roundtable with rosa

New chancellor Rosa says she’s concerned about charters; wants more options for English learners

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Betty Rosa discusses teacher evaluations during a Board of Regents meeting.

Chancellor Betty Rosa opened up about a range of contentious education issues during a whirlwind tour of New York City this weekend.

It is “abusive” to force some English language learners to take state tests on grade level, she said, as she pledged to be tough on charter schools that don’t enroll many high-needs students and made some of her first comments about school segregation.

The state’s top education policymaker made the comments at a forum in Washington Heights on Friday, then headed to the United Federation of Teachers spring conference on Saturday. Together, the comments offer more detail about the direction Rosa — who has already signaled she wants to depart from the policies of former Chancellor Merryl Tisch — will take New York.

Rosa on charter schools

The state education department is “very concerned” that some charter schools do not serve a population of students that represents their communities, Rosa said.

That could indicate that the Board of Regents, which has the power to approve and renew charter schools, will be paying closer attention to their demographic numbers — especially their number of English language learners, students with disabilities, and children in poverty.

Last year, there was a sizeable difference between the English Language Learner population in charter schools, which represented 6 percent of the charter student body, compared to 14 percent of all city students. That gap is smaller for students with disabilities, which make up 21 percent of district students and 16 percent of charter school students.

Those statements put Rosa in line with other charter school critics, who have long argued they do not take their “fair share” of high-needs students. The teachers union made charter school demographics one of its main legislative priorities this year.

Rosa did praise “homegrown” charter schools, which she did not define but said often act in the best interest of their communities and enroll a lot of high-needs students.

“I want my waiver”

Rosa repeated her objections to a federal policy that requires students learning English to take state assessments just one year after they enter the country. To do so is “abusive” and misses a chance to test what they have actually learned, she said.

For the past few years, New York has applied unsuccessfully for a waiver that would allow its students to skirt the policy, which federal officials say is important for ensuring that schools are being held accountable for helping vulnerable students.

“I saw [U.S. Secretary of Education] John King last week and I said, ‘I want my waiver for these children,’” Rosa said.

School segregation

School segregation needs to be fixed locally, not by the state, Rosa said.

While the chancellor acknowledged that schools in New York State are the most segregated in the country, and said she is looking into the issue, she argued the problem must be solved from the ground up.

“All these [desegregation] programs that have been mandated, many of them eventually, guess what, go back,” she said. “I believe this is one that has to be done at the local level versus being mandated,” Rosa said.

The state has made some recent efforts to encourage desegregation, though. Under former Commissioner John King, the state put $25 million toward grants that would help 20 schools experiment with reintegration efforts.

Her relationship with Elia

Rosa said she is working hard to “find common ground” with State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who has not always seen eye to eye with her on education policy.

Their working relationship got off to a bumpy start, when Rosa announced that she would have considered opting her own child out of state assessments — just as Elia had embarked on a statewide tour to convince families to take the tests.

Just after that opt-out comment, Elia sent a message to state superintendents saying the two education officials had a “productive conversation” about state tests. According to Rosa, that “shared view” is still in the works.

“As far as the commissioner is concerned, we are working very closely together to try to get to a place that we can find common ground and we can move forward,” Rosa said on Friday.

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.