warning shot

Feds threaten funding as New York mulls changes to teacher evaluations

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
New York State capitol

New York might lose out on $300 million if last-minute negotiations on teacher and principal evaluations untie Common Core test scores from final ratings, federal education officials warned Tuesday.

That’s how much New York is due to receive to implement a new evaluation system as part of its participation in Race to the Top, a competitive grant program launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009. New York won a total of $700 million after legislators allowed more charter schools to open, moved toward adopting the Common Core standards, and approved new teacher evaluation requirements.

But students’ poor performance on the first years of Common Core state tests, and a rocky rollout of the new teacher evaluations, have increased pressure on lawmakers to discount those scores. Ann Whalen, who oversees implementation of Race to the Top at the U.S. Department of Education, said that would “undermine four years of hard work by the state’s educators, school leaders and stakeholders.”

“Breaking promises made to students, educators and parents and moving backward on these commitments—including stopping the progress the state has made to improve student achievement—puts at risk up to $292 million of New York’s Race to the Top grant for improving schools and supporting their educators and students,” Whalen said in a statement.

Her warning is the first official word that Race to the Top funding may be on the line, though state education officials have repeatedly warned of the possibility as they pushed lawmakers not to retreat from the new teacher evaluations and Common Core standards.

Whalen’s statement comes as state lawmakers are negotiating ways to change the evaluation law so that teachers wouldn’t be held accountable for student test scores for up to two years. Under New York’s 2010 teacher evaluation law, student test scores can count for up to 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Teachers rated “ineffective” on that part of their evaluation for two years in a row can be terminated, which has prompted the state teachers union to lobby for a delay until teachers are more familiar with the new standards.

It’s unclear if New York state has actually received all of the money that is on the line. The state told federal officials last year that it was planning to spend a total of $87.3 million of its Race to the Top allotment through the end of the next school year. Most of those funds have been set aside for districts that won grants from the state to boost teacher and principal quality (New York City won a grant for $12 million).

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been directly involved in the talks and said on Tuesday that he was “cautiously optimistic” about a deal, even with the legislative session set to end Thursday. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to Whalen’s concerns about New York violating its Race to the Top agreement, though a source familiar with Cuomo’s position in the negotiations said “the governor would never accept a proposal that would put Race to the Top funds at risk.”

Assembly member Catherine Nolan, who has proposed a bill to delay tying the new Common Core standards to evaluations for this school year and next school year, said she wasn’t concerned about the state losing its federal funding.

“I am comfortable Commissioner [John] King can resolve the federal bureaucracy’s issues and still respond to the legitimate concerns of parents, teachers and principals,” Nolan said in a statement.

It’s not the first time that federal officials has threatened to pull Race to the Top funds from New York. Two years ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the fact that school districts still hadn’t implemented evaluation plans “could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.” Most districts, under pressure from Cuomo, ended up implementing new plans by the end of the school year. Later in the year, Duncan reprimanded New York City, the only district that failed to implement an evaluation plan in 2012.

A spokesman for state teachers union also suggested that Duncan would not actually pull Race to the Top funds if New York postpones using state test scores in evaluations. The spokesman pointed out that Duncan has told states that they could delay using state tests on evaluations when applying to opt out of some parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law—though that law is unrelated to Race to the Top. 

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Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.

story slam

The state of teacher pay in Indiana: Hear true stories told by local educators

It’s time to hear directly from educators about the state of teacher pay in Indiana.

Join us for another Teacher Story Slam, co-hosted by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Chalkbeat Indiana, and Teachers Lounge Indy. Teacher salaries are the hot topic in education these days, in Indiana and across the country. Hear from Indianapolis-area teachers who will tell true stories about how they live on a teacher’s salary.

Over the past two years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

Those stories include one teacher’s brutally honest reflection on the first year of teaching and another teacher’s uphill battle to win the trust of her most skeptical student.

Event details

The event will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at Clowes Court at the Eiteljorg, 500 W Washington St. in Indianapolis. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP.

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