land of nod

What's going on before, during, and after the UFT endorsement

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The UFT printed campaign posters for all major mayoral candidates in advance of today’s meetings to endorse a candidate, so that materials are ready as soon as the choice is made. The union posted the photo to Twitter on Monday.

For education voters, the mayoral campaign season has been building in large part to today, when the United Federation of Teachers will announce which candidate it is supporting.

But the decision, which will come out around 5:45 p.m. today, hardly ends the education election. Instead, it simply opens a new phase, one in which education policy’s prominence is far from assured.

Until now

From the time that campaign season kicked off so many moons ago, all of the Democratic candidates have been careful not to alienate the UFT. While the union’s picks don’t always win — as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out on Monday, it hasn’t backed a winning mayoral candidate in over two decades — the UFT endorsement does confer money, cachet, and bodies to fuel a ground game that will be essential in the coming months.

Even candidates seen as unlikely to win the union’s support, such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose help letting Bloomberg suspend term limits four years ago put her at a sharp disadvantage, were careful to infuse their education platforms with union-friendly positions. And all of the candidates who attended a forum the union held at its annual spring conference were effusive in their praise.

In recent weeks, though, only Thompson and de Blasio — and, to a lesser extent, Comptroller John Liu, whose campaign has been hamstrung by scandal — have actively seemed to be angling for the nod. When the city announced new graduation rates on Monday, they were the only candidates to release statements, all criticizing the Bloomberg administration for not helping students more. Thompson announced that he would guarantee at $200 a year to every teacher for discretionary materials, something the union has long sought. And de Blasio was the only candidate to stand beside Mulgrew at a press conference announcing a platform for reducing the city’s emphasis on standardized testing.

In de Blasio, the union would get a candidate with liberal bonafides and the chance to consolidate some the labor movement’s support. But with Thompson, it would be choosing a conciliator with education credentials who is seen as having a strong chance of becoming mayor.

What happens today

The union wants to advance a policy agenda that matches its vision for education and benefits its members. But even more than that, it wants to support a winner in November’s election, breaking a three-decade cycle of failure and ensuring that City Hall’s occupant feels beholden to the union. That’s why — even though, in a show of openness, the union has printed campaign posters for all major candidates — it would be a real surprise if anyone other Thompson ends the day with the union’s support.

But even though the decision appears to have been made, there is still a process the union must go through to make the choice official. That process includes some room for union members to express dissent, and their voices could be quite strong.

The union is using the same process that it goes through whenever it makes major policy decisions. First, Mulgrew will tell his closest advisors which candidate is his favorite. They’ll recommend the choice to the union’s 89-member Executive Board, which includes some representatives of minority parties within the union. Then the Executive Board’s recommendation will go to the 3,400-member Delegate Assembly for a floor vote, in which delegates from each school and chapter will hold up cards to signal whether they support the recommendation. Advocates and, potentially, opponents of the decision will make their cases until a majority of delegates support the resolution.

The union anticipates this process going quickly. The three meetings are scheduled back to back to prevent news from leaking before the end of the day. The Delegate Assembly meeting is scheduled for 4:45 p.m., and a decision is expected about an hour later, union officials said.

One reason the union can expect quick support for its leadership’s recommendation is that a strong majority of delegates are affiliated with Unity, Mulgrew’s party within the union. But a sizable number are not, suggesting that debate could be fierce if Mulgrew allows it to be. Some members are unhappy with Thompson’s relationship with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who helped engineer the state’s new teacher evaluation rules, and the fact that he has cozied up to charter school supporters even as he has worked to woo the union. In borough forums, de Blasio and Liu, seen as more left-wing candidates, received widespread support.

When the principals union voted to endorse Thompson on Tuesday, it did so with just 40 percent of the executive board behind him. President Ernest Logan suggested that while Thompson had garnered twice as many votes as the next closest candidates, at least four candidates had received wide support. The UFT has a stronger infrastructure for managing dissent and it won’t be tallying support for runners up, so it’s unlikely that the numbers will end up being quite so divided. But what happens inside 52 Broadway today is worth watching.

