budget deal

Budget agreement will change tenure rules, task state with eval overhaul

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a press conference with Democratic colleagues.

Updated — A state budget agreement reached Sunday night will make teachers wait an extra year to become eligible for tenure, establishes a state-imposed model for turning around struggling schools, and increases education spending, according to lawmakers and news reports.

Full details of the agreement will not be available until Monday, officials said. But the announcement indicates that New York’s legislative leaders reached agreement on some thorny education issues before the Wednesday deadline for an on-time budget.

“With this agreement, we address intractable problems that have vexed our state for generations,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in statement.

The consensus came after lawmakers agreed to address many of the aggressive education policy changes Cuomo sought — including an overhaul of teacher evaluations — after or outside of the budget process. Other proposals, such as increasing the number of charter schools allowed to open in New York and renewing mayoral control of the city school system, were dropped from budget negotiations last week.

Some were quick to declare victory. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said most of the policies his union had opposed were not included in the agreement.

Here’s what is included in the deal.

Funding: Education spending will increase by about $1.4 billion, State Senator Dean Skelos said in a statement accompanying the governor’s announcement. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie put the total increase at $1.6 billion. Both are more than the maximum Cuomo had proposed, $1.1 billion, but significantly less than what the Board of Regents, some advocacy groups, and the teachers unions had sought.

It’s unclear how that money will be divvied up. Skelos said his statement that it would include “a dramatic reduction in the Gap Elimination Adjustment,” a cost-cutting program that has affected smaller and suburban school districts more severely than New York City. Cuomo had wanted to tie any funding increase to a full set of policy changes, many of which are not included in the agreement.

Teacher evaluations: The state education department will be tasked with overhauling teacher evaluations, Heastie told reporters. The decision to defer making changes and to tap the department for the job shows just how toxic the issue has become for lawmakers, since the legislature has criticized the department’s handling of various education policy issues for more than a year.

Under the new system, teachers who earn an “ineffective” rating two years in a row could be fired in 90 days unless they can provide evidence that challenges those ratings. Teachers rated “ineffective” three years in a row could be fired in 30 days if they could not prove that fraud played a role in their ratings.

How teachers earn those ratings would also change. The new system won’t dictate that student state test scores and observations count for specific percentages of a final score. (Currently, they count for up to 40 percent and 60 percent, respectively, and combine to form a final rating.) It would also allow several kinds of student assessments to be used.

Teacher who receive the lowest ratings on the student performance segment wouldn’t automatically earn an overall “ineffective” rating, as is the case under the current system. Now, they could also receive a slightly higher “developing” rating.

Cuomo had pushed for specific changes to teacher evaluations be included in the budget, including increasing the role of state test scores to half of a teacher’s overall rating. Last week, lawmakers had debated putting changes in the hands of the Board of Regents or a separate panel.

Teacher tenure: Tenure protections will not be available until after teachers have spent four years in the classroom, up from the current three-year requirement, Heastie told reporters. Teachers now would have to receive a rating of “effective” or “highly effective” in three of those four years in order to receive tenure, State of Politics reported.

Cuomo had sought to make the cutoff five years and tie eligibility to teacher evaluations, with a single low rating derailing a teacher’s progress toward eligibility.

Tenure rules have also been the subject of a lawsuit that is winding its way through the state court system. Parents are suing to overturn several state laws that determine tenure and termination rules, arguing they violate their children’s constitutional right to a quality education. It’s unclear if an overhaul of the termination law for tenured teachers is part of the budget agreement.

Struggling schools: Some version of a proposal to allow for the takeover of persistently low-performing schools is in the budget agreement, but the scope of that plan is not yet clear. Heastie told reporters that schools would have extra time to improve before the state gets authority to take them over.

Cuomo had proposed a model in which struggling schools would be turned over to a state-appointed “receiver,” which could include school-turnaround experts, other school districts, or charter school operators who would be able to get around collective bargaining agreements and city rules.

Mulgrew said in his statement that the budget agreement ensured “local oversight of struggling schools,” and he told his members on Sunday night that “the school chancellor, not the state, will appoint the receiver” and collective bargaining rights would be preserved.

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.