State attaches several strings to city's bid for "turnaround" aid

Three months after the city asked the state for federal funds to fuel school ‘turnaround’ efforts, the state has responded — with a resounding “maybe.”

In a letter released late Friday, State Education Commissioner John King said the way the city plans to overhaul 24 struggling schools meets the state’s requirements. But he said he would only hand over the federal funds, known as School Improvement Grants, if the city meets steep conditions.

To meet some of those conditions, the city would need to come out ahead in arbitration with the teachers union over collective bargaining rules at the 24 schools. It must also prove that community members were looped in on the city’s planning process.

The arbitration, which covers a dispute over whether the city may use a process outlined in the teachers union contract for schools that close and reopen (called 18-D), is set to end next week. If the union comes out ahead, hiring and firing decisions at the schools would be reversed and, according to King’s letter, the city would not be able to collect the SIG grants, which total nearly $60 million.

Earlier this year, King said he saw the city’s proposal as “approvable.” But he stayed quiet as the city signaled it would not force schools to adhere to a central requirement of turnaround set by the U.S. Department of Education: that they replace at least 50 percent of their teachers.

King’s letter today says the city must meet the federal government’s staffing requirements.

State turnaround advisors say “the percentage matters,” SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said over email. “18-D is the mechanism to achieve the required percentage.”

DOE spokeswoman Erin Hughes repeated Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg’s promise that the city has given schools “no quota” for rehiring or replacing teachers.

King said the city would also need to provide the state with reams of documentation showing that it had consulted “stakeholders” about its plans to overhaul the schools before July 1. He said the city must prove that it provided the SIG applications to the teachers and principals unions and leadership teams at each of the schools. The city must also provide comments those groups submitted about the plans and a summary of changes the city made in response, or an explanation for why it will not make certain changes.

In the decision letter, King also demonstrated a continued awareness of the concerns that critics of the Bloomberg administration’s school reforms have levied. As he did when approving school closures last year, he warned that the state does not want to see needy students negatively affected by the overhauls.

And King announced that the city had already promised to work to reduce the concentrations of high-need students at the schools. The schools have large numbers of students with special needs, English language learners, and low-performing students, which their defenders argued have set them up to fail.

The city also promised to distribute one category of high-need students, “over-the-counters” who arrive mid-year, across a wider set of schools. Struggling schools tend to enroll large numbers of students who were enrolled through the over-the-counter process, which brings in about 50,000 new students each year to the system.

The city’s promises reflect an admission that the city’s school choice and enrollment policies might not have allowed all schools to flourish.

“We acknowledge that there is still more work to do,” city officials wrote in a letter to SED earlier this month, after state officials raised questions about the enrollment process. “Over the past 18 months, NYC has been working with the New York State Education Department to address its concerns about situations where our choice-based system may be leading to an over-concentration of students with disabilities, English language learners, and/or students that are performing below proficiency in certain schools.”

That letter details plans to reform the city’s enrollment system and the over-the counter process. It also provides data to show that students at most of the SIG high schools entered ninth grade performing below the average of other students in their boroughs on state tests. Many of the SIG middle and high schools also enrolled a higher percentage of special education students and English language learners than the average for their districts, according to the data. Defenders of the schools had argued that their concentration of high-needs students had set them up to fail.

In a letter to King submitted today, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott vowed that the city would monitor and refine its enrollment practices to reduce the high concentrations of needy students in certain high schools around the city.

King suggested that the city’s turnaround gambit might not be assured state approval earlier this month, while speaking to a group of teachers in the Educators 4 Excellence advocacy group.

“However that turns out, New York City, I think, ought to follow through on its commitment to trying to improve teaching and learning in those buildings,” he said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city education officials have vowed to go ahead with their turnaround plans  even without SED approval and the accompanying grants, which would funnel at least $1.5 million to each school.

The state revoked similar grants awarded to those and other schools as a consequence for stalled district-union teacher evaluation negotiations late last year. The schools were using those grants to fund professional development, technology purchases, cosmetic changes, and hire additional teachers known as “master” and “turnaround” teachers.

Here’s the letter that King sent to city officials today:

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”