the cruelest cut

A unionized charter school says it was betrayed by the unions

Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget. (Lisette Lopez, Renaissance student)
Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget.

Staff at a Queens charter school that is represented by several city labor unions are growing frustrated with the unions, which they worry sat quietly by while state lawmakers slashed charter school budgets two weeks ago.

The school, Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, is expecting a cut of between $500,000 and $600,000 from what was projected for next year after state lawmakers froze planned funding increases to charter schools two weeks ago.

Charter school activists have said that they’re hopeful that Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who founded another unionized charter school in Queens, will yet restore the extra funds to charter schools, but no deal has been struck yet.

That leaves teachers at Renaissance planning for possible teacher layoffs and big program cuts. (The $500,000 cut from the increase the school was expecting is especially hard to shoulder given that pension costs are skyrocketing by $300,000 next year and teacher salaries are slated to go up.)

A main frustration, a Renaissance administrator said, is that the unions to which Renaissance’s staff belong did not give them a heads up about the cuts — even though staff repeatedly asked union leaders if they should expect a cut. “Our members here feel shafted,” Nicholas Tishuk, Renaissance’s director of programs and accountability, said. “We were told that this charter school cut was mentioned two months ago, and it hasn’t been on anyone’s lips. And then we find out the Sunday night before the vote on Tuesday that not only was it on everyone’s lips; it’s actually happening.”

Most charter schools in New York City are not represented by teachers unions, since the schools operate outside of the Department of Education and therefore do not see their staffs unionize automatically. But the union has fought to bring charter schools teachers into its fold. Their slow but steady inclusion has put the union in the tricky position of on the one hand lobbying for limits on charter schools, while, on the other hand, representing some charter school staff.

Renaissance teachers had joined other charter school union members in a campaign to lobby against possible cuts to charter schools after a New York State teachers union official, Alan Lubin, indicated in February that he supported slashing funds to charter schools. Charter school supporters said that what he called for would have amounted to a double cut for charter schools, whose funding is based on the amount of money that goes to traditional public schools.

The concerns led a group of charter school teachers represented by unions to plan a press conference that would have called on the president of the New York City and national teachers union, Randi Weingarten, to denounce Lubin’s testimony. But the press conference was canceled after Weingarten wrote a letter to charter school teachers assuring them that she does not support unequal cuts. (Peter Murphy, of the New York State Charter School Association, first reported the canceled press conference on his blog.)

Tishuk, who as an administrator at Renaissance belongs to the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said that he also reached out to his union for advice, and was told by president Ernest Logan that he had not heard of any cuts. (I’ve yet to speak to Logan about this; I will report back with a comment from him.)

Tishuk said that representatives of the city teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, came to Renaissance last week to discuss concerns about the budget with staff, meeting first with Renaissance teachers and then with administrators. Tishuk said that staff members did not leave satisfied.

“We don’t think that it’s consistent to have a union charter school basically lose the support of the union. There’s plenty of political back and forth — they say the numbers are this, we say the numbers are that – but no matter how you cut it, next year I’m doing a budget that’s going to have $500,000 less in income, and $300,000 more in costs,” he said.

Tishuk said that he was also dismayed by testimony from a leader of the DC 37 union at yesterday’s City Council hearing about charter school expansion. A union leader testified critically of charter schools, yet office aides at Renaissance are represented by DC 37. “It just blew my mind,” Tishuk said.

I have not spoken yet to the two UFT officials Tishuk said he spoke with. I’ll report with those details.

Tishuk’s testimony to the City Council is below. You can also check out this Web site that students at Renaissance have made to protest the funding freeze.

Esteemed City Council Members,

My name is Nicholas Tishuk and I am the Director of Programs and Accountability at the Renaissance Charter School.  Our small school has served the Jackson Heights community in Queens for fifteen years and currently serves 530 students grades K-12.

