final agreement

State leaders agree to deal extending mayoral control by one year; adds NYC charters

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed for a broad overhaul of state education policy last year.

State lawmakers have agreed to a deal that would extend mayoral control of city schools by just one year and would allow more charter schools to open in New York City.

The one-year extension of mayoral control is a significant blow to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had requested a permanent, and then a three-year, extension of the law, arguing that it would provide needed stability as he continued his efforts to improve the city’s schools.

The one-year extension is the “best thing to do at this point,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as he announced the framework of the deal Tuesday alongside Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

The deal comes one week before the mayoral control legislation would have expired, allowing the city to avoid the logistical headaches that would have followed if the legislation had been allowed to lapse, as it was in 2009. But the package of education changes marks another chapter in what has been a series of sobering experiences for de Blasio negotiating with Cuomo and the state legislature.

Last year, de Blasio won funding for his top education initiatives, including pre-kindergarten expansion, but was then hit with a costly new law requiring the city to provide space or rent help for charter schools after he signaled interest in restricting their access to public school buildings. This year, the legislature also passed a new teacher-evaluation law that both de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have criticized, and Cuomo repeatedly clashed with the mayor over rent regulations and other issues.

The deal would also increase the number of additional charter schools that could open in New York City from 25 to 50. Of the 25 new charters, 22 are coming from schools that were authorized but never opened or that have closed, which under current law still count against the cap. New York City, where there is more demand for charter schools than the rest of the state, will also have three charters moved from the statewide pool of charters to its own.

The deal would also remove the specific numbers of charters assigned to both of the state’s authorizers. That would allow more city charter school applicants to apply through the State University of New York — a big deal for the larger charter school networks, whose preferred authorizer is SUNY. Before the change, just one more charter school authorized by SUNY could have opened in New York City, but the change would mean as many as 50 now could.

The state leaders also announced an infusion of about $250 million for nonpublic schools, though the much-debated education tax credit did not make it into the final deal. Cuomo said that funding — $100 million more than the education tax credit would have funneled to nonpublic schools — was necessary to help private and parochial schools struggling to stay afloat.

“If we allow those schools to continue to close and those students start moving over to the public school system, you will place an impossible burden on the public school system,” he said.

The deal, which must still be approved by the State Senate and Assembly, pushes the expiration of mayoral control to June 30, 2016. That means de Blasio is likely to spent part of the next year continuing to lobby for a policy he has spent months trying to portray as a settled, nonpartisan matter, lining up support from less-traditional allies like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and coalitions of business leaders.

City teachers union leader Michael Mulgrew, business leaders, and charter-school advocates all found things to praise in the deal, which included concessions for all of those groups.

The unions touted the elimination of a “gag order” that had prohibited teachers from speaking about the state standardized English and math tests. State education officials had prohibited teachers and principals from discussing the tests’ contents because they sometimes had to use the same questions from one year to the next. Another part of the agreement, union officials said, requires that State Education Department release more test questions. (The state released about half of the test questions from the 2014 exams.)

“We started this session with the Governor attacking teachers and public education,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “We have ended up with no education tax credit and no raise in the charter cap, with only four charters reassigned to the five boroughs.”

“The business community is relieved that the end-of-session compromise reflects an undiluted extension of mayoral control of the New York City schools,” said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders that advocated for a permanent extension of mayoral control.

CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.