system shakeup

City Council quizzes DOE on details of Fariña’s system restructuring

At the City Council’s education hearing on Thursday afternoon, council members attempted to understand the Department of Education’s new school-support structure and tease out its implications for struggling schools, principals, and parents.

The new system, announced by Chancellor Carmen Fariña last January, abolished the city’s 55 support “networks” and consolidated them into seven borough-based support centers. Fariña also gave superintendents more power to oversee schools and new staffers to help them.

The city contends that it took a confusing system established under the Bloomberg administration and replaced it with a clearer chain of command. But plenty of questions remain about how the system, which went into effect this summer, will work in practice.

Council members grilled department officials about the relationship between local superintendents and the new borough centers, whether schools not in the city’s turnaround program will receive extra support, and where principals can turn if they are not receiving the help they need.

Many of the questions asked asked by committee members were first posed in a Chalkbeat story in January. Here is how the city responded:

What is the relationship between the district superintendents and borough centers?

Council member Inez Barron wanted to know whether superintendents or the directors of the new borough centers have the final word on decisions.

City officials responded that the two offices are on equal footing, though they handle different issues and are different sizes. Each superintendent’s office has six or seven staffers, give or take, who handle specific needs like the schools in the city’s “Renewal” program, family engagement, and principal leadership. Borough centers are much larger and are meant to provide ongoing help with instruction, operations, and serving special-needs students and English language learners.

“The relationship is that they need to collaborate,” said Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson. “There’s not a hierarchy.”

Barron asked what happens if the two offices disagree. Gibson said there is a protocol for handling disagreements, but she hopes her staff will not have to moderate battles between borough centers and superintendents.

What if a high-needs school is not a Renewal school?

It was unclear to council members whether the department’s restructuring provides support for schools that are underperforming, but have not been labeled as struggling by the state or identified as Renewal schools, which which receive additional funding but face a strict timeline to improve.

“I have significant concerns as to whether the resources promised to struggling schools will actually reach the struggling schools in my district,” said Deborah Rose, a council member from Staten Island.

Gibson responded that there is one staff member in each superintendent’s office designated to help Renewal schools. These staff members, she said, should also be offering support to those schools on the verge of becoming Renewal schools.

Where can principals turn if they are not getting the support they need?

Under the old network system, there was an element of competition among the support networks. If principals were not pleased with their support, they could turn to one of the other networks if it was not already overburdened.

Council member Benjamin Kallos noted that under the new system, most schools don’t have a choice about who to turn to for help. He asked officials how they planned to handle principals who felt they are not getting what they need.

Officials responded that they expected the collaboration encouraged by the new system to work for schools.

“We’re all held accountable for improving results,” said Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, who helped design the new system. “The idea is that, over time, all schools can improve.”

Kallos also wondered what happens when principals feel uncomfortable going to their superintendent for help with a problem, since the superintendents are also their supervisors. Deputy Chancellor Gibson said that, as she envisions it, a superintendent should know that a principal needs help before they even ask.

How do parents fit in?

Under the new structure, two of the staffers in each superintendent’s office are designated “family engagement officers.” Department officials stressed the chancellor’s belief in getting parents involved in schools, and noted that she regularly appears at community education council meetings.

Some of the council members wondered whether the family engagement officers will be an effective enough avenue for parental involvement, suggesting that CECs, the elected bodies of local parents that currently have few official responsibilities, should be granted new powers.

“They should be a part of the flowchart,” Councilman Alan Maisel said.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

Politics & Policy

Indiana ranked no. 1 for charter-friendly environment by national advocacy group

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A national group that pushes for charter schools to operate freely says Indiana is doing almost everything right.

But the group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dinged Indy’s lack of regulation for online charter schools in its newest report ranking states on charter school regulation. A recent Chalkbeat series documented the persistently low test scores at the schools — which educate more than 11,442 students.

The nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pushes for greater funding and flexibility for charter schools across the nation.

Its report highlights Indiana because the state does not have cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Multiple organizations also have the authority to authorize schools (including private universities and state organizations). And Indiana charter schools have significant autonomy from the strictures of district unions and many of the state regulations that cover traditional districts. But they can be closed for persistently low test scores.

Indiana has a large ecosystem of charter schools that serve more than 43,000 students — exceeding any district in the state. It’s one piece of a statewide embrace of school choice that features many of the programs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump support — including one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, open enrollment across district boundaries, and district-run choice programs.