weekend update

All eyes on Albany as state's RTTT app remains up in the air

Governor David Paterson
Governor David Paterson at a meeting about the state’s Race to the Top application on Friday.

Arnold Duncan, meet Albany. Whaddya think?

This is the question Governor Paterson and state lawmakers are trying to figure out right now, 48 hours from the deadline for the federal Race to the Top competition.

They’re spending the final hours mulling whether to pass legislation that — depending on who you talk to — would either bolster the state’s chances of winning the race, and as much as $700 million, or would be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” imperiling New York’s odds, as Mayor Bloomberg said in a strongly worded statement this afternoon.

The legislation being circulated right now would double the charter school cap to allow 200 new schools in the state. It would also severely rewrite how the schools are opened and closed and in which neighborhoods they’re allowed, following many of the suggestions proposed by the teachers union last week. These include eliminating the city’s power to authorize charter schools, as well as that of the most respected authorizer, the State University of New York, which even authorized the UFT’s own charter school.

(Read the latest legislation here.)

Paterson invoked a recent conversation he had with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a public meeting Friday, where he pushed for SUNY to be thrown back in the mix and for the cap to be raised to 460 rather than 400. Then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver countered that he’d heard from Duncan’s general counsel, Charles Rose, that a lift to 400 would be enough.

“I know who the secretary of education is. His name is Arnold Duncan, and — ” Paterson affirmed, angrily.

“No, his name is Arne Duncan, as a matter of fact,” Silver cut in.

(Watch the full video of the meeting here.)

The Daily News reported today that Paterson plans to bring lawmakers to work early from vacation, starting tomorrow night at 8pm, in order to hammer out an agreement on the legislation.

Silver argues the legislation will please both the Obama administration, which vowed to reward states that raise restrictions on charter schools, and state lawmakers. Many local legislators side with the teachers union in arguing charter schools need more regulation — and, according to Silver, would not vote to lift the charter school cap without it. Many of the draft legislation’s changes echo recommendations made by the city teachers union last week.

Answering Paterson’s concern that the union-backed changes could end up acting as a “poison pill” that costs New York hundreds of millions of dollars, Silver replied with a pragmatic argument. “Legislation requires votes of legislators,” he said, repeating many lawmakers’ concerns with the schools, which operate outside of the usual public bureaucracy.

Paterson could veto the bill or refuse to go along with it if its language remains mainly unchanged, as a Governor Bloomberg clearly would.

But he also might elect not to block legislation, opting instead to reach a compromise with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the Senate Democrats. In that case, it’s possible the state could turn its application in along with a dramatically revised charter school law.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.