Not an end but a beginning

A divided union UFT would undermine one of the union’s chief goals in endorsing a candidate, which is to reassert its might in the city’s political ecosystem. According to a story in today’s New York Times, Mulgrew has devoted himself since first becoming president four years ago to bolstering the union’s political machine, once seen as capable of delivering candidates with ease.

That machine has a sizable war chest to help the endorsed candidate pay for campaign ads, including some that could potentially tilt the race into more negative territory. The machine should also have no trouble coming through with volunteers to make phone calls for the winning candidate and support his (or her) ground game. The union’s strong cadre of retired teachers in particular — known as the “daytime union” because they can step up when active members are at work — are notable for being willing to do what they are asked to.

But many retirees do not live in the city, and many current teachers do not, either. Combined with the fact that not all members will fall into line with the UFT’s pick, exactly how many votes the union will deliver in September’s primary and then in November’s general election is unclear.

What happens tomorrow, and for the next two and a half months until the primary election, could make the difference. It could be that the candidates begin to differentiate themselves more strongly on education, without the prospect of UFT support keeping them close to the union line. It could also be that they stop talking about education at all as they try to win over new constituencies. Candidates also have a reason to distance themselves from the union if they aren’t receiving its support. In office, a new mayor will have to weigh all of the city’s interests each time they sit down to bargain a single union’s contract. The high costs of health care and back pay, which the UFT wants, could be hard to deliver.

One role the union’s pick will play is to make sure that issues that are important to teachers do not fall off the radar, and to entice other candidates into making commitments that the union would like them to make. Mulgrew believes he can deliver this election, but he surely won’t mind insurance.

Busing Ban

As school districts push for integration, decades-old federal rule could thwart them

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Several districts across the country want to use federal money to pay for school buses as part of their desegregation plans. A federal spending restriction could get in the way.

In Florida, officials plan to use federal money to shuttle students across vast Miami-Dade County to new science-themed magnet programs in a bid to desegregate several schools.

In South Carolina, a tiny district west of Myrtle Beach intends to spend federal funds on free busing for families who enroll at two predominantly black schools, hoping that will draw in white and Hispanic students.

And in New York, state officials want to deploy federal school-improvement money to help integrate struggling schools, believing that may be the secret to their rebirth.

But each of these fledgling integration efforts — and similar ones across the country — could be imperiled by obscure budget provisions written during the anti-busing backlash of the 1970s, which prohibit using federal funding for student transportation aimed at racial desegregation. The rules have been embedded in every education spending bill since at least 1974, as Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia pointed out in September when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the provisions from the latest appropriations bill.

The rules are “a relic of an ugly history when states and school districts across the nation resisted meaningful integration,” said Scott, the top Democrat on the House education committee, during a floor speech where he called the persistence of the rules “morally reprehensible.”

After Scott’s amendment to eliminate the provisions was blocked, advocates are now working behind the scenes to convince members of the Senate from both parties to strike the rules from the latest spending bill during negotiations. More than 40 integration advocates and experts have signed onto a letter to lawmakers calling for the anti-busing language to be removed, and members of that coalition plan to meet with lawmakers in the coming days.

Advocates are especially worried about funding for magnet programs, like those in Miami and the South Carolina district, which rely on special science or art offerings or rigorous academic courses to draw students of different races into the same school — a choice-based approach that has become the primary way districts now pursue desegregation.

This is the first year districts that receive federal magnet-school grants are allowed to spend some of that money on transportation, after Congress changed the rules as part of its education-law overhaul in 2015. Among the 32 districts that received a total of nearly $92 million in magnet grants this year, at least six plan to use some of that money for transportation, according to their applications.

