looking for ideas

Cuomo seeks King’s ‘best advice’ on crafting aggressive education agenda

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Commissioner John King and Chancellor Merryl Tisch at this month's Board of Regents meeting. Elizabeth Berlin, right, will take over as interim commissioner at the end of the month.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is crafting an aggressive education agenda for his second term, and he’s asking outgoing Education Commissioner John King for his “best advice” about how to do it.

In a three-page letter to sent to King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Thursday, Jim Malatras, an aide to the governor, writes that Cuomo plans to “pursue an aggressive legislative package to improve public education.” Malatras then asks them to offer their own ideas about a variety of education issues, including how to change teacher evaluations, what should be done about the state’s charter-school cap, and what to do about New York City’s absent teacher reserve pool.

“How is the current teacher evaluation system credible when only one percent of teachers are rated ineffective?” Malatras asks. “How would you address the problem of removing poor-performing educators when the current 3020-a process makes it virtually impossible to do so?”

The scope of Malatras’ letter suggests that Cuomo wants to get involved in a much broader set of education policy debates than ever before. It also puts pressure on Tisch and the education department to produce specific policy suggestions as a leadership vacuum is emerging there, with King preparing to leave for the federal education department at the end of the month.

Cuomo has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the current state of the education system — saying recently that the newest teacher evaluation results do not “reflect reality” — though he has never been shy about his disdain for what he has termed the “monopoly of the education bureaucracy.” He has also often expressed frustration over the Board of Regents, a 17-member volunteer board that appoints the commissioner and controls policy.

In his first term, Cuomo has occasionally subverted the state’s governance structure by diverting funds or threatening to pull aid from districts to support his priorities.

But Malatras indicates that even more issues are on the table in the months ahead. He wants to know if King and Tisch believe teachers should be required to spend more time in the classroom before being eligible for tenure, for example, and wades into the debate over why the city pays the salaries of thousands of excessed teachers.

The scrutiny of teacher-protection laws also suggests that Cuomo is ready to take up an issue that he avoided during his first term. Cuomo declined to back a legislative effort in 2011 to end the requirement that seniority be the sole factor in layoff decisions.

The letter also ratchets up pressure on Tisch as she oversees the search for a new education commissioner. It asks if there is a better way to select the Regents, whose members are currently appointed by the legislature, and if there should be more transparency around the commissioner-search process.

In response, Tisch said she looked forward to responding to Malatras’ letter. She has defended the Regents’ governance structure and the hiring process for the next commissioner in an interview last week.

“I leave the politics to the legislature and the governor,” Tisch told Chalkbeat last week. “We have our own sphere. I think we stick to it and we do a pretty good job.”

Tisch also said that a secret search for the commissioner is necessary because many candidates are afraid to jeopardize their current jobs by applying publicly.

One potential change not broached in the letter is increasing funding for low-income districts, whose students receive less state funding than districts with higher-income students do. Critics say Cuomo has ignored the issue in favor an agenda backed by political donors who want to undermine public education.

“This letter comes right out of the playbook of the hedge funders for whom education ‘reform’ has become a pet cause and who poured money into the Cuomo re-election campaign,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said.


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.