chapter leader

Ex-state senator picked to lead DFER's New York fundraising

Senator_johnson_headshotWebDemocrats for Education Reform is reuniting with an old Albany friend as it prepares to resume a larger presence in the state.

The political action committee’s New York chapter named former state Senator Craig Johnson as board chair, Executive Director Joe Williams said. Johnson’s role on the board, which is unpaid, will primarily be to fundraise, an area that has lagged in recent years as the state’s education advocacy field has grown more crowded, Williams said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get the donor base engaged again,” said Williams.

Johnson, who won his seat in 2007 in a Long Island district long dominated by Republicans, aligned with DFER on successful legislative efforts required to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding.

The most notable was a revision to the Charter Schools Act that more than doubled the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. Snubbing pressure from his Democratic colleagues, Johnson “single-handedly” blocked an early version of the bill that would have banned school building co-locations and slowed down the authorizing process.

Johnson was ousted from his seat just months later, but has stayed active in state politics. He raised nearly $500,000 in 2012 for Jeff Klein’s Independent Democratic Committee, which formed a tenuous power-sharing coalition with Republicans after last fall’s elections. Earlier this month, Johnson was hired by the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP to oversee national governmental affairs with a focus on education policy.

Update: Johnson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A press release about the announcement says Johnson is “a product of public education and a public school dad.”

Johnson said in a statement that “creating and supporting highly-functioning public schools has always been something that I considered to be one of the most important Democratic principles.”

DFER took a back seat in New York in recent years and focused on growing nationally. It has launched chapters in 13 other states, and grown its staff from five in 2010 to more than 30 this year, Williams said. Last year, the PAC raised more than $9 million for political spending that included President Obama’s reelection bid. DFER spent $17 million on candidates from 2007-2010, which included support for Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

It ceded the spotlight to StudentsFirst NY, which launched last year with a pledge to raise $10 million and serve as a political counterbalance to the city and state teachers unions. Its board includes Joel Klein, the former city schools chancellor who decamped from DFER to join StudentsFirstNY.

But StudentsFirst NY stumbled out of the blocks when Hakeem Jeffries publicly rejected its support during his Congressional primary campaign. The rejection signaled that many candidates might not want to be associated with StudentsFirst, the national organization that often backs conservative candidates to advance its legislation.

Founding Executive Director Micah Lasher left earlier this year, leaving StudentsFirst NY’s future in doubt. For now, it is looking for someone to replace Lasher and is also considering a former state lawmaker for the spot. Michael Benjamin, a former Democratic assemblyman who broke from his conference’s ranks often on education during his seven years in office, said he’s spoken to Klein and StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee about the job. Since resigning in 2010, Benjamin has worked as a political consultant and penned columns about education for the New York Post.

Williams said there has been “a lot of confusion about what group is supposed to do what” but said that he wants DFER to resume a preeminent role in education advocacy in the state, beginning with the 2013 city elections.

He said he believed DFER needed to begin advocating for new issues than expanding the number of charter schools. When Republican candidate Joe Lhota proposed to double the number of charter schools in the city if elected mayor, Williams said he was unimpressed.

“The UFT contract, to me, is much more important than the number of charter schools any mayoral candidate is pledging to open.”

 

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.”