financial aid

Bill Thompson bid gets help from high-profile education figures

IMAG1390edit
Bill Thompson, center, is among four Democratic candidates jockeying for the endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers.

Bill Thompson lags behind his Democratic rivals in fundraising, but he’s out in front in one area of interest: support from high-profile education officials.

As he has ramped up his fund-raising efforts in recent months, Thompson has raked in thousands of dollars in donations from notable public figures in education, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and, most recently, Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, filings show.

Weingarten, who worked closely with Thompson when the pair overlapped during previous city education posts more than a decade ago, gave $2,000 to his campaign in two installments on Jan. 10 and Jan. 11. Tisch contributed $4,950 — the maximum allowed by the city’s campaign finance laws — to Thompson’s six-month haul ending in January, which totaled more than $1 million.

In his latest three-month filing, which totaled $322,000 and ended last week, Thompson took in $500 from Goldstein, records show. Goldstein, who along with Weingarten sits on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission, gave the maximum $4,950 to Republican candidate Joe Lhota, a member of CUNY’s Board of Trustees.

Like the other Democratic candidates, Thompson hopes to receive an endorsement from the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s local affiliate that Weingarten presided over from 1998 to 2009. The UFT snubbed Thompson in 2009 (shortly after Weingarten left) by not endorsing him in that year’s mayoral election, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg won narrowly despite spending more than 10 times what Thompson did.

Weingarten worked with Thompson when he was a member and president of the city’s Board of Education from 1994 to 2001. In an email, Weingarten highlighted that working relationship and said her support was personal.

“It’s not a union endorsement — it’s a personal contribution,” Weingarten said.

Weingarten noted that she has supported other mayoral candidates, though none  has received her money during the mayoral race. Weingarten gave $1,000 in two payments in 2007 to Christine Quinn, then an incumbent candidate for City Council. Weingarten also gave $500 to Bill de Blasio’s 2009 winning campaign for public advocate.

Tisch, who has helped steer state education policy since 2009 and herself flirted with running for mayor, did not respond to requests for comment. Tisch has poured over $65,000 into city campaigns since 1995, including $4,000 to Thompson’s 2009 mayoral run.

Thompson got money from another former colleague, Harold Levy, chancellor of the New York City school system from 2000 to 2002. In an interview, Levy was more effusive in his praise for Thompson, who helped force out his predecessor Rudy Crew at the request of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and install Levy in his place over Giuliani’s pick.

“He’s honest, he forthright, he’s principled, he knows education, and he’s a good manager, so I like him a lot,” said Levy, who has given $600 to Thompson since last summer.

A Thompson spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the high-profile donations, Thompson has just over $2 million in his campaign chest, well behind Quinn’s $5.5 million. He also trails de Blasio, who has about $2.6 million in his campaign coffers, and is about even with Comptroller John Liu.

Thompson’s $322,000 fund raising this winter outpaced both de Blasio and Liu, but still lagged behind Quinn’s $487,000.

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.