We are a school that works:  we have happy kids, a dedicated and respected staff, and an involved parent body. We have received “A” ratings on our most recent K-8 and High School progress reports from the Department of Education and have K-8 and Regents scores that outperform similar schools and the City averages.  We are, in the very best sense, a community school serving the needs of families in Jackson Heights, District 30 and Queens.  As a conversion school, we are one of the oldest charter schools in New York City.

Our message is clear, charter schools are public schools and our 530 students and their families deserve to be treated with respect.  The recently passed budget from Albany has been called a “freeze”, but we had already received a preliminary allocation from the Department of Education and this “freeze” has slashed our expected budget by over $500,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.  This catastrophic budget cut has forced us to come together as a community.  I invite all City Council Members to visit our student developed website, linked below, which documents the rallies and march that our students participated in to let elected officials know how these cuts affect our small school in Queens.

Councilmen Dilan’s New York City Resolution 1889 is a step backward.  By making access to facilities and space more difficult, the City Council will be making a grave mistake.  I am an absolute believer and advocate for public education in New York City and, whether foes like them or not, charter schools are public schools full of public school children. To cut the funding for these children, as Albany has done, or to restrict their access to buildings, as Resolution 1889 proposes, is an injustice against the civil rights of our students to a great education.

Thank you for your time.

Nicholas Tishuk
The Renaissance Charter School

Future of Schools

Cary Kennedy, a Colorado gubernatorial candidate, wants to give teachers a raise. Here’s how.

Cary Kennedy (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Former state treasurer Cary Kennedy wants to give Colorado teachers a sizeable bump in pay.

One of several prominent Democrats running for governor, Kennedy, who helped write a constitutional amendment to increase school funding, released her education plan Thursday. The main goal is to get every Colorado kid into college or the work force by the age of 19. To do that, she’s putting her political capital into making the state’s teachers happier.

The proposal calls for more pay, a scholarship program to attract more teachers of color, and giving teachers a larger say in the state’s testing and accountability systems. She’s also calling for school districts to adopt a school improvement policy favored by teachers unions that calls for more welfare programs in the schools to combat the effects of poverty.

In a conversation with Chalkbeat, Kennedy discussed how she plans to reform the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to send more money to school districts, how she was influenced by attending a historically integrated high school in Denver and why access to free preschool is important.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re calling for teacher raises. How can a governor in a local control state such as Colorado where salaries are set by school boards do that?

Provide the funding. I’m not proposing that I dictate to school districts what they pay their teachers. I’m proposing that the state provide adequate resources to school districts so that they can adequately pay our teachers.

We read every day about the teacher shortage in Colorado: 3,000 teaching positions right now that are not being filled. And it’s in large part because teachers can’t afford to work here. They can’t afford to live here. We pay our teachers among the lowest salaries in the country. I hear from principals that they are losing their best teachers because they’ll make $20,000 or $30,000 more for the same job if they go teach in another state.

This issue is impacting rural Colorado the most. We have 90 school districts where the average teacher salary is below $40,000. We can’t compete for the talent pipeline. And we’re not giving our great teachers who are doing amazing work in classrooms every single day the support they need and deserve, the professional pay they need and deserve.

This all goes back to what do we want to accomplish in education. And I’ve laid out the goal that every single student in Colorado, by the age of 19, is ready for higher education, has an employable skill, or both. And it takes great teachers. We know from data that the most important thing for a student’s success is the quality of the teachers that they have. We want Colorado to be the best place in the country to teach.

Have you put a price tag to this?

My goal as governor is to bring Colorado teacher salaries at least up to the national average and to eliminate what we call the teacher pay penalty, which is the difference between what a teacher gets paid and what someone with a comparable level of education earns in other professions. We want to eliminate the disincentive to teaching. Bringing Colorado up to the national average, we estimate to be around $240 million a year. To eliminate that teacher pay penalty is around $500 million.

It does not make any sense that Colorado’s economy ranks No. 1 in the country right now, according to U.S. News and World Report, and our investment in education ranks at the bottom. We’re living the consequences every day by having the teachers leave the profession and by having people who want to teach say they can’t do it in Colorado.

