in the lobby

Eyeing Cuomo's grants, charter sector sees a pre-K opportunity

Charter schools want to piggyback on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to expand pre-kindergarten across the state. But in order to benefit from Cuomo’s $25 million in pre-K grants, the schools first must win the right to offer pre-K classes.

Pushing for that right is at the top of charter school supporters’ agenda today as they convene in Albany as part of the charter sector’s annual advocacy day. The parents will meet in the Albany Convention Center with more than a dozen legislators, then spend the rest of the day visiting their district representatives.

They’re not the only ones lobbying lawmakers over pre-K this week. On Monday, police chiefs, principals, and education groups from around the state declared their support for Cuomo’s pre-K grants, which represent a fraction of the $385 million that the state spends annually on pre-kindergarten.

The charter sector’s lobbying efforts are not so straightforward, because the state’s 1998 law authorizing the schools grants them the right to serve students in kindergarten to 12th grade only. Legislators would have to change to the law — last revised in 2010 amid heavy controversy — to allow pre-kindergarten in charter schools.

“It’s our job to talk to lawmakers and say to them, ‘Hey, does it really makes sense to a have a program where some really good schools don’t have the ability to do full-day pre-K?'” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center.

Merriman said the sector also wants legislators to revive a bill that would allow charter schools to share resources in order to serve special education students and English language learners. In past years, charter school parents and advocates have lobbied for a variety of legislative initiatives: more schoolsmore funding, and, last year, more of a voice on the city’s local parent councils.

Sources say that advocates should dig in for a tough battle with the Assembly, which includes many Democratic lawmakers who have aligned closely with state and city teachers union on charter schools, which rarely employ unionized staff.

“The union would kill it,” said the source, who said broad legislative support for charter school pre-kindergarten would be unlikely during the session this year.

Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said the state union has not decided if it would support allowing charter schools to operate pre-K programs.

But United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said he didn’t think charter schools were ready to serve earlier grades.

“The charter school sector needs to deal with some of its more immediate concerns like high student attrition and their low number of special education and ELL children,” Mulgrew said.

It’s not the first time charter schools have sought to wade into early education. Harlem Children’s Zone, which operates two charter schools, had to set up a community-based organization with a separate board of trustees to receive state funds to operate its full-day pre-K programs. And Success Academy Charter Schools dabbled in a “developmental kindergarten” program that admitted 4-year-olds before they graduated to kindergarten. Spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis said that program ended after a year.

This year’s charter sector agenda is largely fueled by the recommendationS made by Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission earlier this year. In its “consensus” report, the commission avoided many of the state’s thorniest issues, and instead focused on less controversial initiatives.

All members of the commission embraced the pre-K recommendations. In its report, the commission highlighted research that shows that the earlier students enter a quality early education program, the better they will do in and out of school later on in life.

Some members wanted the report to more explicitly recommend Cuomo to seek legislation to allow charter schools to have a crack at his grants. Sara Mead, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, said she thinks the state needs more high-quality providers in order for expanded pre-K to succeed. Charter schools, she said, should be at least an option.

“The issue is not that charter schools should be entitled,” Mead said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to preclUde the charters from offering pre-K when some of them want to do it and have a good history of serving kindergartners.”

Even if charter schools win the right to operate pre-K programs, they still might not be eligible for Cuomo’s funding. That’s because districts without approved teacher evaluation plans aren’t eligible for Cuomo’s grants. New York City remains without an evaluation plan and, even if it eventually adopts one, it would not apply to charter schools.

In New York City, 58,000 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs in 2012, according to the City Council. Most of them attended school for just a half-day, but a growing number, 15,590, attended full-day. About 7,500 pre-kindergarten-aged students weren’t enrolled in any program at all.

Several states already have laws that allow charter schools to operate pre-K programs, according to the report. California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., allow charter schools to operate pre-kindergarten programs. Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Education, said New Jersey also allows charters to operate pre-K programs.

In New York, Merriman said, there is still considerable opposition to charter schools in the legislature, and he conceded that the sector’s lobbying had only a slim chance of success.

“I think, unfortunately, there are still lawmakers who just think that nothing positive should be done for the charter sector,” he said.


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”