Now, just as those funds are about to flow to busing — which many families insist upon before they will enroll their children in magnet schools across town — the decades-old spending restriction could cut them off, advocates warn.

That could create a major problem for districts like Miami-Dade County.

It hopes to attract students from across the district to three heavily black and Hispanic schools by launching magnet programs that focus on zoology, cybersecurity, and mobile-app development, according to its application. To pull that off, it requested $245,000 for buses next year since, as the application notes, the “most limiting factor” for many families is “the cost associated with transporting their child to the magnet school.”

The district in Lake City, South Carolina wants to pull new families from different neighborhoods into an elementary school and a middle school that suffer from sagging enrollment and intense poverty. Previous recruitment efforts that didn’t provide transportation amounted to “failed attempts,” the district said in its application.

However, if the anti-busing provisions are not removed from the next federal spending bill, they would cancel out the new rule allowing those districts to spend some of their magnet money on transportation (though districts could still use local funds to fill in the gap). As such, magnet-school representatives are pushing hard for lawmakers to remove the provisions during budget negotiations.

“We’re hoping this doesn’t see the light of day,” said John Laughner, legislative and communications manager at Magnet Schools of America, an association of magnets from across the country. He plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers next week.

Beyond magnet schools, other desegregation efforts could be undercut by the anti-busing provision, which was included in a spending bill for fiscal year 2018 that the House approved and one the Senate has yet to vote on.

At least one state — New York — listed socioeconomic and racial integration among the ways it could intervene in low-performing schools under the new federal education law. In addition, New York officials announced a grant program this week where up to 30 districts will receive federal money to develop integration plans.

Advocates fear the anti-busing rule could disrupt any of those plans that require transportation and aim to reduce racial segregation. (New York education officials said they did not want to speculate on the impact of a spending bill that hasn’t been approved.)

A Democratic Congressional aide who has studied the issue said the provision could even block federal funding for planning or public outreach around desegregation programs that involve busing, not just busing itself.

Either way, advocates say the provision could dissuade districts from using the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, to pursue integration — even though research suggests that student achievement on tests and other measures improve when they attend less segregated schools.

“We shouldn’t have this,” said Philip Tegeler, a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which is leading the charge to remove the restriction. He added that the provision stemmed from mandatory desegregation busing of an earlier era: “It’s clearly an anachronism that doesn’t really fit any more with what states and districts are doing voluntarily.”

A U.S. education department spokeswoman said Secretary Betsy DeVos would be bound to enforce any funding prohibitions that Congress approves, though she noted that state and local funds are not subject to the same restrictions.

Negotiators from the House and Senate must still agree on a single spending bill, which would go before the full Congress for a vote. Until then, lawmakers have voted to temporarily extend 2017 spending levels through December. It’s possible Congress will pass another extension then, meaning a final deal — and a decision on the anti-busing language — may not arrive until early next year.

In the meantime, advocates are pressing lawmakers like Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate education committee who helped craft ESSA, with the argument that the anti-busing provision limits the flexibility and local control the law was meant to provide districts.

Margaret Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the senator, would not say whether he is open to removing the provision, but said he would continue working to ensure ESSA “is implemented as Congress intended.”

The anti-busing language — found in two sections of the current appropriation bills — prohibits using federal funds for transportation “to overcome racial imbalance” or “to carry out a plan of racial desegregation,” or forcing students to attend any school other than the one closest to home. (A separate education law contains a similar restriction, but ESSA exempted magnet schools from it.) The provisions emerged in the early 1970s, just after the Supreme Court ruled that busing students to schools outside their own racially isolated neighborhoods was an appropriate tool for school desegregation.

At the time, many white parents raged against what they called “forced busing.” In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed at least one law annually from 1966 to 1977 meant to curb school integration, according to historian Jason Sokol, and in 1974 the full Congress voted in favor of an anti-busing amendment to an education bill. The restrictions in the current spending bills appear to have originated around the same time.

