who's the boss?

The state names 62 NYC schools that must quickly improve or face takeover

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

The state named 62 low-performing New York City schools Thursday that the chancellor will be forced to hand over to an outside manager if she cannot swiftly revamp them.

The possible takeovers stem from a law proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which lays bare a debate between him and Mayor Bill de Blasio about the best way to prop up floundering schools. While de Blasio launched an expensive union-backed program last year that infuses struggling schools with extra resources and support, Cuomo’s plan would empower outside groups to take control of the schools, sidestep union rules, and potentially convert them into charter schools. The law, which passed in April, is a scaled back version of Cuomo’s plan.

Fifty of the schools the law targets are part of de Blasio’s turnaround program. However, the law expands Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s power to make certain changes at the schools, such as requiring all their teachers to reapply for their jobs. The city already forced the entire staffs at two troubled schools to re-interview for their jobs this year, and education department officials said Thursday that they would consider making the principals and teachers at the other state-identified struggling schools do the same.

[See the full list of schools facing takeover here.]

If those schools do not make quick gains under Fariña’s guidance, then she will have to cede control to an outside “receiver,” which could be a school-improvement expert or a nonprofit.

“In these schools, whole generations of students have been left behind,” said recently hired State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who is responsible for enacting the receivership law. “Superintendents have an obligation to act on conditions that have persisted for too long in these schools.”

Under pressure from the state teacher’s union, lawmakers modified Cuomo’s plan before approving it. The law gives districts at least a year to try to improve their schools before receivers are called in, lets them choose those receivers, and makes the receivers negotiate with the teachers unions before carrying out certain actions. It also comes with $75 million to fund improvements at the schools.

Still, the city and state unions have denounced the plan, saying that struggling schools need more resources and fewer harsh interventions. And de Blasio called it a “formula for disaster” earlier this year, saying the state should give the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program time to work.

In fact, New York may be better positioned under the new law than some cities. Many of the powers that receivers have under the law — such as the ability to bring new health and social services into the schools or extend their hours — are elements of the Renewal program. And the city could potentially expand the deal it already hashed out with the principals and teachers unions, which required the staffs at the two schools to re-interview for their jobs before joint city-union hiring committees.

“The schools designated are all schools that the DOE has already invested tremendous resources in and we are closely tracking all indicators of progress,” said city education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye. “There are no surprises.”

The 62 schools all rank among the bottom five percent in the state. Fifty-five of those schools have been in that category since 2012, and now have two years to hit improvement targets before a receiver would take control. The other seven have been bottom-ranked since 2006 and only have one year to post major gains. (One of those seven, P.S. 64 in the Bronx, is in the process of closing.)

The law gives Fariña the same authority as a receiver, which includes overhauling the schools’ curriculums, adjusting their budgets, and replacing their principals. Unlike other school chiefs across the state, Fariña already has the ability to do much of that because the mayor controls the city’s schools, not a school board.

If she chooses to make staffers reapply for their jobs, the law says she must form hiring panels that include her, two people she appoints, and two union appointees. The law also stipulates that no teachers who have been rated “ineffective” twice on their evaluations may be rehired, and at least half of a school’s senior teachers must be retained.

The city must create intervention plans for each of the schools that list goals around attendance, graduation rates, test scores, and discipline. The law gives the state education department until September to tell districts what those goals should be. If the schools fail to hit those targets, then Fariña must choose a receiver to oversee them.

The state has set aside $75 million for the 144 schools across New York that are affected by the new receivership law, but it was unclear Thursday how much of that would be directed to New York City. The city has budgeted more than $538 million over the next three years for its turnaround program. City officials said the 12 schools that could face receivership but are not in the Renewal program have still received extra funding and help from the city.

On Thursday, the head of a pro-charter school group said de Blasio should make the teachers at all 62 schools re-interview for their jobs. Otherwise, “he will be guilty of refusing to take easy steps to end this city’s failing schools crisis,” said Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.

The city teachers union chief said de Blasio’s program is best suited to revive the city’s struggling schools, not an outside overseer.

“Receivers have no magic wand,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “We have seen that over and over again, in New York State and across the country.”

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.