need to know

The Bronx factor: What Speaker Carl Heastie’s rise means for education

PHOTO: NYSUT
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, speaking at a press conference in 2012 held by the Alliance for Quality Education.

He supports charter schools, but deplores the co-location policy that’s allowed them to flourish in New York City. He voted for mayoral control in 2002, then reversed himself seven years later. And he’s said public schools need a big increase in funding while also sponsoring a bill that would direct funds toward private-school seats.

Meet Carl Heastie, the new speaker of the New York State Assembly.

The northeast Bronx legislator, elected to the assembly’s top position by his peers this week, is entering the fray at a critical moment for public education. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to make dramatic changes to laws governing teacher tenure, evaluations, and the number of charter schools allowed to open across the state in exchange for additional education funding. As speaker, Heastie will be able to decide what bills get considered and negotiate the details of the state budget, which sends more than $8 billion to New York City schools annually.

But Heastie’s record on education is sparse and, at times, conflicting. As the teachers unions, charter-school advocates, and the rest of Albany’s power brokers look for a new ally, here are five things to know about the speaker.

1. He’s been a muted voice on education.

Heastie’s predecessor, Sheldon Silver, was a staunch ally of the teachers unions, which have been aggressively organizing against Cuomo’s education plans.

But despite his more than 14 years as a public official, Heastie’s views on education are murky and his legislative record on education issues is minimal. (That’s not atypical in the Assembly, where most issues are negotiated in a package behind closed doors.) On most hot-button issues, he’s said little.

“He’s a supporter of all public schools,” a spokesman said when asked for his position on last year’s charter-school funding debate. He did not make Heastie available for an interview.

Teachers and principals who work in the northeast Bronx schools say that Heastie represents say he’s been a responsive and visible presence, batting away co-location proposals they opposed, speaking at graduation ceremonies, and even being a regular visitor to one school’s student council meetings. He touts his role in securing construction funds to build two new schools in his district on his Assembly website.

Despite his obscurity outside of the Bronx, Heastie’s rise has excited some who believe the borough’s schools have been neglected for decades.

“Bronx is in the house!” offered Betty Rosa, a former superintendent of Bronx schools who now represents the borough on the Board of Regents.

2. He’s supported policies the union cares about.

Under Silver’s leadership, the Assembly remained closely allied with the city and state teachers unions. Reducing class sizes and school overcrowding were top priorities for Silver, and the unions counted on him to scuttle or amend legislative proposals they opposed.

Heastie, too, has said overcrowding is an issue and occasionally spoken out about a need for the state to more adequately fund low-income schools, a perennial issue for the unions and other advocates.

“Resources alone doesn’t teach children, but it goes a long way,” Heastie said in 2012 at a press conference organized by Alliance for Quality Education.

City teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew said that he is counting on Heastie to continue pushing Cuomo to meet the state’s court-decided funding targets for city schools.

“I think he understands, as an assemblyman from the city and from his section of the Bronx, that the idea that the state hasn’t met its obligation constitutionally is something he would probably be interested in,” Mulgrew said.

Heastie also kept Queens Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, an ally of Silver’s and longtime proponent of increased school funding, as chair of the education committee.

3. He’s broken the traditional mold for an Assembly Democrat.

The lone charter school in Assembly District 83 never had to worry about its representative having its back.

That’s the impression school leader Kevin Brennan left with last year after he showed up at the Albany office of Assemblyman Carl Heastie. Brennan, who runs the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning, had wanted to know whether Heastie would support some controversial changes to the charter-school law that would help his school get free space.

“Why even bother to come up here?” Heastie told him, Brennan recalled. “You know I already support you.”

But he also had a hand in scuttling a proposed charter school co-location at J.H.S. 144 in 2013, according to a staff member at the district school. “I’ve always had problems with charter schools co-located in public schools,” Heastie told the Daily News this week.

Meanwhile, the charter sector has tried to make inroads in the Assembly. Last fall, the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee received a total of $40,000 in donations from Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz’s political action committee and Public Prep Chairman Bryan Lawrence, filings show.

Kyle Rosenkrans, CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, described Heastie’s appointment as a new opening.

“I think it’s an opportunity to forge a new relationship and a more collaborative one between the Assembly and charters all over the state, frankly,” Rosenkrans said.

In 2009, Heastie also broke from his conference and voted against renewing mayoral control of New York City schools, which a spokesman attributed to concerns about the independence of the Panel for Educational Policy.

Heastie also co-sponsored the Education Investment Tax Credit bill, which would direct some taxpayer dollars toward private-school seats. The bill incentivizes donations to private school scholarship funds as well as foundations that support public education, a proposal that the New York State United Teachers has likened to a “backdoor voucher proposal.”

His support for the tax credit likely reflects the middle-class nature of Heastie’s district, which has several Catholic schools that would benefit. Heastie also supported changes to the charter-school law last year that guaranteed facilities funding to new or expanding schools. (The Bronx has the second-most charter schools of the city’s boroughs, with 52.)

4. His ascent could raise the profile of the Bronx’s school struggles.

The Bronx is the borough with the highest number of English language learners with disabilities — 10,000 — and the highest concentration of students who require language services for more than six years, according to city figures. In the Bronx, 15.5 percent of third-through-eighth graders were proficient in reading last year, compared to 28 percent citywide, and math proficiency stood at 20 percent, compared to 34 percent citywide.

“I feel that I personally will have a person who will understand the plight of the children in the Bronx,” Regents member Rosa said.

But to some Bronx-based advocates, Heastie’s relative quiet on larger issues has been a disappointment, especially since the borough’s schools are considered the neediest in the city.

Ocynthia Williams, a parent organizer in the Bronx for more than two decades, said public schools are rarely a priority for the borough’s politicians.

“From my experience with Carl Heastie and the Bronx machine, we’ve stayed in the same predicament for a very long time when it comes to schools,” said Williams. “They’re not getting better and I’m not really seeing them fighting to make them better and it’s just business as usual.”

5. He knows his way around a school.

Interviews with teachers and principals whose schools are in Heastie’s district offer a picture of a representative who excels at constituent services. He visits schools regularly and shows up to speak at graduations, they said, describing him in the same way that his political colleagues have in recent weeks: an unassuming presence who doesn’t appear to have staked out strong political positions.

“I don’t think you’re going to hear him yelling and screaming at people,” said Andrew Turay, the former principal of now-shuttered Evander Childs High School, where Heastie has spoken. (After Evander closed in 2008, Turay founded one of the new small high schools that opened in the building.)

Linda Resnick, a teacher and coordinator of student activities at Evander Childs before it closed, said Heastie would often attend the school’s student council meetings. At the time, Heastie was still in graduate school at Baruch College, earning his accounting degree while starting his political career.

“He made the effort to come in to talk about leadership and responsibility,” Resnick recalled.

Correction: A previous version mislabeled the host of a 2012 press conference on school funding where Heastie spoke. It’s the Alliance for Quality Education, not the New York State United Teachers.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.