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.

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.”