classroom politics

Cuomo touts charter schools in surprise rally appearance, clouding de Blasio's pre-K lobby day

Crowds at dueling education rallies earlier this year in Albany, two of the many expenses that lobbying groups had in an unusually busy legislative session.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo repeatedly pledged to “save charter schools” in fiery remarks at a large pro-charter rally staged on the steps of the State Capitol building on Tuesday.

Cuomo took the podium a mere minutes after Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped away from center stage at his own event nearby, a rally to push Cuomo and other legislative leaders to approve of his proposed city income tax to fund expanded pre-kindergarten and after school programs. The governor’s appearance also stoked simmering criticism that the charter rally had been organized as little more than a distraction designed to undermine lobbying for the tax, which Cuomo has repeatedly said he opposes.

“We are here to day to tell you that we stand with you,” Cuomo said, whose appearance was not announced until about 90 minutes before he spoke. “You are not alone. We will save charter schools.”

The remarks were part of the latest round of a political tango playing out between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio on key education issues this year. Already at odds over how to fund an expansion of prekindergarten programs, their ideologies clashed again last week after de Blasio nixed building space plans for three Success Academy charter schools.

Cuomo stated his clearest support yet for the state’s more than 200 charter schools, pledging to back any efforts to protect charters from being required to take money from their per-pupil budgets to pay for rent and other facilities costs. 

“I am committed to ensuring charter schools have the financial capacity to physical space and the government’s support to thrive and to grow,” he said.

Well-heeled backers of the charter sector have increasingly thrown their financial support behind Cuomo, who they have seen as their most powerful ally now that Michael Bloomberg has left office. Cuomo’s reelection bid has received nearly $800,000 from charter school board members and funders, much of which has come in the last year. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz is among those who has given generously.

Last week, de Blasio referred to the charter school rally as a “sideshow“. Several New York City charter schools opted to sit out of the rally because they believed it would hurt their standing with the new administration.

De Blasio’s supporters echoed some of that criticism on Tuesday. Senator Liz Krueger said she didn’t believe that facilities funding for charter schools were a serious part of budget negotiations and likened the charter rally to one-half of a “dueling banjos” routine. 

“If you want to try to decrease attention to one issue,” Krueger said, “You throw another issue out there.”

Krueger was among several city and state lawmakers who attended and spoke at the pre-K rally, which was held at the Washington Armory. Around 1,000 people attended the event, although organizer estimates were higher. Many of the attendees were parents and grandparents who were members of some of the labor unions supporting de Blasio’s pre-K campaign.

Alluding to the competing education-related events taking place simultaneously, Speaker Sheldon Silver said that the focus should stay on pre-K.

“The boldness, the energy, and the compassion that this mayor has brought to the table is what makes this, up front, the story of the day,” Silver said.

While Silver and other officials said they supported de Blasio’s tax in their speeches, some of their left statements left open some notable wiggle room for how expanded pre-K could ultimately be funded. Cuomo has said he wants the state to pay the way for full-day pre-kindergarten programs, though his annual spending plan for the expansion calls for far less than the $340 million that would be collected for pre-K in de Blasio’s tax.

“I don’t care about the political baseball, or inside baseball, being played here,” Silver said. “I don’t care who takes credit when we win this fight for full-day pre-K.”

Cuomo’s four-minute remarks at the charter rally took shots at the current public education system, saying it is treated more like an government “industry” that supports special interests.

Organizers said more 11,000 people from more than 100 school attended the charter rally, which was filled with parents and students dressed in yellow shirts reading “#CHARTERSWORK” and “ALBANY: SAVE OUR SCHOOLS”. Many of the parents traveled with students from one of the 22 Success Academy Charter Schools that was closed for the day.

The decision to close schools for the day has been a controversial one with critics accusing Success CEO Eva Moskowitz of using her students as political pawns. But Success parents at the rally who traveled to Albany said that they were fine with the decision. 

“It’s a field trip of gigantic proportion,” said Gregory Staine-Pyne, whose second grade son attends Success Academy 3 in Harlem. “I’m for it one hundred and ten percent.”

Staine-Pyne said that students took math quizzes on their bus rides up. “We also had discussions about what we’re doing up here, why we’re on that bus,” he added.

Phyllis Duaston-Overton said she had “no problem” with taking her two children, a kindergartner and a seventh grader, out of their respective Success schools.

“This is the only way we could fight for our schools because they give us a good education,” said Duaston-Overton.

Cuomo and de Blasio were finally able to coordinate their schedules in the afternoon after both rallies ended when they met for about two hours. De Blasio reportedly called the meeting “productive.”

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.