Where are you going to find that kind of money?

We need to recover what TABOR has taken away. TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights which limits how much money the state can collect from taxpayers) has put us in a hole. As our economy has grown over the last two decades, our schools have not benefited from that economic growth. TABOR has prevented us from doing that. We’ve been cutting school budgets for 25 years. That isn’t what anyone in the state wants. They want Colorado — we want Colorado — to have the best education system in the country.

I will lead, as governor, to build the coalitions to get back what TABOR has taken out of our schools.

Conventional wisdom would say this promise is a huge political risk.
I’ve called for permanent TABOR-reform for my entire career. I have helped lead our state to have responsible fiscal policy, a balanced budget throughout the economic crisis, low to moderate debt levels. We pay our bills; we keep our taxes in Colorado low. All of that helps us remain competitive and attract capital investment in our state.

But we can not continue the prosperity we are enjoying today if our kids growing up can’t compete for the jobs we’re bringing here. We have to give our kids the educational foundation they need to be competitive for those jobs.

And it’s also how we’ll make sure our prosperity reaches everyone. Right now we have people who are being left out, who are being left behind. And a great public education system is the only way we’ll ensure our progress reaches everyone.

What does TABOR reform look like? How do you want to change it?

It would be to allow our state to keep up with growth. TABOR has said as your economy grows, you are not able to generate taxes off that growth to invest in your infrastructure or education system or your health care system.

People in Colorado know they’re sitting in traffic. Our streets are crowded, our schools are crowded, we’re underinvested in education. That’s because we have not been able to keep up with the demands of a growing economy. We can keep low taxes, we can keep the protections for taxpayers that are in TABOR. There is bipartisan support today to modify the caps in TABOR to keep up with growth. You will see me lead on that as governor.

There are folks out there who say public schools receive the largest chunk of the state’s budget and don’t need more money. It’s a question of them spending the money in a more efficient way. What do you say to those folks?
We’ve been cutting school budgets in Colorado for three decades. Half of our school districts in Colorado today have had to cut back to a four-day school week. We pay our teachers among the lowest salaries in the country. We’ve got 90 school districts with an average salary below $40,000. We have to make the investment to compete as a state for the kind of economic progress that we all want in Colorado. People in Colorado know that education needs to be our priority and we’re not where we need to be as a state.

You want to expand the role teachers play in assessments, teacher evaluations and school quality ratings. What does would that look like in practice?

We know from (the state’s teacher) survey that teachers don’t believe the current assessment data is helpful to them in their efforts to improve student learning or improve their instructional strategies. We want this assessment data to help support our teachers in really knowing and understanding how their kids learn and what their students need. Teachers need to be much more involved in developing that process.

To do that would cause a lot of upheaval in the current system. One of the things we’ve heard is that teachers and principals are tired of change. How do you balance rethinking those systems while making sure there isn’t another upheaval and more ‘unfunded mandates?’

I think teachers and principals right now feel they’re spending a lot of time on an assessment system that isn’t giving them meaningful information and they’d welcome the opportunity to spend the time to bring their voice to the table on how we can do a better job in this state.

Your proposal is heavily focused on teachers. I can imagine there is someone out there thinking you’re just angling for the endorsement of the teachers union.

I’ve spent my career trying to improve our public schools. I graduated from Manual High School. I’ve seen the challenges in our public schools firsthand. I had great teachers. I’ve always done the work I’ve done because I really believe that public schools are where kids get opportunities to go on and lead productive lives. I grew up with three brothers and sisters who joined my family through the foster care program. I also have a sister who joined my family through her church. So, I’ve grown up with brothers and sisters who didn’t have the opportunities that I had been given. And I saw firsthand how important the opportunities are that kids received through their public schools to determine their future success.

You’re the product of an integrated school. Integration has become a hot topic in education circles again. How have you been thinking about integration?

