annals of transparency

De Blasio signs law requiring new school diversity reports

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill into law Tuesday that will require the city to release more detailed information every year about the diversity of its schools.

The law, known as the School Diversity Accountability Act, will require the city to release demographic data related to individual grade levels and programs within schools, including gifted and talented and dual-language programs. The law will also require the city to account for any steps it takes to advance diversity in schools and programs citywide.

“This is a step further in our efforts to ensure that our schools are as diverse as our city and people of all communities live, learn, work together,” de Blasio said.

The law, originally sponsored by Brooklyn Council member Brad Lander, came months after the education department reported familiar disparities in offers to gifted and talented programs and the city’s specialized high schools, and a widely publicized 2014 report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA said the city’s schools are among the most segregated in the nation.

The new annual reports will include what percentage of students within each grade or program at a city school receive special education services and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Elementary and middle schools must also provide percentages of students who are English language learners, reside in temporary housing, and are attending a school outside of their home district by individual grade.

The city will also be required to report the number of latecomer students enrolled at each high school outside of the traditional admissions process. Those “over-the-counter” students often pose extra challenges and have traditionally been clustered at low-performing high schools, and reporters have had to formally request data on their enrollment in the past.

The city will also have to provide demographic breakdowns of its pre-kindergarten programs by race, ethnicity, and gender. The diversity of the city’s pre-K programs, which have seen a rapid expansion under the de Blasio administration, has earned fresh scrutiny in recent weeks. In a May report, researcher Halley Potter said the city’s pre-K admissions policies do not encourage significant integration and recommended that the education department collect data to track and encourage diversity.

“It’s a really important first step,” Potter said of the transparency bill last month. “Particularly in schools in neighborhoods with shifting demographics, the schoolwide, overall racial and socioeconomic balance can look really different than one particular grade.”

The education department will also have to report any other criteria being used for high school admissions decisions, including waitlists and “principal discretion.” In 2013, the education department promised to increase monitoring of admissions practices after an audit by former Comptroller John Liu found some selective schools straying from selection criteria published in the high schools directory.

The education department’s first report is due to the Council by the end of the calendar year.

Early education

Tennessee lawmakers vote to leave pre-K alone this year

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

Ever since Tennessee started its public pre-kindergarten program in 2005, Rep. Bill Dunn has questioned whether it’s money well spent.

His skepticism seemed vindicated in 2015, when a landmark five-year study by Vanderbilt University found that children who participated in Tennessee’s program didn’t make sustainable academic gains. In fact, they fell behind their peers by third grade. 

The legislature responded to the study’s surprising results last year with a new law designed to strengthen Tennessee’s pre-K program.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Rep. Bill Dunn

This year, Dunn proposed allowing districts to spend their pre-K money elsewhere. But his bill was killed on Wednesday in the House by colleagues who said they want to give new changes to public pre-K more time to work.

“I’m shocked,” said Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, of the decision by the Instruction and Programs subcommittee. “This is coming across as anti pre-K, but it’s really anti-bad results.”

Dunn’s bill would have piloted a program to allow five districts to come up with other ways to spend their pre-K money — for instance,  making kindergarten classes the smaller. The Tennessee Department of Education would have to approve any change and monitor the impact on student achievement.

But lawmakers said they aren’t ready to meddle with early education while it’s in transition.

“I personally would like to see what comes from those changes … before we do anything else,” said Rep. John Forgety, a Republican from Athens.

The State Department of Education recently overhauled its application for local districts to receive pre-K money according to best practices identified by Vanderbilt researchers. Those changes are an effort to tie funding to quality.

The new applications, which seek state funding for next school year, are due to the state in April, and district officials have been attending trainings as part of the transition.

SCOTUS on IDEA

U.S. Supreme Court, in landmark decision, strengthens rights for students with disabilities

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.

Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.

The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.

While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.

In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.

“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:

“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program  must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’  We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”

The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.