revisiting race to the top

Did the Times hold Paterson too accountable on Race to the Top?

One element of the New York Times’ long-awaited appraisal of Governor David Paterson’s governing style stuck out to us today.

In its lead, the story blames the governor for New York’s failure to pass reform legislation to sharpen the state’s application for federal Race to the Top funds:

[L]ast month, with the state facing a deadline to apply for $700 million in federal education aid, the governor waited until the last minute to try to bring lawmakers together to agree on a plan. His efforts failed, leaving the application in doubt.

This “blame-Paterson” narrative rests on the idea that a stronger governor could have successfully corralled all of the competing interests in the battle over state education reform, brought them to a compromise and forced the legislature to pass a bill.

But it’s also an overly simplistic explanation for the state’s failure to act, sources told GothamSchools today.

A more nuanced telling of the downfall of the state’s Race to the Top legislation involves decisions made by Paterson, to be sure. But it would also bring in a number of other, interlocking factors, all of which may become relevant again this spring or summer if the legislature re-visits the charter cap issue in advance of the grant competition’s second round deadline in June.

Here are several alternate theories for why the legislature failed to act:

1) All New York State politicians, including but not limited to Paterson, may have waited too long to even begin negotiating over key points in the state’s application.

Throughout the end of last summer and into the fall, the prevailing notion in New York was that the state was well-positioned to win Race to the Top funds without any changes in state law. State education officials, including Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, repeatedly expressed confidence that New York was already in a competitive position. Paterson even claimed in August that federal officials had assured him that the state was in a strong position. A constant stream of confident statements convinced many politicians and officials that swift action wasn’t required.

“I would say that there was, at all levels of state government, in the legislature, but also in the executive, too late an appreciation for the stakes and a focus on what it would take in order for New York State to be competitive,” said James Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center.

“We received from all quarters a message for months that New York didn’t need to do anything, no action was necessary, and that New York was a cinch and a lock to win,” a charter advocate said. “And that really didn’t change until Thanksgiving.”

Contrast that evolution with its parallel in California, a state with its own fair share of tension between the governor and legislature. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger first put forth legislation designed to boost his state’s Race to the Top competitiveness last August.

Like New York, the California state legislature also had dueling bills, one supported by the governor and another supported by the teachers union. Unlike in New York, that disagreement surfaced in the legislature before the start of the new year, and Schwarzenegger was able to broker a compromise with state Democrats that passed the legislature and was signed into law at the beginning of January.

2) New York’s Race to the Top legislation may have floundered because of wider dysfunction in Albany. Paterson certainly has a role in that story — it’s no secret that Paterson and state legislators don’t get along — but the Senate’s chaotic dynamics also played a large part in the legislation’s demise.

Democrats have a slim two-vote majority in the Senate, but their hopes of passing the Silver/Sampson version of the charter cap lift bill were dashed when two Democratic Senators, Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, Sr., sided with the Republicans to support Paterson’s version. Rather than allow Republicans in the Senate to steer Paterson’s version to passage, Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson simply refused to bring a bill to the floor.

3) Another theory posits that Paterson took the wrong legislative strategy towards winning the legislature over to a cap lift. In other states, such as Michigan, reform bills included a wide menu of changes that, even after being thinned out through legislative bargaining, still made significant changes to state law.

That was the strategy advocated in New York in October by Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and Senator Jeffrey Klein, who introduced a broad reform bill with the intent of aiming high to ensure that a strong bill survived legislative negotiations.

By contrast, Paterson gambled all of his chips on the charter cap lift and introduced reform legislation that addressed only that, and not other contentious issues such as increasing funding for charters and granting them public facilities space. When negotiations on the cap lift faltered, there was little to fall back on.

4) Blaming the state’s charter cap inaction solely on Paterson’s political failings also ignores the real, substantive disagreements over whether or how charter schools should expand in New York. It’s not clear that anyone, even a stronger governor, could have bridged the divide that continues to exist between charter supporters and many legislators skeptical of the way the schools have grown, particularly in New York City.

“There were a lot of legislators who had questions” about the wisdom of letting charter schools in the state grow unfettered by new regulations, said state teachers union spokesman Carl Korn. “And our work in this area suggests that there are reasons for those questions.”

Some charter school critics are in favor of lifting the cap, but only if there is greater oversight to ensure that charters serve greater number of high-needs students. But their proposals for doing so, embodied in Silver and Sampson’s bill, prompt angry responses from charter school advocates, who argue that additional restrictions will effectively kill the charter school movement.

Another camp of charter opponents argue that the expansion of charter schools would come at too great a cost to make the $700 million in grant money even worth it.

One theory, raised by observers on each side of the divide, involves the city’s practice of placing charter schools in district school buildings, often in space-sharing arrangements with traditional public schools that have prompted extremely loud public protest. Legislators, hearing from angry constituents about charter schools they say are encroaching on their neighborhood schools, are unlikely to sign off on any kind of cap lift until the city determines a less-contentious way of siting charters.

The city knows this is a problem and is currently trying to figure out the best way of resolving it. One of the first tasks assigned to Lenny Speiller, the Department of Education’s new lobbyist, is to come up with a strategy to build support in Albany for the city’s charter school siting policies.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”