wish list

Assembly budget invests in college tuition, rejects governor’s ‘repeal’ of foundation aid

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie, after meeting with Assembly Democrats in 2015.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly made its education positions known on Monday night when it released its budget bill, embracing a college affordability agenda beyond what the governor has proposed, and calling for more funding for traditional public schools.

The education provisions in the bill are in keeping with the Assembly’s past stances. The chamber generally supports the Foundation Aid formula, designed to distribute school funding more equitably, takes a hard line on charter schools and wants to extend mayoral control. With those positions now established for this budget cycle, the Assembly will haggle with the Senate and the governor to hammer out a final budget deal.

Here are some of the highlights from the Assembly’s budget:

— The Assembly budget increases school aid by $1.8 billion, with a $1.4 billion increase in foundation aid. That’s more than the governor proposed. It also rejects the executive budget’s decision to not fully fund the foundation aid formula, calling that a “repeal,” and commits to a four-year phase-in.

— The Assembly budget would reconfigure state aid so state college students could use a third of their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior scholarship offers free college tuition to full-time students at state colleges whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. It has been criticized for providing little additional help for low-income students who already have their tuition covered by state and federal aid, but need help paying for non-tuition expenses like books, rent and food. The Assembly budget would raise the cutoff for families to $150,00o per year  in the fourth year of the program.

Another provision in Cuomo’s college tuition plan calls for students to average 15 credits per semester. That measure has been called “punitive” by at least one Assembly member and has been criticized by the chair of the Assembly’s higher education committee. (Most SUNY students don’t graduate in four years.) The Assembly’s budget allows students to take two semesters of 12 credits during their college tenure. In addition, it increases the maximum TAP award, or the amount students receive in state aid.

— The Assembly’s budget is not kind to charter schools. In fact, it rejects benefits included in the executive budget and provides some strings of its own. The Assembly would freeze charter school tuition, rejects the idea to lift New York City’s charter school cap and includes provisions related to transparency, enrollment and discipline.

— Mayoral control is extended for seven years in the Assembly’s budget, but it’s not the Assembly that stands in the way of a longer extension for Mayor Bill de Blasio. It’s Republicans in the Senate who have forced the mayor into one-year extensions for the past two years.

— The Assembly’s budget would require New York City to study the admissions process at the city’s specialized high schools. Though the city has said it wants to increase diversity at the elite crop of schools, its efforts do not seem to be working. Only 10 percent of specialized high school offers went to black and Hispanic students this year, despite the fact that those students make up about 70 percent of the city’s total student population.

— The budget includes $15 million in grants for school districts with growing English Language Learner populations, earmarked to help improve graduation rates. That is another area where New York City has struggled recently. Though graduation rates improved overall in 2016, those for English Language Learners decreased by almost 10 percentage points. (The city argues that is a misleading statistic because when current and former ELL students are combined, 57 more students graduated this year.)

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 details of a child abuse case came to light.

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.

equity issues

A report found black students and teachers in Denver face inequities. Can these 11 recommendations make a difference?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
A student at Ashley Elementary School in Denver.

Helping African-American families understand their children’s school choices, offering signing bonuses to prospective black teachers and making student discipline data count in school ratings are among the recommendations of a task force that tackled inequities faced by African-American students and educators in Denver.

“Once we were able to get past some of the hurts that people experienced, once we were able to come up with the root causes and understand this process is going to be uncomfortable, we were able to come together in a way to do the work we need to do,” Allen Smith, the associate chief of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, said Wednesday at an event to reveal the recommendations and solicit feedback at Bruce Randolph School on the city’s northeast side.

The DPS African-American Equity Task Force, which was comprised of more than 100 members, made 11 recommendations in all. (Read them in full below.) They include directing the district to:

— Design a tool to assist African-American families in understanding which schools best match their students’ needs and interests, and “generate personalized recommendations.”

— Require every school to create an Equity Plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools” through strategies such as home visits by teachers.

— Ensure curriculum is culturally responsive to African-American students.

— Develop a plan to increase black students’ access to “high value learning opportunities,” including the district’s gifted and talented program, and concurrent enrollment courses.

— Create a human resources task force that would, among other things, ensure African-American job candidates receive equal consideration and once hired, equal pay.

— Incentivize black educators to come to DPS and stay, and create a pipeline program to encourage black students “to return to serve their own communities.”

The recommendations do not include a price tag. Nor have they “been evaluated for legal compliance,” according to the document.

The task force was created in the wake of a critical report documenting the concerns of 70 African-American Denver educators. The educators said black teachers feel isolated and passed-over for promotions. Black students are being left behind academically, the teachers said, in part because of low expectations and harsh discipline by teachers who are not black.

Thirteen percent of the district’s approximately 92,000 students are African-American. Last year, just 4 percent of DPS teachers were black. Seventy-four percent were white.

District statistics show that the percentages of African-American students who are proficient in English and math, as measured by state tests, trail district averages. Only a third of black students graduated college-ready last year, which is lower than white or Latino students.

Meanwhile, more black students are identified as needing special education. And African-American students have the highest suspension rate in the district.

The district has taken some steps to address the inequities. DPS is part of a multi-year campaign along with the mayor’s office and charter school operators to recruit more than 70 teachers of color and 10 school leaders of color to Denver.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg noted at Wednesday’s event that DPS is starting to see results; one-quarter of new principals hired to lead schools next year are African-American, he said.

For the first time this year, the district required its new teachers to take a previously optional three-hour course on culturally responsive teaching in which they were asked to share fears about working with students and families from different backgrounds.

DPS also added a new measure this year to its color-coded school rating system that takes into account how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students. However, the district has since tweaked its “equity indicator” in response to concerns from school leaders, and the task force recommended even more changes. In addition to looking at student test scores, it is calling for including discipline data, as well as teacher hiring, retention and promotion data.

And the district has announced plans to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third-grade students except in the most serious incidents.

The set of 11 recommendations includes one overarching one: the creation of an African-American Equity Team to ensure the district executes the ideas it adopts.

“A deep thank you for your work and a deep thank you in advance for the work we will be doing together,” Boasberg said.

The recommendations are scheduled to be presented to the Denver school board in June.

Read the full recommendations below.