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

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.”