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.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.