the tenure track

Exclusive: Teacher tenure approvals tick up, continuing a de Blasio-era shift

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

New York City teachers were more likely to earn tenure last school year than at any point in the previous five years, but approval rates remain far lower than they were just a few years ago, when virtually every eligible teacher won the job protection.

Sixty-four percent of the 5,832 eligible teachers were granted tenure during the 2014-15 school year, up from 60 percent the year before, according to data released Thursday to Chalkbeat. Another 34 percent had their decisions deferred, and 2.3 percent were rejected, effectively ending their teaching careers in the district.

The numbers show that eligible teachers are slightly more likely to receive tenure under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch. But they also show that the de Blasio administration has not reversed the approach of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration made attaining tenure dramatically more difficult not by rejecting tenure applications, but by delaying a larger share of those decisions to a later year.

Under Bloomberg, who promised to move toward “ending tenure as we know it,” tenure approval rates plummeted from 89 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 53 percent the year before de Blasio took control of the city school system. Bloomberg argued that too many teachers were earning tenure too quickly, and the city began delaying decisions for a large portion of eligible teachers.

Over his first two years, de Blasio has slowly changed course. In his first year, tenure rates inched up to 60 percent, a 7 percent increase that de Blasio said reflected his administration’s interest in rewarding and retaining top teachers. And last year, the approval rate increased again to 64 percent.

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The number of teachers whose tenure prospects were deferred fell slightly to 34 percent, down from a high of 44 percent in Bloomberg’s final year. Under both administrations, rejection rates have hovered around 2 percent.

“This process is working,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We’ll continue to focus on retaining quality teachers and expediting the process for those who don’t belong in the profession.”

Six percent of teachers whose tenure decisions were previously delayed faced outright denial, up from 4 percent the previous year, which a department official emphasized as a sign of a rigorous tenure process.

But a more important statistic is that overall rejection rates have largely remained unchanged, according to David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The publicity surrounding this is like, ‘we’re getting rid of bad teachers from the classrooms,’” he said. “The fact that the denials are flat – that’s always been the important point.”

The education department only released the tenure numbers — which have historically been distributed months earlier — to Chalkbeat after multiple requests. Observers say that reticence could reflect the political reality that both union supporters and advocates who want stricter tenure rules can use the data as a political bludgeon.

“What’s maybe going on is a peculiar calculus that the number of grants of tenure has gone up and somehow that makes them look bad,” Bloomfield said. “The raw data is likely to be used by the mayor’s opponents no matter what it is.”

For their part, union officials said they were not aware of last year’s tenure numbers until Thursday.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, said the new data “reflects the trend that we have seen, fewer teacher complaints about probation extensions and fewer requests for legal reviews” of those extensions.

Tenure rules have been the subject of increased national scrutiny in recent years, and there are active lawsuits from Minnesota to New York that claim the protections keep underperforming teachers in the classroom and violate students’ right to an adequate education. (An appeals court in California recently struck a blow to that argument, saying the tenure rules in that state did not deprive low-income students of their civil rights.)

A key feature of the national debate is how long teachers should be in the classroom before being considered for the job protection. U.S. Secretary of Education John King recently waded into that conversation, saying that two years is not enough. Under a recent change to state rules, teachers can be considered for the job protection only after four ‘probationary’ years.

Meanwhile, New York City school leaders are already making the next round of tenure decisions. Most of this year’s recommendations were due from principals April 30; teachers should be notified of those decisions by late June.

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.