Fact check

Three takeaways from The Colbert Report's teacher-tenure talk

PHOTO: Via The Colbert Report
News-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss teacher tenure.

The debate over New York’s teacher tenure laws moved from the steps of City Hall to the studios of The Colbert Report on Thursday night. Campbell Brown appeared on Colbert’s show to discuss the recent lawsuit she’s spearheading that challenges those job protections for teachers.

Brown leads the Partnership for Educational Justice, a newly created organization that helped file the case, Wright vs. New York, in Albany. The suit charges that the job protections leave ineffective teachers in the classroom, and specifically challenges the “last in, first out” policy in which districts lay off teachers based on seniority, the too-short amount of time, plaintiffs feel, that administrators have to decide whether a teacher is effective enough to get tenure, and disciplinary statutes that make firing ineffective teachers a lengthy process.

Her appearance was a bit tense as Colbert pushed Brown on a few contentious issues, including her anti-teachers union stance and her funding sources.

Since a minutes-long interview can’t capture much nuance, here’s what you need to know:

1. The equal access argument
When Colbert asked whether the lawsuit is focused on ensuring equal access to education, Brown said yes. “That’s exactly right,” she said, mentioning the California decision that found teacher tenure unconstitutional earlier this summer.

However, while the California case argued that teacher tenure violated the state’s guarantee of equal educational opportunities, the two New York lawsuits do not. Instead, they claim that the job protections violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education.”

Many people have been speculating on the likelihood of a New York case succeeding, so differences between the two states’ cases are worth noting.

2. Getting rid of incompetent educators
The Wright case argues that it takes too much time and costs too much money to get rid of incompetent teachers and that, as a result, principals and districts often avoid that process.

“It takes, on average, 830 days to fire a teacher who has been found incompetent,” Brown said on the show.

However, that’s not the clearest information. According to the NYS School Boards Association, which is whom Brown and the lawsuit cite, it actually took 830 days for an incompetency hearing to reach a decision – not to end in a firing. It took an average of 520 days for all proceedings to reach a decision, including misconduct cases. Those figures come from 2004-2008 and they exclude New York City cases.

More updated data from the State Education Department show it’s been taking less time to resolve disciplinary cases recently. For fiscal year 2013, it took 177 days, on average, to reach a decision statewide, and 190 days in New York City.

3. Follow the money
Parents and teachers organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that receives funding from the state’s teachers union, showed up outside Colbert’s midtown studio to protest Brown’s appearance. The American Federation of Teachers created a Twitter hashtag, #questions4campbell, which started to pick up speed before the show and succeeded in lobbing a question into Colbert’s interview notes.

“Your organization, where’s its money come from?” Colbert said. “That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.”

Brown initially skirted the question by saying the law firm Kirkland & Ellis is taking the case pro bono.

“So the Partnership for Educational Justice has not raised any money so far?” Colbert asked.

“Yeah, we are raising money,” Brown said.

“And who’d you raise it from?”

“I’m not going to reveal who the donors are because the people who are out–.”

“I respect that because I’ve had a super PAC,” Colbert joked.

“But part of the reason is, the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate–.”

“Exercising their First Amendment rights,” Colbert said.

“Absolutely. But they’re also going to go after people who are funding this,” Brown said. “And I think this is a good cause and an important cause and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they become a target of the people who are outside earlier today, then I respect that.”

“Well, I respect… you,” Colbert said.

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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.