precautionary measures

City's school budget cuts move forward while state's are on ice

A court order and support from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver aren’t enough to stop the city from slashing its schools budget this year.

City officials said today that they were fiscally obligated to move forward in making a midyear budget adjustment to account for an expected $250 million deficit during the final months of the school year, even though a judge has for now barred the state from taking back the funds.

The move has the attorney who convinced the judge to halt the state budget cuts planning to sue the city, too.

The budget shortfall became likely last month, when the city and the United Federation of Teachers failed to reach agreement on teacher evaluations. By missing a Jan. 17 deadline that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had enshrined in law to force school districts to negotiate new teacher evaluation deals with their local unions, New York City lost out on $250 million in state aid, which amounts to roughly a 4 percent increase over what the city received last year.

In response, department officials have begun making cuts so that it can plan for a balanced budget later this year. They have  put a freeze on hiring school staff and made cuts to department’s central offices. Soon, they’ll be making school-level cuts that affect field trips, after-school offerings, and enrichment programs, officials said today.

But increasingly, it looks like those cuts might not actually be necessary. Last week, a judge ruled that the state could not withhold any state aid until a lawsuit against the state aid loss brought by attorney Michael Rebell is decided. And earlier this week, Silver signaled that restoring state aid for the city would be a priority for him as he enters budget negotiations with Cuomo and the State Senate.

Today, a spokeswoman for the city said that it would move forward assuming that it still does not have the $250 million in state aid.

“We hope the legislature protects our children from the UFT’s obstinance, but unless that happens, we can’t spend money we do not have,” said Lauren Passalacqua, the spokeswoman.

Rebell said he was surprised and frustrated to hear that city officials did not also follow the injunction order placed on the state, even though the injunction does not technically apply to them.

“I was expecting, and I think the court was expecting, if we were able to get an injunction, that there’s no reason to make the cuts,” Rebell said.

Rebell said he planned to add the Department of Education, Mayor Bloomberg, and the city to the list of defendants in his court case.

“It’s arbitrary and unreasonable,” Rebell said. “To subtract more money and to deny them more services is making the denial of a sound basic education more acute.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

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.