sounding the alarm

Mayor: layoff threat "more realistic" this year than ever before

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today that his threats to cut more than 6,100 teaching positions — including over 4,600 through layoffs — should be taken more seriously than ever before, and the city will have to fight to avoid even more cuts across city agencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget reduces state aid to New York City schools by $1.4 billion, and the city schools system is also facing the end of $850 million in federal stimulus funds. To negate those cuts, the city has moved $1.86 billion in city funds to the Department of Education since June, Bloomberg said today.

But overall city expenses are still rising enough to necessitate the cuts in teaching positions, which were originally projected in the city’s preliminary budget outlined in November, the mayor argued.

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said that the mayor’s layoff proposal was “more and more bizarre,” given the increase in city revenue going to fill in gaps in DOE funding and the Cuomo administration’s claims that state cuts should not mean local layoffs.

“We’ve already lost nearly 5,000 teachers to attrition in the last two years, and class sizes are skyrocketing across the city,” Mulgrew said. “It’s time the Mayor joined us in fighting for the children of our city by supporting the extension of the state millionaire’s tax, rather than continuing to focus, as he and Chancellor Black did in Albany this week, on a bogus strategy to lay teachers off.”

The mayor’s budget proposal is based on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget, and both budgets are far from finalized. State legislators have a spring deadline to pass a budget, and the city’s deadline is in June. For the past several years, city officials have suggested that teacher layoffs were the only way to close budget gaps, only to find other ways to cover holes.

But Bloomberg said today that because city funds are covering much larger gaps this year, layoff threats are “more realistic” than in years past.

As the threat of teacher layoffs has loomed in recent weeks, Bloomberg and Black have ramped up their campaign against the state law that requires the most recently hired teachers to be laid off first; instead, they want layoffs to be conducted on the basis of merit.

A big question mark in the city’s plan has been how officials would define merit if the seniority-based layoffs were abolished. The state recently overhauled its teacher evaluation law, but those changes will not be in place in time to use if layoffs happened this year.

Bloomberg and Black have argued the city should start by laying off the roughly 1,800 teachers whose principals rated them unsatisfactory last year and the roughly 1,200 teachers currently in the absent teacher reserve, which means they lack full-time faculty positions in schools.

The mayor’s plan would lay off an additional 1,600 teachers who don’t fall into either of those categories, in addition to the positions lost through attrition. For the first time today, Black suggested that the next step would be to fire teachers who have racked up a large number of unexcused absences. Her remarks echo recommendations made earlier this week by the group Educators 4 Excellence, who have been campaigning against seniority-based layoffs with the support of some of Bloomberg’s political allies.

“There is a place to start,” Black said.

The DOE couldn’t confirm today how many teachers with many unexcused absences are currently working in the system. Earlier this week, city officials said that 7.1 percent of the city’s roughly 80,000 teachers took more than 16 absences last school year, but could not say how many of those teachers’ absences were excused.

Black also said the department had not yet analyzed precisely how the loss of more than 6,100 teaching positions would impact classrooms, though she acknowledged that classes in the city will almost certainly get bigger.

The chancellor argued that eliminating the seniority-based layoff system would help mitigate the impact of layoffs to the classroom directly, because teachers in the absent teacher reserve pool are not in the classroom now. In fact, many teachers in the reserve pool do work in classrooms as substitutes, and some are given full class loads, though the exact numbers of ATRs working in schools has been difficult to obtain.

Even with the layoffs, the spending plan that Bloomberg presented this afternoon also relies on $600 million in state support that Albany has not yet committed to providing. The city is asking for $200 million more in education aid and changes to the state’s revenue sharing plan and fund for retired police and fire department employees that would yield an additional $400 million.

If state legislators don’t provide the additional funds, however, the overall city budget may be cut again to make up for the shortfall. That potential cut would be spread across all city agencies and would likely affect DOE spending but not necessarily increase the number of layoffs, Bloomberg said.

“I think it will be a struggle to get the $600 million to fill in the deficit,” the mayor said, arguing that the city was even less likely to receive more state funding to mitigate layoffs.

Schools Chancellor Cathie Black said that although she would continue to advocate for more education funding, she believed layoffs will happen this year. “I think we have seen the reality of it laid out today,” Black said.

Read the mayor’s financial plan summary for next year here.

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.