mission accomplished?

In a familiar spot, Cuomo leaps into latest teacher eval snag

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo found himself in a familiar situation today: Defending his teacher evaluation law against yet another snag.

The latest issue is the revelation, reported Monday by the Buffalo News, that Buffalo promised its teachers union not to move to fire any teacher based on this year’s evaluations. State law allows — but does not require — districts to begin termination proceedings for any teacher who receives two straight “ineffective” ratings. But state education officials have argued the deal has no legal grounds since it wasn’t submitted to or approved by the state.

In a radio interview today, Cuomo called the side deal, struck at the same time as Buffalo and its union agreed on a new teacher evaluation system in January, “very close to legal and ethical fraud.”

Buffalo is the state’s second-largest city. The biggest, New York City, has not yet adopted new teacher evaluations at all. The city has until May 31 to submit its own negotiated deal; after that the state is mandated by law to impose a plan.

The setbacks represent a striking blow to Cuomo’s efforts to make teacher evaluation a signature education achievement in his first term. He has lobbied the Board of Regents to give test scores a larger role in evaluations and mediated labor disputes. Last year, he used his outsized power in the legislature to devise a carrot-and-stick approach that drove nearly every school district in the state to adopt new evaluations, declaring “victory” in the process.

But because Cuomo does not directly control the State Education Department, he has only limited ability to steer how education policies are implemented.

State Education Department officials have known about the deal since January and has repeatedly warned Buffalo that it risked losing state funding if it followed through with its plans to ignore two years of ineffective ratings. The department has also looked into rumors of other districts with similar side deals aimed at constraining the role of new teacher evaluations in their first year.

After the Buffalo News story was published on Monday, Cuomo decided to publicly get involved once again. Cuomo told Capitol Pressroom’s Susan Arbetter on Tuesday morning that there has been steep resistance to the new evaluations, which weigh student performance for the first time.

“I understand the anxiety and I understand the legitimate concerns,” he said. “You’re now bringing in an evaluation system for teachers who have not been evaluated before. It poses challenges to evaluate their service and the art form of their service. I understand that.”

In Buffalo, union officials apparently convinced the city that it would be unfair to use ratings generated by an evaluation system devised midyear to make high-stakes personnel decisions.

“The District understands that it would not be fair to our teachers to use this process against them during this early stage of implementation,” Superintendent Pamela Brown wrote in a memorandum of understanding with the Buffalo Teachers Federation that was struck on the same day as the city and union agreed on an evaluation plan but was not shared with the state.

Negotiations in New York City collapsed just before a state deadline in January, and the city still does not have a new evaluation system in place. But sources on both sides of the negotiating table said there had not been any proposal of a side deal to block new ratings from being used in termination proceedings. Instead, a major stumbling block had been whether to give the evaluation deal an expiration date.

Buffalo MOU by GothamSchools.org

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”