d achieve a compensation system that’s based on performance, since the United Federation of Teachers has always opposed individual merit pay initiatives, Lhota, a Republican, said he wouldn’t have to start from scratch. On stage and in the interview, he repeatedly referenced Newark’s landmark teacher contract passed by the city’s union last year and praised the role that former UFT president Randi Weingarten, now president of the American Federation of Teachers, played in getting the deal done.

“There’s a road map for it,” Lhota said. “[Randi Weingarten] was integrally involved in Newark with Governor Christie in determining how the merit pay would work.”

“Seeing Randi at the table … was a true sea change for teachers and their unions, that they’re willing to go the extra step to make merit pay happen,” he added.

Lhota didn’t specify how to fund the bonuses. Newark’s system will cost at least $50 million and is paid for now entirely by private funds, most of which will come from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic foundation.

Performance-based pay for teachers is a thorny issue in New York City, which piloted a version of merit pay in 200 schools in 2007. The pilot enabled schools to give out up to $3,000 bonuses to teachers if the school improved its progress report results. But a study of student achievement in those schools found that test scores did not improve and actually dropped in middle school grades.

That pilot was launched collaboratively by Mayor Bloomberg and Weingarten, but quietly shelved in 2010.  Last year, Bloomberg proposed giving $20,000 bonuses to individual teachers rated highly effective two years in a row, a proposal that the union quickly shut the door on. The city and union have not yet reached a deal on an evaluation system to rate teachers on a more detailed level.

Still, Lhota expressed optimism that he could get UFT President Michael Mulgrew to come around. He said that working with the union to lobby the Governor and state legislature for more equitable funding for New York City would be a top priority.

“You know, when I deal with unions I always try to find common ground,” Lhota said. “Common ground here would be getting a fair share for the New York City Department of Education. And I can’t see a better partner in doing that other than Michael Mulgrew.”

In a statement, Mulgrew said he remained opposed to merit pay and declined to take up Lhota’s invitation to collaborate.

“We don’t negotiate in public with officeholders, much less with candidates for office,” Mulgrew said. “But there’s no evidence that individual merit pay addresses the real need of our schools — helping children learn.”

Lhota was one of seven mayoral candidates at the forum, which included four likely Democratic candidates — Christine Quinn, John Liu, Bill De Blasio and Bill Thompson — and two other Republican candidates — Tom Allon and John Catsimatidis.

Allon has also called for individual merit pay. But while Quinn, the Democratic frontrunner, has said she would consider paying teachers more to staff high-need subjects and schools, she has rejected the notion of individual merit pay based on teacher performance, saying that data do not support the practice. On Tuesday, when moderator Errol Louis asked who opposed a merit pay system, all of the Democratic candidates raised their hands.

The 90-minute event focused squarely on education and covered a variety of contentious issues, including school closures, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and the teacher contract.

Lhota has an uphill climb against his established Democratic rivals. Although he is the Republican frontrunner, recent polling data shows that many New Yorkers still aren’t familiar with Lhota, a former investment banker, top aide to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and most recently, Chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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.