that's a wrap

What flexible accountablity might look like and 5 other things we learned at the state board meeting

While the State Board of Education retreated on testing waivers and making changes to parent consent to a health survey this week, members also waded into new area of assessment and accountability flexibility and data privacy. They also failed to find common ground on graduation requirements.

Here’s a look at what we learned on Wednesday and Thursday:

1. The board is in favor of experimenting with new accountability systems but there are plenty of ‘buts’ to work through.

Several conversations on Wednesday and Thursday gravitated toward testing and accountability, even if the official agenda item had nothing to do with the topic.

However, two presentations on Thursday centered specifically on these issues.

First, a coalition of rural school districts presented an alternative to the state’s accountability system, which relies heavily on data from standardized tests. Here is that group’s presentation. Every board member voiced his or her support for the work the group had done, and encouraged the coalition to work closely with the board and state department to identify and remove any sort of bureaucratic barriers that would stop implementation.

However, board member Angelika Schroeder warned of deviating too far from the state’s model.

“Schools are different, kids are different, but we also need comparability,” she said.

Her fear is that holding small and rural districts accountable to a different system than larger urban districts would raise questions  about whether rural students are receiving an education  “as good as” their urban counterparts.

Elliott Asp, special assistant to the commissioner, also presented an overview of what a new assessment system blending state assessments like the PARCC test and local assessments could look like.

The pilot would be made possible by the testing bill approved by the General Assembly earlier this month. It would require the U.S. Department of Education’s stamp of approval. But the system Asp pitched, which is far from being fully fleshed out, relies heavily on work done in New Hampshire.

That state’s flexible assessment system was approved by the feds, but only after a few years of double-assessing students.

Board member Debora Scheffel, a Republican, warned there is no appetite for more tests.

“In some ways [it looks like] we’ve created a lot more work and we have not uncoupled from PARCC,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re not asking for more [assessments].”

2. On data privacy, board members want to act now.

A data privacy bill failed to make it through the legislature. But state board members want to take matters into their own hands and update contract language with vendors that reflect the most agreed upon apsects of the privacy bill.

“I believe we can accomplish by contract virtually everything that was in legislation and could set that as a model for school districts,” said board member Steve Durham, a Republican

3. The state’s accountability clock is in limbo after a testing bill is passed.

During a lengthy discussion on the testing bill passed by the General Assembly between the board and its lobbyist, Scheffel asked what the bill meant for those schools and school districts on the state’s accountability watch list.

Schools and districts that fall below state expectations have five years to improve or face sanctions.

Keith Owen, deputy commissioner, told the board his team was still reviewing what the bill meant for those schools. On first read, however, Owen said some academically-struggling schools might get an extra year to improve before the state can step in. However, he said, the final word on how the education department plans to proceed would likely come later this month.

4. Schools and districts with high opt-out numbers will likely face federal, but not state, sanctions.

We already told you that the federal government is not interested in holding harmless those schools and districts that failed to meet the 95 percent testing requirement.

However, CDE staff told the board there could be a compromise under which schools that saw a large number of student skip state standardized tests face federal sanctions but get to keep their state accountability rating.

Under federal law, schools that don’t meet the 95 percent testing level could be required to send home letters that label the school as failing, could lose some federal funds, or be required to use those dollars for certain programs like tutoring.

Under state law, if a school does not meet the testing threshold it could be earn a lower accreditation rating — even if the students who take the test do well.

5. The board will hire a search firm to find the state’s next education commissioner.

Board members agreed Thursday to put the logistical portions of finding the next education chief in the hands of a search firm.

“We don’t have anyone to manage the process,” said chairwoman Marcia Neal “And we need someone to do that.”

The board also agreed to zero in on and likely appoint an interim commissioner at its June meeting. All board members said it’s urgent to find a person to replace education Commissioner Robert Hammond, who announced his retirement in April.

Hammond’s last day is June 24.

6. The split among the board is as wide as ever and Marcia Neal is not happy.

Despite retreating on several controversial topics (like the cut scores and the health survey) the board is still divided primarily along philosophical differences about what its role is.

“We’re a regulatory agency,” said vice chair Schroder who has mostly aligned herself with fellow Democrat Jane Goff and chairwoman Neal, a moderate Republican. Her comments came during a break after a heated conversation about graduation requirements during which board member Durham made a motion to strip the state of any graduation guidelines.

He eventually dropped his motion after members agreed to table the discussion. The board is required to adopt new graduation guidelines under state law.

Other board members volleyed back and forth during breaks about their actions and reputation.

Several times, Neal shared her frustration about the board’s behavior Wednesday and Thursday. At one point Thursday she said she had never had a more frustrating two days in her six years on the state board. Most of her frustration was pointed toward Durham. Neal accused him of trying to unravel six years of education reform policy.

“You seem to blame this on staff,” Neal said. “Staff is doing what they’re legally bound to do. Obviously you want to take that apart. You very well might be able to do that. … But you can’t take it all apart in a couple of weeks.”

Starting young

New York City child care centers are serving more infants, but for poor families seats are scarce

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

Yvette Cora, who works at an East New York day care center, turns down a steady stream of parents asking to enroll their babies.

The center where she works, St. Malachy Child Development Center in East New York, has a contract from New York City to care for babies and toddlers from low-income families. But most won’t get offered a spot until their child is at least 18 months old — it takes six months to a year to get off the baby room waitlist.

“I refer them to home providers, and sometimes after they go visit those homes they come back here and say they prefer it here,” said Cora.

It’s an increasingly common experience for day care providers who work with the city. As interest in early childhood education has grown in the city, more families are seeking spots in day care programs for their babies — but the programs for poor children are actually losing capacity, even as programs that serve more affluent families grow.

