who rules the schools

De Blasio faces little pushback at first mayoral control hearing

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.

In what felt like political déjà vu, Mayor Bill de Blasio returned to Albany to plead for continued control of city schools, encountering a slightly friendlier audience than he did last year.

De Blasio is fighting to oversee the school system after lawmakers gave him only a one-year extension of mayoral control in 2015. He faced a public test on Wednesday — his first mayoral control hearing in front of the Republican-controlled Senate this year — but survived the four-hour session with only a few contentious moments.

Some of the mayor’s critics even offered his administration praise.

“Chancellor Fariña is certainly an excellent advocate on your behalf, and on the schools’ behalf, and on the children’s behalf,” said Carl Marcellino, the powerful Republican chair of the education committee. “She does her job and she does it very well in my opinion.”

Getting into the good graces of Senate Republicans is de Blasio’s ticket to securing a longer extension of mayoral control. The Senate blocked a longer extension of the policy last year, crippling de Blasio’s hopes then of earning a permanent, or at least a three-year, extension of the policy.

Most observers believe that lawmakers extending mayoral control is inevitable, given the instability that would result from overhauling the governance of the country’s largest school system. But how long de Blasio will get is still up for debate, since a long-term extension would mean the Senate forgoing a political bargaining chip — and a chance to check in on de Blasio’s education agenda — over the next few years.

“I want to highlight the importance of this legislature not continuing to play the game of giving you one-year extensions,” said Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from New York City. “There is no way to plan for a public school system for over a million children, not knowing from year to year to year whether or not your entire system is going to go into legal collapse every 12 months.”

On Wednesday, the mayor leaned on familiar arguments to make his case for a seven-year extension of the policy. De Blasio talked about his new slate of college-readiness policies, and argued that any other leadership structure would encourage corruption and create chaos.

“There is a broad understanding that this system has worked far better than the previous,” de Blasio said. “There’s also a broad understanding that there is no viable alternative.”

De Blasio still faced skepticism. Not every Senator praised the mayor, and some questioned him about how he handles failing schools.

The second public hearing is scheduled for the end of May in New York City. The legislature’s final decision will likely come at the end of the legislative session.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”