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. 

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.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.