phase two

New York’s opt-out movement aims to influence policy, not just parents. Here’s how

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Takiema Smith, a parent at the Brooklyn New School, opted her child out of state exams in 2014.

After making a splash last year, leaders of New York’s opt-out movement want their campaign to be more than a short-lived protest — and they’re taking bold steps to sustain its impact.

Last year, one in five students refused state tests amid widespread criticism of the state’s testing program. Now, the group leading that charge is endorsing candidates to serve on New York’s education policy-making body and has suggested changes to its bylaws — steps that are virtually unprecedented for outside groups.

The moves show that opt-out leaders are emboldened by their ability to mobilize parents and plan to leverage that momentum to gain a lasting foothold in state education policy.

“We’re not looking for someone to just be a dissenter,” said Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, about the opt-out advocacy group’s desired additions to the Board of Regents. “We want someone who’s going to bring solutions and make sure they’re going to include stakeholders.”

The opt-out movement’s efforts to influence the Board of Regents have raised eyebrows. Some wonder whether a group founded expressly to encourage parents to skip legally mandated state tests should have a say in statewide policy.

And others say it’s just weird for the movement to assert itself in the selection of members for a body designed to remain insulated from politics. Regents are selected by the legislature but then serve five-year terms.

“It does strike me as unusual,” said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant, about the movement’s decision to endorse Regents. “It would be as if the anti-frackers decided to interview candidates for the [Department of Environmental Conservation] commission.”

Opt-out leaders reject the criticism, arguing that since the Board of Regents represents the public, members of the public should have a say.

“We’re the people,” Rudley said. “We’re just parents and educators and volunteers.”

If successful, NYSAPE’s intervention could alter the direction of state education policy. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar will step down in March, paving the way for two new Regents to join the board and two new members to lead it.

Under Tisch, the board supported policies that included adopting the Common Core standards and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. The opt-out movement emerged as a response to the state’s shift to the Common Core, which critics said resulted in excessive and age-inappropriate tests, and continued controversy over the use of those scores to judge teacher performance. Leaders see the current moment as an opportunity to put the board on a new path.

They have been vetting prospective candidates for a while. Twenty-two of about 50 prospective Regents went through an exhaustive process to earn an endorsement from NYSAPE. Each submitted a résumé, filled out a detailed survey, and sat for a lengthy interview.

The organization also recruited some of the current candidates. David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center who has criticized the board’s recent policy agenda, said he fielded an email from opt-out organizers a couple of months ago asking if he planned to apply for a spot on the board. Though he said they did not explicitly ask him to apply, after he read the email, Bloomfield mulled over the choice and submitted an application.

NYSAPE has also endorsed Regents for chancellor and vice chancellor and suggested that the board choose its chancellor in April, though the vote traditionally takes place in March. Delaying the vote would exclude Tisch and Bottar from weighing in on their successors.

These types of interventions from an outside interest group are foreign to close observers of state education politics.

“I would say it’s extremely rare,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for the state teachers union. “I’ve been here 22 years and I don’t remember it.”

Even more unsettling to many, the group appears focused on the one issue that unified it. Opt-out leaders say they represent parents broadly, but surveys of potential Regents candidates asked, “Do you support the right of parents to decide whether their children will participate in the NY State standardized exams?” Every endorsed candidate answered affirmatively and some expressed hearty support such as “Unequivocally!” or “Yes, absolutely.”

Regents should ignore a special interest group “aiming to alter the election system in favor of its own agenda,” said a statement by High Achievement New York, a coalition that promotes the Common Core.

It is anyone’s guess whether the endorsements will ultimately shape the board, but it is possible, said Billy Easton, the executive director of the advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, which does not formally endorse Regents candidates.

When asked if the opt-out movement could change the makeup of the Board of Regents, Easton chuckled.

“240,000 opt-outs,” he laughed. “Yeah, absolutely.”

Update: After publication David Bloomfield clarified that he received an email from NYSAPE. 

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.