lone rangers

On education, mayoral hopefuls don't talk about their limitations

One mayoral candidate wants to ban testing. Another has pledged to close charter schools. And one wants to raise city income taxes to fund early childhood education.

Despite coming from different candidates, the pledges have one thing in common: They can’t be fulfilled from inside City Hall, despite mayoral control of the city’s schools.

The legislature and the governor’s office change tax laws and controls how school aid is spent. The Board of Regents and the State Education Department set policy and regulations around testing. And state’s charter authorizing bodies control which charter schools stay open and which close.

While the chief executive of New York City will always have clout in Albany and legislators might be inclined to go along with a newly elected mayor’s proposals, some of the candidates’ proposals would be hard sells. A review of candidates’ education proposals shows that they have been less than eager to talk about these limitations on the campaign trail, leaving questions about their ability to follow through on key elements of their education platforms.

“I think it would be more informative if various candidates would make it clearer when they say they’re going to do something to explain how they’re going to do it,” said Joseph Viteritti, a public policy professor at Hunter College.

Bill de Blasio’s prekindergarten tax

De Blasio’s tax plan would first have to get past his old boss, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, at a politically sensitive time for Cuomo.

It’s one of several hurdles that stand in the way of de Blasio’s proposal to raise the city’s income tax rate from 3.9 percent to 4.1 percent for families making over $500,000. The funding would go toward expanding prekindergarten and after-school services in an initiative that has been at the center of de Blasio’s progressive platform.

State law prohibits New York City from raising its local income tax rate without legislative action. De Blasio, who worked for Cuomo in the Clinton administration, says that as long as he can get the City Council to go along with the plan, Albany should follow.

“Albany, almost without exception, has agreed when a local executive and a local legislature calls for the right to self tax,” de Blasio said last month while discussing his plan. He cited as an example a two-year tax hike that Bloomberg sought and won in 2003, which raised rates for some residents who earned six-digit incomes.

But de Blasio could have a trickier time in Albany, whose elected officials, including Cuomo, face reelection in 2014.

Christine Quinn’s war on field testing

Quinn said she’d eliminate field testing during a major education speech back in January and has repeated the pledge throughout her campaign.

“Students do not have time to learn all the skills they need to succeed in college and beyond,” reads a January press release explaining Quinn’s rationale for banning the tests, which are administered to a sample of students as a way for test-makers to try out questions they might use in the future.

But the tests are administered by the State Education Department, and Commissioner John King has said field tests are an important strategy for ensuring that students take high-quality tests each year.

Update: Quinn ushered a resolution calling for their ban in May, specifically calling on the state to act.

In her campaign, she’s also acknowledged that she would need to work with King and the Regents if she is to follow through on her pledge. A press release from Quinn’s campaign last week said, “As mayor, Chris will continue her fight to push the State Department of Education and Pearson to eliminate these stand-alone field tests.”

Charter school oversight 

Bill Thompson didn’t say much about charter schools when he gave a big speech about education, except to discuss the policy that he would have the least control over as mayor.

“Hold charters to the same standards as public schools,” read his campaign’s talking points. “Schools should be centers for learning and innovation. And if any school – public or charter – isn’t meeting that standard, Thompson will take action.”

But the Department of Education doesn’t control whether city charter schools open or close. It did give about a third of the city’s charter sector permission to open, but changes to the state’s charter school law in 2010 stripped the city of that right. It can still make recommendations to the state’s charter authorizers about closing schools, but lately it hasn’t been getting its way.

As mayor, Thompson would have some recourse against some low-performing charter schools. He could kick out charter schools occupying city-owned buildings for free, a significant punishment in a pricey real estate market.

Hidary’s expansion of portfolio schools

Quinn has also called for expanding schools that allow students to complete portfolio reviews to graduate, rather than pass most Regents exams. But Jack Hidary, an independent, says he’d want to triple the current number of 26 city “portfolio schools” to at least more than 100.

The Board of Regents is responsible for granting waivers to the small number of high schools that do not require Regents exams — there are 28 statewide — and it has been reluctant to add to that number. Instead the state is investing more in its Regents exams, seeking to make them harder to pass as a way to measure if students are ready for college.

Mayoral control

All of the candidates say they still want to have control over the school system — with changes. Bill Thompson said he’d give up a seat on the Panel for Educational Policy, in the spirit of collaboration, while Comptroller John Liu has said he’d overhaul the way panel members are selected.

Both proposals require Albany legislation. The currently governance structure, first passed in 2002 and renewed in 2009, expires in 2015. That deadlines give the candidates an easier way to lobby for the changes they want if lawmakers choose to extend mayoral control. The teachers union doesn’t want to wait that long. It’s pushing for legislation to give communities control of where to locate schools and strip a majority of votes on the PEP from the mayor.

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.