First Person

Ed reform experiences from childhood to adulthood

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Vinny Badolato and I am the newest blogger on EdNews Colorado. I am excited to have the opportunity to engage in some spirited and (hopefully) civil conversations and debates on education issues in Colorado and nationally.

Some of you know me already, but many more of you don’t.  So in order to try and frame my future pontifications, I would like to use this post to provide a little information about me – where I am coming from, what I do, and what I believe in terms of education policy and reform.  I promise to keep it brief.

I was born and raised in a mostly blue collar, middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York and attended NYC public schools through high school.  I did attend Stuyvesant High School, NYC’s top tier specialized public high school, so I am the first to admit that the educational opportunities I had did not match the vast majority of the other public school kids in NYC.  I will circle back to this in a bit.

I graduated from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with a BA in history.  I then spent some time in D.C. post-graduation working as the research director at a private firm engaged in improving federal agency performance management.  While I liked the work, I wasn’t satisfied as knew I wanted to get engaged in education policy to improve the system.  See, I received an excellent public education in NYC, but that was definitely the exception at the time.  I experienced first-hand the vast disparities that permeated the system –in facilities, teacher quality, curriculum, and materials – and saw many of my friends fall victim to those disparities and not succeed anywhere near to their potential in school and in life.  I wanted to dedicate myself to making a drastic change in the education system, but didn’t yet have the chutzpah to make the change in my career trajectory.

That push happened though, after I heard Jonathan Kozol give a talk primarily to incoming freshman at American University.  He issued a call to action to get involved and improve education, so I did (it’s funny to me now that it was Kozol that got me in this game since the more I work in the field the less I agree with the vast majority of his positions, but hey, someone had to light the fire).  I decided then that I was going to devote myself to reforming education through policy change.  So my wife and I picked up, moved to Colorado, and I enrolled in CU-Boulder’s School of Education where I received my Master’s in Education Foundations, Policy and Practice.

I have worked in several gigs in education policy here in Colorado.  I cut my teeth at the Alliance for Quality Teaching, a now defunct non-profit that worked to improve teacher quality in the state. Lots of important work came out of that shop, but the one I am most proud of is moving SB 07-140 through the legislature, the bill that created the Quality Teachers Commission and the teacher identifier system, a necessary precursor to SB 10-191.

I then worked several years at the National Conference of State Legislatures where I was a national specialist in higher education policy, particularly community colleges and adult education.  But I missed working in the K-12 arena and very much missed working to move the needle in Colorado, so I reentered the fray in my current position as vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.  I love being the central advocate for the vibrant Colorado charter school sector, and you can expect future posts about the great educational improvements charter schools are making in the state (I do offer the obligatory disclaimer that while I do work for the League, everything I write is purely my own and does not reflect the views of the League or its board of directors).

But while I firmly believe that charter schools are an essential piece of the education puzzle and are demonstrating that we can transform education to improve opportunities for all kids, I am not a pure charter school homer.  I don’t think charter schools and choice can – or should – solve all the education deficiencies we currently have in the massive and outdated system we currently operate in.

Nor am I above taking a critical look at charter schools – when it is warranted and grounded in fact, unlike how most critics try to disparage charter schools.  And I am not a one issue guy; there are a lot of changes and reforms we need to make in the system and I plan on writing about those, too.

So there it is.  I am hoping that this post was useful to help the readers understand my ed policy background and reform lens a little bit.  Thanks for reading and let’s have some fun.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.