With the upcoming transition of the city’s subsidized child care system to the Department of Education (DOE), it remains to be seen how the DOE will prioritize infant care, and whether the agency will find a way to increase the capacity for this age group in centers.

In the past two years, the number of slots for children under 2 years old increased by 10 percent in licensed early education centers citywide — from 9,853 spots in 2015 to 10,806 in 2017, even as total capacity in centers has grown by only 2 percent. That’s according to the Center for New York City Affairs’s analysis of data provided by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which issues licenses to the centers.

At the same time, the child care centers that contract with the city to serve low-income families have been losing their capacity to take in infants and toddlers. The number of openings for children under 2 years old in those centers fell by 8 percent during the same time period, amounting to about 100 lost slots for young children.

The shift means that while Bright Horizons, one for-profit day care provider that charges up to $40,000 per year for full-time care, is growing, there are fewer spots for families whose total annual income is less than that.

“The capacity has grown, but not for poor people,” said Kathleen Hopkins, vice president of the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone Department of Community Programs that oversees two centers that provide infant care. “There are still not a lot of options for poor families.”

The scarcity of choice for poor families with infants is largely driven by cost. Infants and toddlers are the most expensive age group to serve in child care centers. Most babies in the subsidized child care system are placed in the far less-expensive but also less-regulated subsidized family child care programs, where women get paid meager wages to look after neighborhood kids in their homes, often their living rooms.

But studies nationwide have found family child care programs to be, on average, of lower quality than center-based care, and there’s been a growing interest in increasing the number of slots for infants and toddlers in subsidized New York City child care centers.

Some say that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K expansion and public awareness campaigns such as “Talk to Your Baby” added urgency to this discussion by raising awareness of the importance of receiving high-quality care during the first few years of life.

Staff at the city’s child care resource and referral agencies say they now see a growing number of parents from all backgrounds who believe that early education centers are better equipped than informal arrangements with friends and family to provide quality care and prepare young kids for school. “It’s a trend of the last five years,” says Nancy Kolben, executive director of the child care resource and referral agency Center for Children’s Initiatives.

Early childhood centers that enroll only families who can pay without public subsidies have responded by charging parents more money to offset the high costs inherent in baby care, including expensive sprinkler systems, ground floor classrooms, and that babies be cared for in small groups.

But at subsidized child care centers, rising rents combined with flat city funding have made infant care elusive, despite efforts from ACS to encourage growth.

“Everything we have seen says it’s a money-losing proposition to do [infant care] as a center-based facility because of the infrastructure you need,” said James Matison, executive director of Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, which oversees five early education centers that serve low-income families.

“We lose a lot [of space] if we try to incorporate cribs and changing tables, and enrollment numbers go down,” says Maria Contreras-Collier, executive director of Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation.
Some directors say that serving infants is easier at large child care centers that can dedicate a few rooms to babies without cutting back on overall enrollment.

Hanover Place Child Care, a center in Downtown Brooklyn, is a case in point. A large school with a total capacity for over 300 children, it accepts more vouchers to care for infants than any other center in the city. In recent years, as surrounding neighborhoods gentrified, it has begun attracting families who pay privately.

But after a special-education preschool it shared its building and some staff with closed, Hanover Place lost a security guard, art teacher and a nurse. Meanwhile, rents in the neighborhood skyrocketed as new construction crept closer and closer.

Some local parents fear it is only a matter of time before the Brooklyn real estate boom will lead the center to close its doors entirely, or at least close doors to families unable to pay the tuition necessary to keep them open.

This story is adapted from a policy brief from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

Charter growth

Smaller cohort of charter schools to open in Memphis in 2018

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Daphnè Robinson, director of charter schools for Shelby County Schools, offers recommendations to the school board.

With charter schools comprising a fourth of Shelby County Schools, district leaders say they’re setting a higher bar for opening new ones in Memphis.

The school board approved only three out of 14 applications on Tuesday night, just months after the district overhauled its charter school office to strengthen oversight of the growing sector.

Opening in 2018 will be Believe Memphis Academy, Freedom Preparatory Academy, and Perea Elementary. The approvals mean the district will oversee 55 charter schools, easily the largest number of any district in Tennessee.

But it’s significantly less than last year, when the board green-lighted seven applicants. Since then, Shelby County Schools has doubled the size of its charter oversight office and stepped up scrutiny of applications.

“We want to strengthen the process every school year because, when it comes down to it, the lives of our kids are at stake and millions of dollars in taxpayer money,” said Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management.

This year, the district hired a new leader and new staff for its charter office. It also used five application reviewers from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the group that last year recommended a slew of changes for opening, managing and closing charter schools.

But even with all the changes, the school board didn’t follow all of the staff’s recommendations. Perea’s application had been recommended for denial but, after much discussion, the board voted 7-2 to let the group open an elementary school inside the recently closed Klondike Elementary building. Board members pointed to Perea’s long record of success in operating a preschool at Klondike.

The other two approvals were in line with staff recommendations. Believe Memphis Academy will be a literacy-focused college preparatory school serving students in grades 4-8 in the city’s medical district. Memphis-based Freedom Prep will open its fifth school, which eventually will serve grades 6-12 in the Whitehaven and Nonconnah communities.

Board member Teresa Jones expressed concern about deviating from staff recommendations on Perea.

“We have a process. And by all accounts, it’s not a perfect process, but it’s been applied to everyone,” she said.

But Billy Orgel, another board member, said the charter office should have taken into account the long-standing preschool’s performance, even though it’s never operated an elementary school.

“There is a track record with the funders. There is a track record with the school,” he said, adding that “no process is perfect.”

Groups vying for approval this year wanted to open schools that range from an all-girls program to a sports academy to several focused on science, technology, engineering and math.