Early Education

During hearing, de Blasio's pre-K gatekeepers scrutinize his plan

Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in Albany discussing Brooklyn hospitals. The duo played down tension around their competing visions for funding universal pre-kindergarten.

ALBANY — The gatekeepers who stand in the way of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top priority — overhauling the city’s pre-kindergarten services and lengthening the middle school day — got their most prominent chance yet today to publicly scrutinize, praise and denounce the details of his plan.

In more than two hours of testimony this morning, state lawmakers lobbed a range of questions about his proposal, which he wants to fund with a local income tax hike and begin implementing immediately. Just 20,000 city 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in full-day pre-K programs, and de Blasio believes the city can more than triple that number in less than two years.

Lawmakers wanted to know why de Blasio needed new taxes to pay for something that could be covered by the state, pointing to an alternative funding proposal that Gov. Andrew Cuomo floated last week. Several asked why charter schools have been absent from the proposal’s details, with a Bronx senator threatening to withhold his support over the issue.

And some fretted about de Blasio’s ambitious implementation schedule. New details of his plan, released this morning, estimate that the city is prepared to create or renovate enough space and hire enough new teachers to bring full-day pre-K programs to an additional 55,000 students between now and the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

“We’re a little gun shy up here when it comes to the rollout of educational things over the last couple of months and years,” said Michael Cusik, a Democratic Assemblyman from Staten Island, alluding to the state’s bumpy implementation of Common Core standards and new teacher evaluations. “So I think a lot of the questions are based on implementation of these plans that you put forward.”

De Blasio argued that any challenge standing in the way of his plan paled in comparison to the educational “crisis” facing New York City’s schools. As evidence, he repeatedly cited a New York Times editorial that included the long-reported data point that three-quarters of city students lack the skills necessary to take college-level classes after four years of high school. 

“We are in the midst of an inequality crisis,” de Blasio said, echoing the progressive theme that he campaigned on during in the mayoral race last year. (De Blasio did not comment on the main point of the Times editorial, which was about preserving Mayor Bloomberg’s school evaluation system.)

De Blasio’s inaugural venture to the joint legislative budget hearing was an unusual one. Typically, local government leaders and others use the annual hearings to make their respective cases for more money in the state budget.

But de Blasio delivered the opposite message to lawmakers, saying he didn’t need the state’s money to fulfill his pre-K plan. He only needs the vote of approval required any time a local municipality wants to raise local taxes. De Blasio’s tax hike would target city residents who earn over $500,000.

“We’re not asking Albany to raise the state income tax by a single penny to pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs in New York City,” said de Blasio, debunking what he called a “myth” that had proliferated in the debate over how to fund his plan. Cuomo has proposed a less expensive state-funded plan that he says would draw on existing funds.

Some lawmakers wholeheartedly endorsed de Blasio’s proposal. Staten Island Democratic Senator Diane Savino said Cuomo’s alternative funding plan would not begin to equal the costs of what the city says is needed to fulfill its expanded pre-K and after-school programs. She also noted that it was not unusual for the legislature to approve municipalities’ proposals for local tax hikes.

“It is not uncommon for local elected bodies to come to the legislature with a local request to establish a funding stream just for their locality,” said Savino, noting that the Senate was expected to pass five such measures in its session today.

But there was also plenty of skepticism about de Blasio’s proposal from both Democrats and Republicans, and from lawmakers both inside and outside of the city. While no one took issue with the idea of expanding access to pre-K, they critiqued de Blasio’s implementation plans.

“My concern simply revolved around maybe biting off more than we can chew right away,” said William Magnarelli, a Democratic Assemblyman from Syracuse.

There are “areas of government where I couldn’t agree with you more,” de Blasio responded. But he said his plan can handle an aggressive implementation schedule because it is based on “powerful existing models for pre-K and for after school.”

And de Blasio faced pushback around his omission of any mention of the role of charter schools in his plan.

“Your idea of pre-K is great, but it has to include charter schools,” said Sen. Ruben Diaz, Jr., a Democrat from the Bronx, adding that he’d side with Cuomo’s funding proposal, which includes funding access for charter schools. “That would be one of the things that will [help] me make up my mind on how to vote and which plan to support.”

Including charter schools in any pre-K expansion is a sentiment that other minority lawmakers said in interviews they agreed with, including Assembly member Karim Camara and Senator Kevin Parker, both of whom represent districts in Brooklyn.

An exception was State Sen. Bill Perkins, of Harlem, who said he hoped that any final plan would block charter schools from receiving state pre-K funds, as is currently the case. Perkins has been a consistent critic of charter schools for years.

De Blasio dodged questions about whether he supports a change in state law that would make it easier for charter schools to access pre-K funds. He repeated that he was open to the idea, but also said that some organizations, naming Harlem Children’s Zone in particular, already had models that effectively managed charter schools and pre-K programs as separate, but affiliated entities.

After the testimony, de Blasio sat next to Cuomo at a press conference about the grim finances of status of Brooklyn’s hospitals, during which they projected a united front. But questions quickly turned to their strategies for expanding pre-K programs.

“It’s about the money,” Cuomo said. “It’s about the money.”

De Blasio immediately responded, “It’s an ongoing dialogue. It’s an ongoing dialogue.”

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.