legal action

Lawsuit over poor conditions in Detroit schools gets its first day in court, as state officials seek to end it

PHOTO: Public Counsel
Attorneys behind a new federal civil rights lawsuit meet with Osborn High School college advisor Andrea Jackson and student Jamarria Hall.

A lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court Thursday, but it could be a month before a judge rules whether it can proceed.

The suit, filed in September on behalf of seven Detroit students, argues that Gov. Rick Snyder and state education officials have deprived city students of their right to literacy by not spending adequately on local schools.

The 136-page complaint paints a bleak picture of life in the city’s schools, describing condoms strewn on playgrounds, bathrooms leaking sewage into hallways, students left to grieve without support, and classrooms without qualified teachers. The suit claims that these conditions make learning difficult in Detroit schools — a conclusion that a recent study bears out.

Snyder petitioned in November to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the condition of Detroit’s schools isn’t the state’s fault. The hearing today focused largely on that question, and the judge in the case, Stephen Murphy, said he would rule within 30 days on whether to let the case move forward.

State-appointed emergency managers ran Detroit’s schools directly for six years, until one year ago, and union leaders issued a statement Thursday laying the blame for local schools’ struggles solidly on state officials.

“The state created these poor learning conditions, and now Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette are further abdicating their responsibility to the children of Detroit by moving to dismiss this case,” said the leaders of the Detroit, Michigan, and national chapters of the American Federation of Teachers. “All these children and families are asking for is what we owe all families — great, well-resourced public schools where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach, and children are engaged.”

If the case does move forward, it could take years to resolve. School funding equity cases —  currently pending in more than a dozen states, including Tennessee and New Mexico, where arguments ended earlier this month — typically take years to wend their way through the courts.

Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti, the first superintendent hired by the new locally elected school board, told Chalkbeat that Michigan does need to spend education dollars differently.

“I don’t think the state has recognized that simply providing equal funding or near-equal funding for all children in the state of Michigan on a per pupil basis does not go deep enough and broad enough to address the issues and challenges that children in Detroit face,” he said. “There is a need for a deeper weighted formula that recognizes [special education] status, [English Language Learner] status and poverty. That would give educators in Detroit more confidence that the state is supporting the children of Detroit differently than those throughout the state.”

But he said he found the lawsuit’s core allegation, that the state had deprived city students of a right to literacy, more complicated. “It’s not the state’s responsibility in and of itself,” Vitti said. “The school district, community partners, teachers, the faith-based community, the business community — everyone has to put shoulder to the wheel when talking about literacy.”

Following the money

Tennessee school systems are getting the money they’re promised — more or less, state comptroller reports

A comprehensive review of funding for Tennessee schools found that almost every district received either too much or too little money this year based on the state’s formula for educating its children.

But in a budget of $4.5 billion for K-12 schools, the mistaken allocations were relatively small, and the review ostensibly verified that districts are receiving roughly what they’re supposed to under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The state comptroller’s report, released Thursday, said that allocations were slightly off for 141 out of 142 BEP-funded districts, based on the review by its Office of Research and Education Accountability. The discrepancies were mostly due to how districts reported their data on local funding capacity.

As a result, the state over-allocated almost $7 million and under-allocated almost $10 million. A spokeswoman said the Department of Education already has adjusted distributions accordingly.

This is the second year that the comptroller — charged with making sure that taxpayer money is used effectively and efficiently — has reviewed state spending on schools to make sure that allocations are in line with the BEP, a complex formula based on 45 components ranging from special education instruction to staff benefits and insurance.

“We spend over 4.5 billion state dollars on BEP, and it’s an enormous amount of money,” said Russell Moore, who directs the comptroller’s education oversight arm known as OREA. “That’s why Comptroller (Justin) Wilson has repeatedly emphasized the importance of making BEP spending transparent, understandable and verifiable.”

On that note, OREA has updated its interactive BEP calculator to allow anyone to estimate how changing components or ratios under the formula affect funding. For instance, how much would the state contribute toward adding school nurses under the BEP? The calculator, available for download on OREA’s website, provides a line-by-line breakdown of the BEP calculation for every school district.

trumped up problems

As budget talks begin, top New York lawmaker eyes cuts from Washington

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

It’s Washington politics — not Albany’s — that are keeping state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie up at night as he girds himself for New York’s coming budget season.

New York is facing its own $4.4 billion budget deficit amid ongoing power struggles in Albany. Yet it’s the tax overhaul being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump, along with possible federal spending cuts — both of which could take a bite out of funding for New York schools — that are worrying Heastie, a Democrat who represents the Bronx and is closely aligned with the New York City teachers union.

“Absent any other federal action that can do damage, I think we can manage that so that our schools will be fine and our healthcare can be fine,” he said Tuesday during a preview of next year’s legislative session hosted by the union. “It’s the unknown of what’s going to happen. What’s the next bad thing that Washington is looking to do.”

He was speaking at the union’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Financial District, where he was interviewed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew as part of an ongoing discussion series. (Critics were quick to pounce on the event as evidence that Heastie does the union’s bidding.)

Heastie — who will negotiate the state budget with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate — has championed union issues in Albany. He supports the creation of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families, and has been less friendly to charter schools than his counterparts in the Senate.

During the discussion, Heastie did not say how much funding he would like to see allocated to education in the 2018-19 budget. But he noted that Cuomo typically builds a roughly billion-dollar increase to school aid into his budget — and that the Democratic-controlled Assembly usually looks to add more.

The state’s top education policymakers, the Board of Regents, released a budget proposal on Monday calling for a $1.6 billion increase in education spending. That is significantly less than their request last year, a sign they are nervous about the current budget climate.

Despite the funding uncertainty, Heastie can at least breathe a sigh of relief that he will not have to battle again this year to keep a different ally — Mayor Bill de Blasio — in charge of the city schools. For the first time, de Blasio secured a two-year extension of mayoral control last year, giving him and his backers a break from a fight that consumed the last three sessions.

Instead, charter-school policy could once again flare up. Last year, a dispute over charter funding helped push the budget well past its deadline. This year, Heastie said, he is not yet aware of any new charter-related bills heading into the new legislative session, which begins in January.

Meanwhile, he and the union are mulling changes they’d like to see to teacher evaluations.

In 2015, after fierce resistance by the unions, the state tied teacher ratings much more closely to state test scores. The move helped spark a statewide boycott of the tests, leading the Board of Regents to pass a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

However, the moratorium is set to sunset in 2019, which will likely eventually force lawmakers to change the law. Heastie did not say that he will push for a repeal this year, but did say it is time to “start the dialogue” about how to improve evaluations.

“I don’t know if we can get to a final idea,” he said. “But I think the earliest we could give schools and school districts around the state [notice] that there will be a different way to look at our student progress, I think the better.”