hail mary

Assembly members float alternative to tax credits for private schools

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie on the Assembly floor.

Lawmakers in the State Assembly say there is a way to offer more support for private and parochial schools without agreeing to generous tax credits for those able to make big-ticket donations.

Instead of reimbursing donors who support private-school scholarship funds for low-income students, the lawmakers said existing reimbursement programs within the state education department could be used to funnel more money to nonpublic schools. The idea would be coupled with a tax deduction for middle- and low-income families that spend up to $3,000 on education expenses for their children each year, and came up during closed-door meetings between Democrats in the Assembly as a counterproposal in contentious negotiations.

“It’s a compromise,” said David Weprin, an Assembly member from Queens.

The lawmakers mentioned the idea, which they cautioned may not yet be on the table among legislative leaders, as they prepared to file out of Albany on Friday. The legislative session was scheduled to end on Wednesday but has been extended until at least next Tuesday, and lawmakers have come to no resolution on a host of outstanding education issues — including mayoral control of city schools, charter-school growth, and revisions to an unpopular teacher-evaluation law — that have been preempted by more urgent negotiations over housing laws.

The most the legislature has been able to agree to so far has been an extension of rent regulations for long enough for lawmakers to go home for a couple of days.

On Friday, Assembly Democrats dropped a months-long call for stronger rent laws and introduced legislation that would simply renew for two years the regulations that expired earlier this week. The bill, first reported by the Daily News, also reintroduces the Assembly’s three-year renewal of mayoral control, conceding nothing to the Senate’s one-year proposal that includes perks for charter schools.

“The Assembly Democratic conference will not be held hostage by the Senate,” Assembly spokesman Michael Whyland told the Daily News. “These are important issues for millions of New York City residents and residents throughout the state.”

Negotiations among the state’s leaders will continue through the weekend, and the rest of the legislature will return Tuesday to resume their work. On Friday, Speaker Carl Heastie said that almost everything was still on the table, adding somewhat begrudgingly that even the prospect of allowing more charter schools to open in New York City was being discussed.

“For the most part, the Assembly conference is not big supporters of charter schools,” Heastie said in brief remarks to reporters. “Charters are something that Senate Republicans like to support. They never want them in their districts. I don’t get that one. But that’s something they may have requested.”

“As long as the clock hasn’t run out on the session, I guess a lot of things are on the table,” Heastie said.

When lawmakers return on Tuesday, there will be just a week left before mayoral control expires.

“We can’t let it lapse,” said Linda Rosenthal, an Assembly member who represents the Upper West Side.

“The fact is that the upstate senators — what is it to them to extend mayoral control? Why is that a bad thing?” Rosenthal said. “It’s clearly another issue they want to take the city hostage on.”

Some of Rosenthal’s Democratic colleagues, however, are more ambivalent — or simply opposed.

“You know, back in the days, when the oft-criticized community boards ran education, we had some wonderful districts,” said Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Assembly member and former teacher for nearly three decades at P.S. 160 in Co-op City. (Benedetto voted in favor of the Assembly’s three-year mayoral control extension.)

“Having school boards isn’t fool proof, but the community needs some say in how their children are being educated, as opposed to one person having control over billions of dollars,” said Latrice Walker, an Assembly member from East New York and Brownsville who was one of the few Democrats who voted against the Assembly’s mayoral control bill last month.

Lawmakers in the Assembly said they hoped to find some common ground next year on how to support private and parochial schools. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has aggressively pushed for a set of tax credits in a bid to help nonpublic schools, which he says would offer needed help to Catholic and other schools. Teachers unions and many lawmakers oppose the plan, which they see a way to direct taxpayer dollars away from public schools. They have also bristled at a tax policy that would provide a 75 percent reimbursement to donors who give up to $1 million, a scheme they see as a giveaway to the rich.

The compromise that the Assembly has floated would boost the amount provided to nonpublic schools through the state’s largest reimbursement program, called mandated services aid. The program, first established in 1974, and others like it reimburse schools for costs associated with reporting daily attendance, administering state tests, giving immunization shots and buying textbooks and technology. Last year, the city’s budget included $64.6 million for nonpublic schools, according to the Department of Education website.

But the programs have not been fully funded for much of the last decade and owes nonpublic schools an estimated $225 million in “delinquent reimbursements,” according to the New York State Catholic Conference last year.

Lawmakers said they preferred using an existing funding stream instead of establishing an entirely new one, as the tax credits would require.

“We’re already doing mandated services and these are resources that private schools have access to,” Walker said.

The state set aside more than $170 million in money to reimburse nonpublic schools this year, Assembly member Catherine Nolan said. Reimbursement money on top of that, the exact amount of which Weprin said was still a moving target, wouldn’t be earmarked to serve low-income families the way the tax credits are, but schools could use it for similar purposes.

“The schools would be in a better financial position which would enable them to potentially reduce tuition, potentially have more scholarship money for students,” Weprin said. “The money is fungible.”

Representatives for the governor’s office and the Senate did not respond to requests for comment.

Bob Bellafiore, a spokesman for the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, which has aggressively lobbied in support of the tax credits, criticized the alternative proposal because it would not include as much funding for needy families.

“For poor and middle-income parents, you need to have the same access to choice that wealthy people have,” Bellafiore said. “Throwing some peanuts to some schools is not going to do that.”

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.