high rolling

Also on the ballot: a divisive gambling proposal to fund schools

At left, state Senator Liz Krueger with New York State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long (credit: Andrew Goldston); At right, UFT President Michael Mulgrew with Assemblyman Keith Wright and Heather Briccetti, CEO of the New York State Business Council (in red).
At left, state Senator Liz Krueger with New York State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long (credit: Andrew Goldston); At right, UFT President Michael Mulgrew with Assemblyman Keith Wright and Heather Briccetti, CEO of the New York State Business Council (in red).

A gambling proposal up for public approval Tuesday is either a “godsend” for New York City schools, or a “bill of goods” filled with false promises. It just depends on whom you’re talking to.

The proposed amendment to the state constitution would allow the construction of up to seven Las Vegas-style casinos in New York State beyond those that already operate on American Indian reservations. Much of the tax revenue from the casinos would be funneled into city schools, which state budget officials have estimated could see as much as $94 million in annual revenue.

“This will be a godsend and gift for our children in our educational system,” Keith Wright, a state assemblyman and co-chair of the state’s Democratic party, said last week.

But others are lobbying against the proposal, cautioning that the promised dividends to schools might well be exaggerated.

The $94 million figure came from the State Budget Office, which based its estimate on the construction of four new casino resorts. It would represent a little more than 1 percent of the $8.5 billion in school aid that city schools are receiving from the state this year.

The ballot measure has pitted traditional allies against one another and lined up unlikely coalitions. Labor unions and business groups have joined Wright in support, saying the casinos, whose construction would be limited to upstate regions at first, can boost economic and job growth in parts of the state in decline. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and both New York City mayoral candidates are on board with the measure.

The United Federation of Teachers jumped on board too, giving $250,000 to a pro-casino group to raise awareness for the issue ahead of the vote.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew held a press conference at union headquarters last week, where he said the extra funding would be helpful at a time when it’s needed the most. Annual school aid increases, he said, have not kept pace with new requirements from the state to adopt Common Core standards and more complicated teacher evaluations.

“The schools need the revenue,” Mulgrew said. “The schools absolutely need the revenue.”

But some organized opposition exists. Not far away from the UFT event last Thursday, a group was at City Hall making their case for why the amendment should be voted down. They included anti-gambling conservative groups and liberal Democrats who oppose gambling on moral grounds; fear a rise in the influence of casino lobbying; and worry that loopholes that could allow lawmakers to slip out of some of the early promises.

“There will be no requirement that the money be spent on the education,” said State Sen. Liz Krueger, of Manhattan. “That could be changed tomorrow.”

Krueger said that she would have been more likely to support the amendment if it mandated that the gambling tax revenues went exclusively to education, as the rules associated with the New York State lottery mandate. She said she was also concerned that lawmakers would find ways to use the new gambling tax revenue to replace other state educating funding streams, rather than add to them, which is what critics say has happened with the lottery in recent years.

“It is very easy to do a bait and switch the way this whole thing has been set up,” Krueger said.

But Mulgrew said that he was confident that the new revenue would prevent any future reductions in school aid. “They can’t say we’re going to cut education with this additional revenue,” he said.

Krueger, who is a frequent ally of Mulgrew, said she wants more state money earmarked for education. She just doesn’t think the amendment on Tuesday’s ballot is the best way to make that happen.

“I just think that some people don’t understand that they’re being sold a bill of goods,” she said.

In New York City, polls show that voters generally support the amendment, but they say they wouldn’t want a casino developed in any of the five boroughs.

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.