aint over til its over

More than a day after ‘framework’ agreement, questions remain on education issues

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie on the Assembly floor.

State lawmakers left work on Wednesday night without finalizing a legislative deal involving New York City education issues.

Legislative leaders announced Tuesday that they had resolved their differences on the most contentious parts of negotiations that had dragged on for more than a week past their original ending date. That deal included a one-year extension of mayoral control, a modest increase to the number of new charters that can open in New York City, and a $250 million consolation prize for private and parochial schools whose push for tuition tax credits were dropped.

But there are still a host of unresolved issues standing in the way of final deal. Chief among those for Assembly Democrats is the strengthening of rent regulations, although changes to the charter-school law were also being discussed.

“There’s nothing closed down. Everything is still open,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said after emerging from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office on Wednesday evening.

Here are the other questions remaining about New York City education issues.

1. Will other changes be made to the charter-school law?

The framework deal clears the way for 25 additional new charter schools to open in New York City and gives the State University of New York more latitude to approve the schools.

On Wednesday morning, the ongoing talks included additional changes. Assembly Democrats said they sought measures to ensure that charter schools serve a more equitable share of high-needs students. A source familiar with the negotiations said one proposal would have required charter schools to serve comparable shares of special education students with more severe disabilities. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans wanted to increase the maximum number of uncertified teachers that a school can employ from 5 teacher to up to 30 percent of an entire staff.

But talks slowed on Wednesday, the source said, who said the most recent discussions involved changing “just the cap and nothing else.”

2. Will anything happen to the hotly contested teacher evaluation law?

After the governor pushed the new law earlier this year, some lawmakers were hoping to slow down the tight timeline in which districts have to negotiate and implement new plans. But nothing in Tuesday’s “framework” announcement suggested that gripes with the new law had factored into the deal — a loss for the state teachers union, which made evaluation changes a priority in end-of-session negotiations.

“We probably didn’t go as far as I hoped,” said Patricia Fahy, a member of the Assembly’s education committee, adding that she also sought to minimize the use of student testing for evaluations. “I’m a little disappointed about that, quite frankly.”

The only tweak announced so far appears to be aimed to appease critics without making substantive changes to evaluations. A law dubbed the “Parental Empowerment Act” will require “a review of growth model,” according to the press release announcing the legislative deal, referring the methodology through which students’ test score gains factor into their teacher’s evaluation.

The press release did say that the act would “require the disclosure of state exam questions and answers,” which a spokesman for the Senate said would be accompanied with $8.4 million in funding for the State Education Department. The state published only about half of questions last year, citing test security and cost concerns amid sharp criticism of the state’s testing program.

3. Will the mayoral-control legislation include any other changes to how New York City’s schools are run?

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over in Albany,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference on Wednesday when asked for his reaction to the one-year extension of mayoral control — a particularly harsh blow after de Blasio lobbied for a permanent renewal earlier this year.

But despite the mayor’s deference to the ongoing negotiations, his allies in the legislature said they were mostly ambivalent about fighting to lengthen the extension.

“I think there were a lot of things that we were fighting for or against and this was part of the discussion, but we didn’t focus on it,” said Linda Rosenthal, an Upper West Side Assembly Member. “There was much more talk about rent and 421-a and all of those” housing issues that have been the focus this year, she said.

The renewal offers lawmakers a chance to make changes to the governance structure. When mayoral control was last renewed in 2009, the legislature extended it for six years but required the city to hold public hearings and study the impact of school closures or space-sharing agreements prior to approving them. That provision became a legal issue one year later, and ended up derailing the Bloomberg administration’s agenda for a year.

But there aren’t any other big changes expected to be included in the one-year renewal.

Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, said a statement that the coalition of business leaders she represents was mostly relieved that legislative agreement “reflects an undiluted extension of mayoral control.”


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”