The attacks on busing reflect how crucial free transportation is to school desegregation, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies segregation. Busing was included in guidelines outlining how districts should comply with desegregation requirements in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later upheld by the Supreme Court, she pointed out.

More recently, studies have shown that non-white parents are more likely to opt into magnet schools when they provide transportation, and that magnets that don’t offer busing are more likely to enroll students of a single race, Frankenberg said. Yet, many politicians remain reluctant to endorse busing for desegregation — which may reflect a deeper ambivalence, she added.

Resistance to busing, she said, “is a very politically acceptable way to be opposed to integration.”

Yes and No

In a first, New York officials reject 2 proposed charter schools, but sign off on 5 for New York City

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school advocates staged a rally outside the state capitol building 2015.

New York’s top education policymakers voted Monday to approve five new charter schools in New York City – but, for the first time, rejected two proposed charters.

The moves by the state Board of Regents sent a mixed message on charter schools. While the Regents have approved more this year than at any point since 2013, the rejections suggest they won’t rubber stamp applications – even those, like the two shot down Monday, that have earned the state education department’s blessing.

Four of the approved schools will be based in the Bronx, and one in Staten Island. (Technically, Monday’s vote is preliminary and the board must finalize its decision at Tuesday’s full-board meeting.)

A new charter high school on Staten Island plans to enroll a significant number of students with disabilities — an area of great need in a borough where a quarter of students have some disability. Students will have the opportunity to graduate with as many as 60 college credits through a partnership with St. John’s University.

The Bronx charters include a new elementary school that will serve high-functioning students on the autism spectrum, an all-boys middle school inspired by an Obama-era program aimed at uplifting young men of color, and a high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

The final Bronx school is KIPP Freedom, slated to open in 2018, which will mark the first time the national network has opened a new school in New York City in six years.

“The community has tremendous support for the charter,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa about KIPP, who suggested the school could even help reduce segregation if sited in the right location.

The two schools the board rejected would have been located in districts in Mount Vernon, in Westchester County, and Homer, in upstate New York.

Board members raised concerns about the applications, including that their curriculums were not very innovative. They also worried that the schools would drain resources from their surrounding districts, potentially forcing them to cut extracurricular programs from traditional schools.

Regent Judith Johnson, who represents the Mount Vernon district, expressed concern that the school only planned to serve students grades 6-8, while the district is moving towards a model that keeps children in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She suggested waiting to see how the district’s efforts pan out.

“I would suggest this is premature,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to support this at this time.”

The vote comes as top state officials have been skeptical of charter schools and policies regulating them.

At past meetings, Regents have wondered aloud whether the schools are serving their fair share of high-needs students. And Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia have been on a warpath against a new policy that will allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers.

However, those concerns have not stopped the Regents from approving new charter schools. During a low point for approvals in 2015, when the state approved only four charters, few applications made it past the education department’s vetting process and to the board for final approval.

Since then, there has been a steady uptick in approvals. The board signed off on seven new schools last year, and is set to approve at least eight this year. (The board, which typically accepts applications in two or three rounds each year, approved three schools earlier this year.)

State education department officials on Monday also presented new ways to evaluate charter schools and decide whether they should remain open, based on proposals that the Board of Regents floated last month.

The additions to the state’s “Charter School Performance Framework” could include measures of student chronic absenteeism, the schools’ suspension rates, and the results of student and staff surveys. In previous meetings, Regents have also suggested surveying families who decide to leave charter schools.

Charter schools are already required to meet certain enrollment and retention targets, or to make “good faith efforts” to reach them. The state also considers the quality of a school’s curriculum and its outreach to families.

At Monday’s meeting, some Regents proposed adding yet another measure: whether charter schools are sharing innovative practices with the district schools.

“If the original intent [of charter schools] was to create opportunity for innovation,” said Regent Johnson, “we have to decide now, after those twenty plus years, did that happen?”