race to the race to the top

Confident state ed officials press forward on Race to the Top

Brushing aside criticism that current state laws could jeopardize New York’s chances at Race to the Top Funds, state officials say they will enter the contest in round one.

On Monday, the State Education Department will release a comprehensive plan to overhaul teacher training, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today. Tisch called the proposal a “very aggressive package” that will be a major element of New York’s Race to the Top application.

The strength of a state’s teacher training program is a heavily weighted component of the final Race to the Top criteria unveiled today. At a speech in New York City last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for states to better prepare new teachers.

But even with a new teacher training initiative, it remains to be seen whether two controversial state laws — one that bans the use of student test scores in teacher tenure decisions and another that caps the number of charter schools allowed in the state — could derail the state’s application.

In a conference call with reporters today, Duncan emphasized that states with such policies will be at a distinct disadvantage compared to states that are “vigorously challenging the status quo” by eliminating such caps and barriers. Some states are changing their laws to improve their Race to the Top chances, but New York has not.

Duncan also made clear that he wants states to use teacher evaluations to make personnel decisions. “These evaluations have to drive decisions about tenure and placement,” he said. And he said states whose local districts have policies, as New York City does, prohibiting student test scores from being used in teacher evaluations would “put themselves at competitive disadvantage.”

But Tisch insisted, as she has before, that the state’s current teacher evaluation practices hew to the spirit of Race to the Top’s requirements. “There is no barrier to using student data in teacher evaluations in the state of New York,” she said, adding that the state law applied only to teacher tenure decisions. “We evaluate teachers on the basis of student achievement every year in New York.”

Much of New York’s hope in the competition rides on the promise of the strong reputations of Tisch, new state education commissioner David Steiner and new deputy education commissioner John King, as well as that of a charter school movement considered one of the strongest in America.

Tisch has frequently pointed out that state education leaders’ priorities match the Obama administration’s goals on issues ranging from teacher training to raising academic standards and overhauling testing. Changing the tenure law and lifting the charter cap might not be necessary, officials have argued.

But critics say that new leadership and vision may not be enough to spring New York ahead of the pack in a highly competitive field.

State Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who last month introduced a bill designed explicitly to align state law with Race to the Top’s priorities, said it is too risky to leave the laws unchanged.

“If in fact [the tenure law] is interpreted as not meeting the criteria that Arne Duncan set forth, it would be tragic if we lost that money,” Hoyt said. “So why risk it? Let’s address it now. So then there isn’t any risk involved at all.”

Hoyt’s bill, which the Assembly and Senate have not yet taken up, calls for broad changes in state education law, including an immediate repeal of the teacher tenure law and a lift of the charter cap.

Joe Williams, head of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, said New York will have to change its laws to compete against states that have already changed theirs. But he said he is not confident that there is political will to overhaul state law.

“It seems like the mood is just to go with what we’ve got and to put our trust in Steiner and Tisch,” he said. “And I love what they’re talking about with teacher training, but I just can’t imagine that we’re going to win with all of these other states making big moves.”


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”