human capital

Dispute over layoff bills boils down to a question: now or later?

The argument that heated up today between city officials, Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the state legislature over abolishing the state’s seniority-based layoff system for teachers essentially boils down to one thing: timing.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Department of Education officials want to do away with the “last-in, first-out” system immediately so that they can use new criteria to lay off teachers at the end of this school year. Cuomo and other state officials — several of whom support changing the layoff system generally — counter that abandoning seniority-based layoffs must wait until the state has a better system it can use instead.

Yesterday, Cuomo introduced a bill that would speed implementation of the teacher evaluation bill that Albany passed last May up by a year but did not propose any changes to the layoff system. City officials immediately blasted the bill as “a sham” and a distraction, and Bloomberg said today the governor’s proposal “simply kicks the can down the road.”

Part of the disagreement lies in whether or not the city and the state have time to kick that can. City officials speak of the need to change the layoff system with a sense of urgency, arguing that a budget crisis necessitates laying off more than 4,000 teachers this year.

But many people — including the teachers union, the governor and some state legislators — are skeptical of the mayor’s timeline. The union accuses the city of scare-mongering and argues that the city has the funds to preserve teachers’ jobs. The governor has said that his proposed cuts to education funding also should not prompt teacher layoffs this year.

“There are many in the legislature who are not convinced that the mayor’s layoff threats are real,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. “Over the last several budget cycles, the mayor has threatened layoffs that have never come to pass.”

Jeffries said that he was willing to consider changing the seniority-based layoff system. But he said that he is not willing to grant the city greater flexibility in choosing which teachers to fire before a more objective system is put in place. And he said that he is not yet convinced that the city does not have the time to develop that system.

“To what degree is the layoff threat real? Is there reserve funding sufficient to prevent layoffs? What amount of additional state funding is necessary to ensure that not a single teacher is laid off this year?” Jeffries said. “This information will be necessary for the legislature to make any sort of informed decision over the coming weeks.”

Cuomo has said repeatedly that he believes that merit should eventually be a factor in determining which teacher lose their jobs. His bill is meant to address the concern — voiced by critics of the mayor’s push to lay off teachers based on merit rather than seniority — that the city and state do not yet have a reliable method to determine “merit.”

Critics of State Senator John Flanagan’s complex bill, which is backed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed the Senate yesterday, argue that it relies too heavily on principal’s subjective evaluations of teachers, which in some documented cases have been abused.

“It is time to move beyond the so-called ‘last in, first out’ system of relying exclusively on seniority,” Cuomo said last night in a statement. “However, we need a legitimate evaluation system to rely upon. This will help make a statewide evaluation system ready and allow us to replace ‘last in, first out.'”

City officials and opponents of seniority-based layoffs countered today that abandoning “last-in, first-out” cannot be done incrementally as the teacher evaluation system improves.

Joe Williams, the head of Democrats for Education Reform and one of the most outspoken critics of the current layoff system, said he agreed with the governor that a robust and fair evaluation system should be put in place. “However, that system must be instituted alongside a crystal clear law that eliminates [last-in, first-out] and forces merit to be taken into account when laying off teachers,” Williams said.

Under the original evaluation law that Cuomo wants to change, only teachers of tested grades and subjects would start receiving rankings next school year. If Cuomo’s amendment is passed, all teachers in all grades would be ranked next year.

That would mean that by next year, state and local districts will need to come up with a system to judge student growth in all grades and subjects that currently don’t have standardized tests. State officials are currently developing regulations to guide those new measures; the bill gives officials a June deadline to complete those guidelines.

But the original evaluation law also requires districts to negotiate parts of how they will measure student growth with their local unions, and Cuomo’s bill is silent on those negotiations. City officials argued today that could allow the new evaluations — and therefore, a merit-based layoff system — to be delayed if negotiations stall.

“The acceleration of the timelines in the bill is artificial, as districts and unions are not compelled to change their current evaluation process until they’ve successfully negotiated new collective bargaining agreements,” wrote Deputy Chancellor John White today in a memo released to reporters.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.