free response

Tisch to Cuomo: Tougher teacher tenure requirements, faster dismissal process should be on the table

The state’s top education officials want to lengthen the probationary period for new teachers, overhaul the way teachers are terminated, and give the state more power over teacher evaluations.

They also said the state should have more authority over low-performing school districts, “arbitrary barriers” preventing charter schools from opening should be eliminated, and mayoral control in New York City should be renewed.

Those are among about two dozen positions from Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and soon-to-be acting Education Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin laid out in a 20-page letter sent on Thursday to Jim Malatras, the state director of operations for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The letter offers the first comprehensive look at what the Board of Regents and State Education Department are willing to support as Cuomo prepares to push for aggressive changes to the way teachers are hired, fired, and evaluated.

The letter was solicited by Malatras earlier this month in a letter that challenged Tisch and Berlin’s predecessor, John King, to take a stand on a series of thorny education-policy debates that Cuomo said he wants addressed as his second term gets underway.

Many of the other proposals and positions aren’t new, Tisch noted in an interview. Others were unsolicited, such as an increase in funding for underserved students, boosting school diversity and passing the DREAM Act.

But the letter’s contents stuck out because of the areas that Tisch and Berlin wade into that the State Education Department and Regents rarely speak up about, in part because they have limited power to change them.

“The questions and concerns outlined in the letter relate to issues of State Law, which are under the direct control of the State Legislature and the Governor, not the Department or the Board of Regents,” they write.

New York’s tenure review process is one example. Tisch and Berlin say one way to strengthen it is to change the law so that new teachers are required to work for five years, not three, before they are eligible for the added job protection.

Another is the due process law for teachers facing termination, which critics say make it too hard to remove incompetent teachers. Tisch and Berlin propose that lawmakers should get rid of the independent contractors who oversee the proceedings and replace them with state employees to speed up the process, which takes an average of six months.

Tisch’s letter was sent on the eve of Cuomo’s second inauguration ceremony and just days before he is to deliver a State of the State address. The governor has signaled his second term will feature a far more aggressive education agenda than he pursued when he came into office in 2011.

Recently, he vowed to take on what he has called the “monopoly of the education bureaucracy,” and said that the state should allow more charter schools to open and require tougher teacher evaluations. Malatras’ letter to Tisch and King earlier this month suggested that the governor will want to go even further.

Cuomo has also expressed frustration over his limited power when it comes to education policy. He has often criticized the Board of Regents, a 17-member volunteer board that appoints the commissioner and controls policy, for its closeness to the legislators who appoint them.

Cuomo is not the first governor to gripe about his limited power over education decisions. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, blamed the Regents for high dropout rates, and George Pataki repeatedly proposed abolishing the Board of Regents during his 12 years in office.

Tisch said she didn’t think any changes should be made to the way Regents are appointed. She also said the New York City mayor should remain in charge of schools, but that other cities considering the model should make the decision on their own.

It’s unclear which parts, if any, Cuomo will highlight in next week’s speech. But he has recently welcomed fights with the teachers unions. At roughly the same time that the State Education Department released the letter to reporters, New York State United Teachers were protesting the outside the governor’s mansion, where Cuomo was hosting a New Year’s Eve event.

Neither Malatras or Cuomo immediately responded to the letter’s contents, but StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group aligned with the governor, offered faint praise for some of the proposals, calling them “useful ideas.” It also drew a quick rebuke from United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who called it a “wish list of ideas that won’t help kids.”

Tisch also said that the letter is not meant to represent the positions of the entire Board of Regents, a sign that it was not uniformly embraced.

“I was asked a set of very direct questions,” Tisch said when asked if other Regents weighed in on the letter. “The letter was directed to me” and John King, whose last day as commissioner is today.

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.