education is political

The GothamSchools voter's guide for an education election

Picture via NYC Board of Elections
Picture via ##http://www.vote.nyc.ny.us/##NYC Board of Elections##

As if you could forget amid all the noise about sanity and fear, today is election day. And while education hasn’t been at the forefront of any of this year’s big races, the issue is never too far from many voters’ — and candidates’ — minds.

We’ve compiled a short guide to where education fits into the biggest statewide races, as well as a few smaller races where candidates’ stances on education may play a key role.

Governor: Cuomo v. Paladino

From the beginning of his campaign, Cuomo has framed himself as a supporter of President Obama’s education policies and as a would-be governor willing to fight with unions. Though he hasn’t said exactly what he would do in office, he has aligned himself with groups like Democrats for Education Reform, which support increasing the number of charter schools, ending seniority-based layoffs, and changes to teachers’ pensions.

Paladino’s views on education are considerably more radical. According to his website, he supports firing the entire Board of Regents, repealing the law that governs how teachers are fired, and instituting school vouchers. Though he wants to cut the state’s budget by 20 percent, he told reporters that he would not cut education funding.

The city and state teachers unions — alienated by Cuomo but even more unlikely to support Paladin0 — are refusing to endorse either candidate. DFER formally endorsed Cuomo only yesterday, but has been raising money for his campaign for months.

Cuomo and Paladino are the two mainstream party candidates among a total of seven running. Of the remaining candidates, some teachers have thrown their support behind Green Party Candidate Howie Hawkins, who has picked up the endorsement of the group Teachers for a Just Contract.

Read more about Cuomo and Paladino’s takes on education here and here.

Comptroller: DiNapoli v. Wilson

Though not the most high-profile contest this election season, the comptroller’s race has been especially shaped by the education debate.

When Albany voted last May to more than double the number of charter schools allowed to open, legislators added a provision explicitly allowing the state comptroller to audit the schools. The change was intended to overrule a June 2009 state court ruling that found that the comptroller did not have the legal authority to audit charter schools.

Charter advocates have said they intend to challenge the new law’s constitutionality if the next comptroller tries to exercise it. But the outcome of tomorrow’s election may determine whether the charter school lobby even deems a lawsuit necessary.

Incumbent Thomas DiNapoli, who was formerly a Democratic State Assemblyman, has aggressively used his audit power to oversee both the state and city departments of education. One of his audits found flaws in the state’s oversight of Regents exam scoring. Others showed that city education officials did not follow regulations on no-bid contracts or charter school oversight. Another audit found that some high schools falsely claimed they discharged students into GED programs. Before the state court stopped him from doing so, DiNapoli also looked into the finances of several charter schools around the state. DiNapoli’s assertiveness is one of the reasons why the teachers unions and the parent activist group  NYC Kids PAC have endorsed him.

His challenger, Republican Harry Wilson, has targeted DiNapoli for that aggressiveness, calling it “politically motivated.” Wilson has close ties to the charter school movement through his work as a hedge fund manager, and he has been praised by charter school advocate and philanthropist Whitney Tilson. Wilson has indicated that he intends to focus his audit attention to areas other than education, such as health care spending.

Attorney General: Schneiderman v. Donovan

When Attorney General candidates Eric Schneiderman and Dan Donovan have sparred over education, it’s been in the context of Schneiderman’s close ties to teachers unions in his current position as a State Senator.

Democrat Schneiderman, who has been endorsed by both the city and state unions, stood with the union through this winter and spring’s protracted negotiations over the state’s charter school cap. Schneiderman is also aligned with the union in his support for retaining the “last-in, first-out” policy governing teacher lay-offs.

That fidelity to the union has drawn criticism from his Republican rival’s campaign, which has called Schneiderman “a wholly owned subsidiary of teachers’ union leadership.”

State legislature

Democrats are fighting to retain their majority in the State Senate; they currently hold it by merely one vote.

One race where Democrats hope they can pick up a seat is in Northeastern Queens, where former City Council Member Tony Avella  is challenging Republican incumbent Frank Padavan. Avella has strongly articulated views on education, developed during his tenure on the Council and an unsuccessful mayoral bid last year. According to a GothamSchools survey he returned last year, Avella opposes mayoral control, does not believe that test scores should be a factor in deciding teacher tenure, and thinks that “charter schools should not exist at all.” He also told GothamSchools last year that he opposes the way that the city currently funds its public schools and would work for a system in which schools received the same amount of money for every student.

In Long Island, DFER has been raising money for a Democrat fighting to hold onto his Senate seat, Craig Johnson. Johnson played a key role defeating the version of a charter cap lift that the charter lobby opposed in January, and then supported their favored version in May. DFER has also thrown its fund-raising weight behind Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who was also one of the major players in the push to double the cap on charter schools.

The state teachers union, meanwhile, withdrew its support from several incumbents, including Hoyt, who supported charter advocates’ preferred version of a cap lift. In Hoyt’s race, the union endorsed the Conservative Party candidate, Buffalo Councilman Joe Golombek.

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.”