like old times

Spitzer talks up Albany school funding record on campaign trail

Eliot Spitzer with state Senator Marty Dilan and supporters outside a Brooklyn school.
Eliot Spitzer with State Sen. Marty Dilan and supporters outside a Brooklyn school.

Correction appended

Eliot Spitzer is touting his education record during his time as governor in the race for New York City comptroller, pledging to use the same approach he took in Albany in order to scrutinize the city school system.

In what has become a closely watched race, due mainly to Spitzer’s late entrance, many aspects of Spitzer’s brief tenure as governor have been sharply scrutinized. His opponent in the Democratic primary, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, has focused on a few, including legislative gridlock, a politically charged police surveillance program, and the prostitution scandal that ended with his resignation after just 15 months in office.

But an area that Stringer’s campaign has stayed mum on so far is Spitzer’s record on education, which several funding advocates praised today. Though his time in Albany was short, they said Spitzer fought hard to convince the legislature to fulfill a school funding mandate for poorer districts to the fullest extent as part of a settlement that came out of a lengthy lawsuit called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

“Governor Eliot Spitzer was a clear champion on CFE,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which was formed to lobby and organize on behalf of the campaign.

When Spitzer entered office in 2007, the lawsuit, which sought to bring more money to school districts with many poor students, had stalled for more than a decade due to appeals from the state. Michael Rebell, a lead lawyer who handled the case, said Spitzer quickly settled the lawsuit, then struck a deal with the legislature to set aside more than $5 billion for New York City schools over five years, a larger sum than what the courts mandated.

The extra funding showed up in two years of state budgets while Spitzer was in office. It dissolved after the 2008 recession significantly curtailed spending and has not been been restored since. This year the state increased city funding by $364 million, down from $616 million in 2007.

“I have my differences with Eliot Spitzer about a number of issues and I’m not getting into about who I’m supporting for comptroller, but when it comes to education funding in 2007, he was as strong a supporter of New York City’s funding needs as any governor could be,” Rebell said. “He was terrific.”

It was praise that has been in short supply for Spitzer during his two-month candidacy. He’s received scant support from elected officials, unions, and advocacy organizations like the one that Easton runs.

Many groups had already endorsed Stringer, who lags behind Spitzer in polls. But Spitzer’s solicitation of prostitutes has been a major impediment in his efforts to attract support even from past allies.

Still, City Councilman Robert Jackson, a plaintiff on the CFE lawsuit, said he had no trouble acknowledging Spitzer’s role as an ally during the case.

“It’s the truth,” said Jackson, who endorsed Stringer and is running to succeed him as Manhattan borough president. “I’m not going to hide from the truth.”

At a press conference across the street from a Brooklyn school this afternoon, Spitzer brought up education funding often while discussing his priorities as a prospective comptroller. The comptroller is the fiscal steward for the city and does not control how schools are funded. But Spitzer said he’d use the position’s auditing authority to continue to work on education spending, specifically by scrutinizing budgets at schools in wealthy neighborhoods to determine if schools are funded equitably.

Another area within the Department of Education that Spitzer said he’d audit is how standardized testing has affected schools. The state requires that students take annual reading and math tests, but Spitzer said he would focus on what happens in city classrooms before the exams.
“What are the materials? Are we skewing and misdirecting our class activities for the test rather than using a broader curriculum?” said Spitzer, who was surrounded by a small group that included State Sen. Marty Dilan. “Those are the sorts of issues, pedagogical issues as well as mechanical issues, that we can absolutely audit.”

A spokeswoman for Stringer did not respond to a request for comments. But she pointed to budgetary uncertainties that surrounded education funding before and after Spitzer resigned in March 2008.

Spitzer’s budget proposal that year cut the city’s projected funding increase by $100 million, an announcement that drew criticism at the time.

Geri Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which had waged a 13-year legal battle to win more state money for city schools, said at the time that the budget would mean fewer teachers, larger classes and less money spent on programs such as extended school days and Saturday school.

“The governor and the legislature have made a long-term commitment to these kids,” Palast told the New York Times. “We have an obligation to get them to fulfill that commitment.”

Correction: A previous version misstated the 2013 school aid increase that New York City received. 

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.