what to know

Taking the same road to Albany, education lobbying events on divergent paths

The state’s education-policy debates will reach a crescendo in Albany today.

If you believe organizers of two large events planned on Wednesday, nearly 10,000 teachers, parents, students and advocates will converge on the state capital hoping to influence lawmakers before they get serious about negotiating the upcoming year’s budget. They’re lobbying with the same goal in mind — to push policies that will improve public education — but what they’re asking for couldn’t look more different.

Most of that crowd, about 8,000 people, will attend an outdoor rally organized by the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. Featuring a psychedelic soul singer and an all-time great basketball star, the rally’s message will be the city’s entire schools system is in need of dramatic reform. Meanwhile, a smaller and equally passionate group of teachers and union leaders will be inside, working to convince lawmakers that the real problem is a multi-billion dollar funding deficit crippling low-income schools.

Here are four things to know about Wednesday’s festivities.

1. The dueling efforts offer a comparison in political might.

Only a few years ago, the city teachers union was considered New York’s preeminent powerhouse in Albany when it came to political lobbying. The charter school sector’s lobbying efforts, meanwhile, were comparably understated and less influential.

Charter schools didn’t have much to complain about under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But in response to the changing electoral tides, a constellation of charter school operators, well-heeled board members, and advocates organized into two groups, Families for Excellent Schools and StudentsFirstNY, and turned their attention to Albany.

It wasn’t clear how much ground they had gained until last year’s rally, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s most powerful Democrat, appeared and publicly embraced their movement. Within weeks, charter schools received long-coveted access to taxpayer-funded facilities. More recently,  the union lost its top ally in the legislature, former Speaker Sheldon Silver, and his replacement, Carl Heastie, is still untested.

Now, both sides are in Albany on the same day, but it’s the union appears to be in a weaker position.

2. Both sides have plenty at stake.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education-packed budget proposal would toughen teacher tenure rules and increase the state’s role in evaluations. He wants to raise the state’s charter school cap by 100 schools, put $100 million toward a tax credit that would create private school seats, and establish a state-takeover model that could affect teachers working in more than 90 of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

The charter school advocacy groups support most of his agenda, but they’re particularly focused on getting across the point that too many schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, are failing. They’re particularly excited about Cuomo’s plan for struggling schools, which would give the state the option to give them over to outside groups, including charter school organizations.

But charter schools aren’t uniformly thrilled with Cuomo’s proposals. He wants to require all charter schools to set aside seats in their admissions lotteries specifically for low-income students, and he is proposing only a modest increase in per-pupil funding — $75 — in a year when district schools are likely to see a bigger spike. Plus, 68 charter schools in private space remain ineligible for facilities funding, even though new or expanding schools do have access to free space or rent subsidies.

The teachers union sees so many problems with Cuomo’s agenda that they have decided not to focus on any one of his proposals. Instead, they’ve sought to portray the entire plan as hugely damaging to schools, encouraging teachers to make Cuomo himself the target of their advocacy efforts on social media and at public forums.

But the union has its own substantive requests, the first of which is to increase the amount of money allotted to low-income districts by $2.2 billion statewide. The union is also asking lawmakers to eliminate a set of property tax breaks for New York City condominiums and co-ops that would yield $900 million to hire teachers and lower class sizes.

Who gets what won’t be clear for at least another four weeks, when lawmakers must approve a budget.

3. The spectacle will include a Grammy nominee, a superstar athlete, and social media blasts.

Both the teachers union and charter-school groups are trying out a range of strategies in order to be seen and heard on Wednesday.

Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest female basketball players of all time, is speaking at the Families for Excellent Schools rally, and six-time Grammy nominee Janelle Monáe will perform afterwards. State lawmakers are will also speak, though organizers would not reveal the lineup on Tuesday.

The union’s lobbying day will be less star-studded, but include plenty of access to top state lawmakers. UFT President Michael Mulgrew is planning to meet with the state’s education committee chairs Catherine Nolan, an Assembly Democrat, and John Flanagan, a Senate Republican.

And though the union won’t be able to compete with the sheer size of the Families for Excellent Schools rally, it’s trying to make up for it online. More than 1,400 people have signed up to send a pre-programmed message on Twitter or Facebook opposing Cuomo’s education proposals. Staten Island teachers will send out their messages at 7 a.m., followed by Brooklyn teachers at 10 a.m. and Queens, Bronx, and Manhattan teachers at two-hour intervals until at 4 p.m.

4. It will be a show of unity for the sometimes-divided charter school sector.

The city’s growing group of charter school leaders have divergent views on issues like enrollment and the mission of their sector, and disagreements have typically divided Success Academy and other charter management organizations from smaller networks and independent schools.

But charter schools that have distanced themselves from Success Academy-backed political rallies in the past say they support this one. That includes all 18 schools that publicly opted out of last year’s rally and sided with Mayor Bill de Blasio during a space-sharing spat with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

It doesn’t mean that charter school leaders all see eye-to-eye. But the de Blasio administration’s tepid embrace of charter schools, and the City Council’s outright opposition, have had a unifying effect, many said.

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter School, said she’s also been turned off by the de Blasio administration’s unwillingness to work with the members of her group, the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, despite their overtures over the past year.

“We had hoped to get more out of our dialogue with the city than we’ve gotten to date,” Gauthier said. “We’re about good schools. We’re supporting this rally because we think that’s what this rally is about.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.