Officials join anti-data push, but Sheldon Silver sides with state

Class Size Matters' Leonie Haimson with City Councilwoman Letitia James and mayoral candidate Tom Allon.
Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson with City Councilwoman Letitia James and mayoral candidate Tom Allon.

Parents concerned that a new student database could break privacy laws are getting the support from a new high-profile set of allies: elected officials.

Several City Council members joined parents and privacy advocates outside the Department of Education today to protest the state’s involvement with a nonprofit organization called inBloom. The state is pouring detailed student information into inBloom’s database, which grew out of a Gates Foundation-funded project called the Shared Learning Collaborative that was meant to help states use data to improve student achievement without individually underwriting data system.

The state will retain control of the data, but critics of the project say the state is putting students at risk by handing information about them over to a third party. Their protest has the support of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a leading candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary, and another candidate for mayor, Republican longshot Tom Allon, appeared at the Tweed Courthouse rally today. Allon compared the database to “child pornography.” Meanwhile, an Albany lawmaker, Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, this week introduced legislation to allow parents to opt their children out of the database altogether.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver threw cold water on O’Donnell’s proposed bill tonight, telling concerned parents that he supported the state’s data initiative and that there was little to worry about.

“The data system is to provide information to teachers to improve instruction, as well as provide access to students and parents to facilitate instruction and learning,” Silver wrote in his letter. “However, SED does not intend to allow personally identifiable student records to be used for commercial purposes.”

Some parents said they remained unconvinced that officials could guarantee that their student’s information, which is protected by federal privacy laws, would remain private and secure. Lea Mansour said she feared her childrens’ data could be leaked and end up being used against them later on in life.

“I don’t want colleges to know,” said Lea Mansour, a parent whose son attends P.S. 75. “I don’t want his future employer to know.”

Local critics have allies elsewhere, too. Michelle Malkin, the right-wing pundit, has said the data project represents “yet another encroachment of centralized education bureaucrats on local control and parental rights.”

State education officials have begun transferring student data, which they said is already being collected at the district level, into the database. Spokesman Dennis Tompkins said that teachers would begin to have access to the new database during the 2013-2014 school year.

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.”