a more perfect union

For teachers unions, budget is more proof of a pendulum shift in New York education policy

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

In an unlikely outcome, the charter school sector and the teachers union can both claim victory in this year’s budget deal.

The charter sector is excited about a funding boost, while the unions are relishing an ideological shift that got its start months ago and is borne out in the state’s newfound support for “community schools.”

The satisfaction of both groups points to a larger theme: In a shift, the budget had much more to do with haggling over funding than arguing over education policy.

“The whole tone difference was really nice,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “It was nice to work on education instead of fighting over everything.”

Charter schools will walk away with $54 million more in per-pupil spending, a number double what Gov. Andrew Cuomo originally proposed. Meanwhile, the state will invest $175 million in so-called community schools, which will provide wraparound services to students and families.

Pleasing both unions and charter schools is no small feat. But the union’s win is a bigger-picture victory that falls in line with other state policy shifts.

Last year, the unions unsuccessfully fought a teacher evaluation system that increased the weight of state standardized tests. By December, the governor had switched his stance on teacher evaluations and called for an overhaul of the state’s learning standards. With the direction of state policy shifted, lawmakers were free to focus on funding this year and kick policy decisions back to the State Education Department.

“There are members who will tell you that education dominates the budget each year, so for it not to fully dominate is a big win,” Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy said.

The largest education change in this year’s budget, which gives more resources to struggling schools, solidifies the shift in emphasis from accountability-focused changes to resource-driven reform. It is a proposal that Mulgrew says he can get behind.

“I love the community and learning school stuff,” Mulgrew said. “You know how much we’re invested in this as a union.”

Carl Korn, spokesman for the state teachers union, agrees that there was a decided tone change. Last year, the union spent most of its time protesting, while this year he watched “the pendulum swinging,” he said.

As the unions celebrate the state’s big-picture changes, charter schools showed that they could still score their own budget wins. Not only did they come out with much more funding than first proposed, they also avoided a union-backed measure that would withhold money from charter schools that do not enroll a certain percentage of high-needs students.

Charter advocates did not succeed in unfreezing the city’s funding formula, which would allow charter school funding to increase at the same rate as district school funding. But that policy will end next year, and charter sector leaders say they are unconcerned.

“This is a good budget for charter schools, the students they serve and the State of New York,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

But the increased charter school funding and a failure to pass the legislation to withhold further charter school funding did not dampen Mulgrew’s view of the deal.

“We’re making progress,” he said.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.