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. 

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.