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.

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.