who rules the schools

Election sets the stage for fresh debate over mayoral control

While school technology funding was the main education item on the ballot across the state on Tuesday, voters are also be setting up a debate over the control of New York City schools.

That’s because lawmakers have a looming task in the next legislative session: to revisit a 2002 law giving control of the city’s schools to its mayor. The law is set to expire at the end of June, meaning that lawmakers will have to agree on any changes by then or risk letting mayoral control lapse.

A drag-out fight over mayoral control doesn’t appear likely, given that most of its past opponents are now allies of City Hall. But the intensity of the debate will depend on which state lawmakers win at the ballot box on Tuesday.

“Who controls the Senate will be an important factor,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who supports the renewal of mayoral control.

Current law gives the mayor the power to appoint a schools chancellor, oversee the system’s $20 billion operating budget, and make decisions about how the city will try to lift student achievement across 1,600 district schools. The landmark legislation passed in 2002 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s election and amid a bipartisan wave of support for dismantling the city’s 32 local school boards. The law also created a citywide board, now called the Panel for Educational Policy, which votes on policy decisions.

The last time the mayoral control legislation expired, in 2009, lawmakers were unable to settle on revisions before the “sunset” deadline. They ultimately revised the law to limit the mayor’s power in a few relatively minor ways, such as by creating a public review process for when the city decides to close or move a school.

“I think that the opposition to mayoral control had to do, to a large extent, with groups that were battling reforms introduced by Mayor Bloomberg and his chancellor,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders that was an early advocate of mayoral control.

But that doesn’t mean tackling the school governance law will be a cakewalk for legislators.

The legislative session, which begins in January, will offer opportunities for advocates to air their grievances about how schools in New York City are managed. Last year, de Blasio clashed with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state senators over education, which led to an erosion of the mayor’s power when it comes to finding space for new and expanding charter schools.

Charter school advocates have spent $4 million supporting Senate candidates who could tip the balance for Republicans, according to Capital New York, and their top legislative priority will be to increase their numbers. State law permits 256 charter schools to open in the city, but only 28 charters remain unclaimed. Advocates are hoping to raise or eliminate that cap next year.

Complicating matters is that support for mayoral control in New York City doesn’t split neatly along partisan lines. In 2009, charter school backers, now de Blasio’s critics, were mayoral control’s most vocal supporters. Senate Democrats, now de Blasio’s allies, for a time stood in the way of a deal to renew mayoral control.

On this issue, some the fiercest critics of de Blasio’s education policy are finding themselves on his side.

“Mayoral control gives the district a fighting chance by wresting governance away from special interests, but it’s up to the mayor in power to lead the way forward for kids,” said StudentsFirstNY’s Jenny Sedlis.

And in a sign of remaining tensions, a number of de Blasio allies want a school structure that would wrest some control from City Hall.

Even some of de Blasio’s own PEP members say they want to see changes. Norm Fruchter, an education policy analyst and mayoral appointee to the PEP, said parents should be given some authority to approve school co-locations or closures that the city is proposing in their district.

Though de Blasio has made efforts to involve parents, “I think where the law is wrong is it eclipses any form of democratic decision-making at the local and neighborhood level,” Fruchter said.

Diane Ravitch, another supporter of de Blasio’s, said she wants to see a model in which the PEP, not the mayor, is the chancellor’s boss and the mayor can only select panel members who have been recommended by another independent body.

“The key issue is who appoints the chancellor and who can fire him or her,” Ravitch said.

As the issue inches into the spotlight, a remaining question is how outspoken de Blasio will be in support of mayoral control. As a city councilman, de Blasio praised the role that community school boards played in elevating the voice of parents before mayoral control. But as a candidate for mayor, he made it clear he didn’t want to see the mayor’s powers diluted and said he would only support tweaks to the law.

De Blasio hasn’t spoken publicly about the issue since taking office, and his office didn’t respond to questions about the city’s legislative priorities for renewing mayoral control.

But when the issue comes to the fore, there are signs that the administration will be ready. A top lobbyist for renewing mayoral control five years ago, Peter Hatch, is now a senior policy advisor to Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris.

De Blasio will have to grapple with Democratic colleagues in the legislature. Assemblyman David Weprin of Queens is sponsoring a bill to strip the mayor of his power to appoint the schools chancellor and take away its supermajority on the Panel for Educational Policy. (The mayor appoints eight of 13 of the PEP members under the current structure; Weprin’s legislation would cut that number in half and require more appointees to be public-school parents.)

“It’s an institutional thing,” explained Weprin. “I don’t think you can do legislation based on one particular mayor.”

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.