Missing the Marc

Sternberg to exit education department for Walton Foundation

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Marc Sternberg, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of school closures, is leaving to join the Walton Family Foundation as its direction of K-12 initiatives.

Marc Sternberg, the Department of Education official who has spearheaded controversial school closures and co-locations since 2010, is leaving the city to oversee education philanthropy at the Walton Family Foundation.

Starting next month, senior deputy chancellor Sternberg will be Walton’s executive director of K-12 strategy. Walton’s education agenda focuses on promoting choice and competition, and includes creating charter schools, promoting school choice, and improving teacher quality. The foundation spent more than $158 million on education initiatives last year, and this year has made sizable gifts to Teach for America and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst nonprofit.

Sternberg’s departure comes as his division of the Department of Education has set in motion a bevy of plans to take effect after Mayor Bloomberg leaves office.

The department has asked the Panel for Educational Policy to sign off on dozens of new schools and space-sharing arrangements to begin in 2014 or beyond. But those plans could be in jeopardy regardless of the panel’s vote this year, as Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor, has said he would cancel any space planning that the department does between now and the end of the year that he deems negative for schools.

Sternberg’s level of involvement in those changes — which map closely to Walton’s priorities — over his final few weeks at the department remains unclear. A department spokeswoman said Sternberg had consulted with the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to ensure that his ties with Walton would not compromise planning that takes place now.

“Marc sought advice from the COIB and conformed his conduct to that advice so there is no conflict,” said spokeswoman Erin Hughes. She said Sternberg would not be part of discussions before the Panel for Educational Policy when the appointed body votes on the proposals next month.

More broadly, Sternberg’s portfolio at the department is directly in de Blasio’s line of fire. Sternberg oversaw opening and closing schools and was instrumental in identifying space for charter schools to expand in public school buildings. (After a state Supreme Court judge gave a light to a set of school closures in 2011, he invited colleagues at the department to celebrate at a happy hour.) In addition to pushing back against the city’s immediate space plans, de Blasio has said he would charge rent to charter schools if elected, which could make it difficult for many of them to continue operating inside city-owned buildings.

The city’s top two other deputy chancellors oversee initiatives that are more likely to continue under a new mayor. Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky supervises academics and school accountability, while David Weiner oversees teacher evaluations and labor negotiations.

Sternberg was promoted to senior deputy chancellor for strategy and policy just this April after serving as deputy chancellor for portfolio planning since 2010. He became a teacher through Teach For America, and before joining the department he started and was principal of the Bronx Lab School and spent a year working under U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Sternberg becomes the first deputy chancellor at the Department of Education to leave with the Bloomberg administration’s term nearing its close. Other top officials moved on earlier in Bloomberg’s third term, particularly during the rocky period after Joel Klein resigned as chancellor and was replaced briefly by media executive Cathie Black.

Sternberg’s last day at the department is Oct. 4, and he’ll start at Walton’s Washington, D.C. office on Oct. 28. Saskia Levy Thompson, who is currently a senior advisor to Chancellor Dennis Walcott, will take over for him at the Department of Education. Before joining the department’s central administration, Levy Thompson was an author of a 2010 research study that found benefits to the city’s small high schools. She began her career as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 110 in Manhattan.

“Our loss is the Walton Family Foundation’s gain and I am excited that Marc will continue his work around providing high quality school options for families across the country,” Walcott said in a statement.

This story has been corrected to reflect Saskia Levy Thompson’s current position at the Department of Education.

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

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.