The achievement gap in Colorado today, the difference between how white kids are performing compared to students of color, is unacceptable. We have the second-largest achievement gap in the country. There are too many students of color in Colorado who are being left behind, who aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve. That’s why this proposal is so important. We want all of our kids regardless of where they grow up, regardless of their family income, regardless of their background, to be successful in school.

We want our schools to reflect the diversity and the richness of our communities. That will happen if all schools have and provide meaningful learning opportunities with high-quality teachers.

You see in my proposal a real focus on attracting and retaining teachers who also reflect their student makeup: Latino teachers, black teachers, teachers of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds so kids going to school have role models they can look to.

We want integrated, inclusive community schools that reflect the diversity of the state’s population.

You’re calling for universal access to preschool. So is your opponent Rep. Jared Polis. In fact, it’s his central education campaign promise. How are your proposals different?

I worked for Educare Colorado and developed the school readiness legislation that is current law that expands opportunities for low-income kids to attend high-quality preschools. I was also involved in the Colorado Preschool Program, the Denver Preschool Program. Even with these successful efforts, only half the kids in our state attend preschool and full-day kindergarten. Half the kids in our state start behind. And teachers will tell you that it’s really hard to catch them up. They stay behind and they finish behind. As a state it’s imperative that we make sure all kids have access to high-quality early education.

It’s going to be more money.

It’s an investment that’s critically important. We can look to private and public partners. But it is not acceptable that we prevent 4-year-olds from attending a high-quality early learning opportunity.

Is this another ballot question or is this something you can do with existing revenue?

You have to prioritize it. It’s building a statewide vision for what our public education system in Colorado can and should be.

You call for expanding so-called community schools. That’s an amorphous term that means something different depending on who you talk to. What does a community school mean to you?

Community schools are focused on engaging the community in supporting the school. It’s bringing in two-generational learning so that parents and students can learn together and parents can support their student’s learning. But it’s also bringing in wrap-around services. A lot of kids arrive at school with challenges. It’s social-emotional, growing up in stressful home environments, suffering from toxic stress. We have kids who are coming to school who are homeless and who need additional support in their learning. If we want all kids to be successful, we have to address the challenges kids show up every day with.

priority exit

Four Memphis schools improve enough to exit ‘priority’ list, including one in Achievement School District

PHOTO: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary staff celebrate test score results in 2015. The state-run school is now one of four to exit the state's priority list.

Four schools improved enough to exit Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing schools, the state announced Friday, and they’re all located in Memphis.

The schools, including one within the state-run Achievement School District, are:

  • Mitchell High, Shelby County Schools;
  • Treadwell Elementary, Shelby County Schools;
  • Northwest Prep Academy, Shelby County Schools;
  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Achievement School District.

The moves are significant, as only 16 percent of “priority” schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists.

This is only the second time an ASD school has left the priority list, said Bobby White, the turnaround district’s executive director of external affairs. He said that Brick Church College Prep, located in Nashville, exited the list previously. The ASD was created in 2012 to bolster the state’s lowest-performing schools and now oversees 32 schools in Nashville and Memphis.

The state’s priority list is released every three years and includes the bottom 5 percent of schools, which could see state intervention. Memphis has historically contained a significant portion of schools on the state’s list of priority schools.

The Department of Education has postponed the release of this year’s full list to next summer. On Friday, it released several smaller lists, including schools eligible to leave and schools that are close.

Seven schools were named “priority improving” schools by the state, meaning they did well, but not quite well enough to exit the list:

  • Westwood High School, Shelby County Schools
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Sherwood Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Lester Prep, Achievement School District
  • John B. Whitsitt Elementary, Davidson County
  • Inglewood Elementary, Davidson County

The state also oversees more than 200 “focus schools,” which are schools struggling to close achievement gaps based on race, poverty, disabilities and language.  Fifteen schools exited the focus school list, the state said Friday, and another 20 made significant improvements. See the full list on the state’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more context around the ASD’s exit.