race to the race to the top

Albany fails to vote on charter cap as RttT deadline passes

The state legislature failed to vote on a proposal to raise the state’s cap on charter schools today as the deadline for the federal Race to the Top competition came and went.

This meant that the state submitted its application for the federal grant program today with a nearly maxed-out cap of 200 charter schools still intact. The competition favors states without restrictions on the growth of charters.

There is much more to the content of the state’s application than the charter school dust-up. Charter school advocates and opponents argue over how much the failure to raise the cap will matter for New York’s bid for up to $700 million of the stimulus fund. Charter supporters point to statements from federal officials that suggest every point will matter in the competition, while others downplay the cap’s importance in the grand scheme of the competition.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch emphasized today that the application also includes an overhaul of teacher training, certification and the way school districts collect and track student data.

“I believe the application is eloquent and articulate and sets out a bold reform agenda,” she said. “I want to talk about what’s in this application. I want people to understand how broad it is.”

We haven’t yet seen New York’s full plan, which likely runs hundreds of pages long. But the agenda will be subject to intense scrutiny in coming months as observers take up Tisch’s call.

If New York’s plan does not make the cut for the first round of Race to the Top awards, renewed attention will also likely be focused on what changes the state might make in time for the second round deadline in June. States that do not make the first cut for grants will receive detailed feedback on how they can improve their proposals from federal education officials, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today.

And there’s no sign that Mayor Michael Bloomberg intends to abandon his push for legislative changes that could change the way teachers are hired, fired and evaluated.

As much as charter advocates want to push bills raising the cap and the mayor wants reforms, however, all attention for the immediate future will be on the budget. Charter supporters will have to devote most of their energy to fighting the governor’s plan to freeze the amount of money charter schools receive per student.

In comments on the Obama administration’s announcement today of a $1.35 billion extension of Race to the Top, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten reminded observers that much more is yet to come.

“While the president’s intention to extend Race to the Top demonstrates his commitment to making public education a national priority, all we know today about how well the program will work is that many states have submitted applications,” Weingarten said.

Here’s our live-blog of the debate in Albany over the charter cap lift.

And here’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson’s joint statement in response to the day’s outcome:

JOINT STATEMENT FROM MAYOR MICHAEL R. BLOOMBERG AND GOVERNOR DAVID A. PATERSON ON FAILURE TO BRING GOVERNOR’S BILL TO RAISE THE CAP ON CHARTER SCHOOLS TO THE FLOOR OF THE LEGISLATURE

“This afternoon New York State’s Race to the Top application was filed with the federal government.

“Today is a sad day for the children of New York, for the tens of thousands of students on wait lists for charter schools and for the thousands more who need and deserve better educational choices. We are disappointed that we may now miss out on an opportunity to receive unprecedented federal funding for our schools and our children. It is unthinkable that after being advised to make specific changes to enhance our application, the Legislative Leaders could not come to an agreement on legislation that would have significantly increased our competitiveness.

“Filing this application is in the best interest of New York’s 3 million schoolchildren and the people of New York. We have been offered a rare opportunity to receive unprecedented federal funding for our schools and our children when we need it most. As we have said throughout this process, our application is strong. But given the competitive nature of this selection process, we believe that the State Legislature should have joined our efforts to do everything in our power to ensure that New York is a true competitor for Race to the Top grants.  It is incumbent upon us as lawmakers to take any and all action necessary to succeed in a process that would reap up to $700 million in funds for education.

“On behalf of the City and the State, we want to thank Senator Dean Skelos for his efforts to pass this important legislation. In addition, we would like to thank Senators Craig Johnson, Ruben Diaz Sr., and members of the Senate Republican Conference, Assembly members Sam Hoyt and Brian Kolb and members of the Assembly Republican Conference and the other legislators who supported the Governor’s legislation which offered our State the greatest opportunity to receive Round 1 Race to the Top funding. Since introducing that bill on January 7th, the Governor met on several occasions with the Legislative Leaders, there were numerous staff meetings and the Governor’s office was open to negotiations. The Governor revised the legislation to reflect many of the concerns raised by the Leaders and their members. But, those efforts were not met halfway by our Legislative Leaders. It was not until the 11th hour that Legislative Leaders, without notice or negotiation, submitted their own bill on the Race to the Top competition – a bill that would ultimately have undermined the improvement that the Race to the Top grants intend to achieve.

“Race to the Top provides an unprecedented opportunity to reform our schools and challenge an educational status quo that is failing too many children. President Obama and Congress have provided significant financial support for school reform. This is a chance to change our schools and to accelerate student achievement, and we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that we are more than eligible to receive as much federal funding as possible as this process continues.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”