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.”

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.