Elia says school turnaround law needs changes to provide more time and money

Rigid deadlines and inadequate funding could derail a statewide effort to improve struggling schools, the state’s top education official warned.

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia aired those concerns Wednesday during a daylong hearing convened by Assembly Member Catherine Nolan, who chairs the legislative body’s education committee. The hearing, which included testimony from Chancellor Carmen Fariña was one of the first public opportunities that state and local education officials had to sound off on the nascent initiative and the impact it’s having on districts and schools.

Nearly 150 schools, including 62 in New York City, were placed under receivership this summer after state officials identified them as among the worst in the state. The schools have to rapidly show signs of progress and those that don’t could be turned over to outside managers that can sidestep union rules or be converted into charter schools.

The receivership model spawned from a law passed during this year’s state budget negotiations. It is an outgrowth of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s contention that immediate changes are needed to improve the worst-performing schools, which disproportionately serve poor black and Hispanic students and some have struggled for nearly a decade or more.

Evaluations will be based on what happens at schools this year and districts have had to arrange meetings with community members, devise improvement plans and start trying to implement the changes all in the span of a few months.

Elia said she supported the spirit of Cuomo’s initiative and at one point brushed off one lawmaker’s suggestion that the current school year was a “planning year,” reminding him that students have received a subpar education from schools in the program for years.

“I think it’s important to understand that we have to see progress in these schools,” Elia said.

But she warned that the law in its current form could “sacrifice quality to expediency.” She asked lawmakers to change the law to give her more discretion in case a school is headed in the right direction, but falls short of meeting goals that would prevent it being taken over.

“This is a process and it takes time,” said Elia.

Twenty of the schools, seven of which are in New York City, have until the end of this school year to reach a set of academic and nonacademic goals that have yet to receive final approval, while the remaining schools have until the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

In addition to time, Elia said she also needed more money.

The budget set aside $75 million for the program, but only the 20 “persistently struggling” schools that have only a year to improve are eligible for it. Elia called for the spending contraints to be eliminated so that money could also be used on the schools with an extra year, as well as for the State Education Department, which is charged with overseeing implementation of the law.

More money and more time are key distinctions between the state’s improvement plan and a dueling initiative underway for nearly 100 low-performing schools in New York City. In her testimony, Fariña focused her remarks on touting that program, known as School Renewal.

Those schools are receiving an infusion of nearly $400 million and support and have until 2017 to show signs of improvement before the city considers closing them. Fifty of the schools are also part of the state’s turnaround program, and there has been some confusion over how the two layers of mandates will affect the changes.

Fariña steered clear of criticizing the receivership and even praised the law’s requirement that city officials hold public meetings for each school. The city held 62 meetings over the span of 10 days last month and while some attracted sparse crowds, Fariña said they “played a critical part in our larger goal of involving families in their children’s education.”

The percentage of students in Renewal Schools who missed at least a month of school, or who were chronically absent, dropped from 25 percent to 24 percent last year, Fariña said. (Overall attendance in the schools was 85 percent, according to a department spokeswoman). She touted the results as evidence that the schools were headed in the right direction, noting “a modest test score improvement.” But she delivered a familiar argument for how the legislature could ensure that the city maintain the momentum.

“These reforms are not possible without mayoral control,” said Fariña.