phase two

New York’s opt-out movement aims to influence policy, not just parents. Here’s how

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

After making a splash last year, leaders of New York’s opt-out movement want their campaign to be more than a short-lived protest — and they’re taking bold steps to sustain its impact.

Last year, one in five students refused state tests amid widespread criticism of the state’s testing program. Now, the group leading that charge is endorsing candidates to serve on New York’s education policy-making body and has suggested changes to its bylaws — steps that are virtually unprecedented for outside groups.

The moves show that opt-out leaders are emboldened by their ability to mobilize parents and plan to leverage that momentum to gain a lasting foothold in state education policy.

“We’re not looking for someone to just be a dissenter,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, about the opt-out advocacy group’s desired additions to the Board of Regents. “We want someone who’s going to bring solutions and make sure they’re going to include stakeholders.”

The opt-out movement’s efforts to influence the Board of Regents have raised eyebrows. Some wonder whether a group founded expressly to encourage parents to skip legally mandated state tests should have a say in statewide policy.

And others say it’s just weird for the movement to assert itself in the selection of members for a body designed to remain insulated from politics. Regents are selected by the legislature but then serve five-year terms.

“It does strike me as unusual,” said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant, about the movement’s decision to endorse Regents. “It would be as if the anti-frackers decided to interview candidates for the [Department of Environmental Conservation] commission.”

Opt-out leaders reject the criticism, arguing that since the Board of Regents represents the public, members of the public should have a say.

“We’re the people,” Rudley said. “We’re just parents and educators and volunteers.”

If successful, NYSAPE’s intervention could alter the direction of state education policy. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar will step down in March, paving the way for two new Regents to join the board and two new members to lead it.

Under Tisch, the board supported policies that included adopting the Common Core standards and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The opt-out movement emerged as a response to the state’s shift to the Common Core, which critics said resulted in excessive and age-inappropriate tests, and continued controversy over the use of those scores to judge teacher performance. Leaders see the current moment as an opportunity to put the board on a new path.

They have been vetting prospective candidates for a while. Twenty-two of about 50 prospective Regents went through an exhaustive process to earn an endorsement from NYSAPE. Each submitted a résumé, filled out a detailed survey, and sat for a lengthy interview.

The organization also recruited some of the current candidates. David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center who has criticized the board’s recent policy agenda, said he fielded an email from opt-out organizers a couple of months ago asking if he planned to apply for a spot on the board. Though he said they did not explicitly ask him to apply, after he read the email, Bloomfield mulled over the choice and submitted an application.

NYSAPE has also endorsed Regents for chancellor and vice chancellor and suggested that the board choose its chancellor in April, though the vote traditionally takes place in March. Delaying the vote would exclude Tisch and Bottar from weighing in on their successors.

These types of interventions from an outside interest group are foreign to close observers of state education politics.

“I would say it’s extremely rare,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for the state teachers union. “I’ve been here 22 years and I don’t remember it.”

Even more unsettling to many, the group appears focused on the one issue that unified it. Opt-out leaders say they represent parents broadly, but surveys of potential Regents candidates asked, “Do you support the right of parents to decide whether their children will participate in the NY State standardized exams?” Every endorsed candidate answered affirmatively and some expressed hearty support such as “Unequivocally!” or “Yes, absolutely.”

Regents should ignore a special interest group “aiming to alter the election system in favor of its own agenda,” said a statement by High Achievement New York, a coalition that promotes the Common Core.

It is anyone’s guess whether the endorsements will ultimately shape the board, but it is possible, said Billy Easton, the executive director of the advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, which does not formally endorse Regents candidates.

When asked if the opt-out movement could change the makeup of the Board of Regents, Easton chuckled.

“240,000 opt-outs,” he laughed. “Yeah, absolutely.”

Update: After publication David Bloomfield clarified that he received an email from NYSAPE. 

deportation directives

Denver Public Schools, Mexican consulate unite to quell immigration fears

Superintendent Tom Boasberg, center, and deputy consul general Jeremias Guzman to his right (Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat)

Flanked by American and Mexican flags, leaders of the state’s largest school district and Mexico’s acting consul general in Denver stood side by side Tuesday pledging to help protect student rights amid stricter immigration enforcement.

At a news conference at the city’s Mexican consulate, the two parties promised to build on their longstanding partnership to offer additional resources to Denver Public Schools families.

The joint appearance came within hours of the Department of Homeland Security releasing new directives laying out a much more aggressive federal approach to enforcing immigration law.

“The most important thing here is the parents and people who have kids in schools, that they know they are safe,” said Jeremias Guzman, Mexico’s deputy consul general in Denver, who is serving as acting consul general.

DPS leadership has been vocal on immigration issues since the election of President Donald Trump, whose hard-line immigration stance was core to his campaign.

The school board approved a resolution Thursday saying DPS will do everything “in its lawful power” in response to immigration enforcement to protect students’ confidential information and not disrupt learning.

That includes continuing its policy of not collecting any information on students’ immigration status and involving DPS’s general counsel in any enforcement requests.

To date, DPS officials say they have not needed to respond to any requests.

DPS has not contacted federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to discuss the district’s approach, according to a statement Tuesday from the district’s deputy general counsel.

Tuesday’s event at the consulate was an opportunity for DPS officials to better communicate to a community on edge about immigration enforcement under Trump.

As board member Lisa Flores noted, the Mexican consulate has a strong relationship with the community’s Spanish-language media. There are 35,550 Spanish-speaking students in DPS, of a total student population of about 92,000.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg delivered remarks in Spanish that he sharpened on a six-month sabbatical to South America last year.

Boasberg said DPS is strengthening its approaches in partnership with the consulate, including sharing information on the district’s daily Spanish language radio program and adding additional community spaces at schools for sharing information beyond new spaces opened last week.

The district is posting its immigration resolution in every school, translating it into 10 languages and training its crisis and emergency response teams to help students dealing with immigration enforcement issues.

“We want to reassure students and families that DPS is committed to providing a safe and welcoming space that will support their education,” Flores said. “The safety and emotional well-being of our students will be supported regardless of immigration status.”

Boasberg was cautious in comments about the federal immigration directives issued Tuesday, emphasizing the district needs to review the details.

The policy calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants convicted of any criminal offense, a break from the Obama administration’s prioritization of those convicted of serious crimes.

Federal officials said there would be no change to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which provides work permits and deportation protection to young people brought to his country without documentation.

Protecting the program has been a priority of DPS, which has students and teachers who benefit from the program. Boasberg said Tuesday that DACA has been “fundamental to our students, giving them hope for the future.”

He said DPS will continue to advocate for the program and push for it to become enshrined as law.

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.