consolidations cont'd

After announcing plans for 12 school mergers, Fariña says to expect many more

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña expects to consolidate a growing number of very small schools next year, which she has asked superintendents to identify, she told city lawmakers Monday.

In a reversal of the previous administration’s policy of creating new small schools, Fariña has announced plans over the past year to combine 25 small schools, arguing that by pooling resources the merged schools are able to offer more advanced classes and enrichment programs. While she did not have an exact count on Monday, Fariña said her conversations with superintendents suggest that many more small schools could benefit from mergers.

“It will certainly probably be more than what we did this year, based on what I’m hearing,” Fariña told reporters after a three-hour City Council hearing on the mayor’s proposed $23.1 billion education spending plan for next school year, where she also answered questions about school safety, transgender students, and calls to make lunch free for all students.

The schools that Fariña has targeted for consolidations so far have been very small, typically with 200 students or fewer, and often low-performing as well. (The plans call for 12 mergers, including one set of three schools.) On Monday she added some other factors that might make schools ideal candidates for mergers: they share a building; one principal is retiring, making it easier for the other to take over; one school is higher performing than the other; or one school has resources, like science equipment or honors classes, that could benefit the other.

When two or three schools consolidate, the money saved by paying for only one principal and administrative staff “goes back into classrooms,” Fariña said, perhaps to fund additional elective classes or after-school programs. She is also considering removing individual grades from schools — such grades six to eight in a school that includes the elementary and middle grades — if just part of a school is under-enrolled, Fariña added.

After Fariña meets with every superintendent, a special merger unit within the education department will create a list of potential consolidations, which officials will discuss with people at each school and the city’s education policy board will vote on, she said.

“Nothing will happen without a lot of discussion,” Fariña told the council.

Here are some other highlights from the chancellor’s testimony and her briefing with reporters:

Fariña defended the city’s school safety record, saying schools are safer than ever.

The mayor’s critics have mounted a fierce campaign featuring TV commercials and rallies (including one planned for Tuesday at City Hall) to convince the public that schools have become more dangerous under his watch. The charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools has said that schools saw more violent incidents last year (using state figures that the city disputes), and more weapons were seized from students.

But Fariña flatly denied those charges on Monday, adding that she has found that schools labeled “persistently dangerous” by the state do not warrant that label. (State policy makers are considering revising how schools earn that label.)

“I happen to think school safety is better than it’s ever been,” she told reporters. “Even one case is too many, but it’s certainly not at the level where I’d say our schools are unsafe.”

She said the city is ahead of the curve in serving transgender students, though its bathroom policy must be revisited.

The Obama administration released guidelines last week on how school districts should protect the rights of transgender students — more than two years after New York City issued similar recommendations.

“We’re so far ahead of the rest of the country,” Fariña told reporters, trumpeting the education department’s new liaison for LGBTQ students. She said the liaison has already trained many superintendents and schools’ parent representatives on LGBTQ-related issues, though several council members said one liaison is not enough.

However, the city might still have to update its transgender-student policy to conform with the new federal guidelines. While the city recommends that those students be allowed to use private bathrooms if they request them, the federal rules say they must be permitted to use whichever bathrooms match their gender identity.

She wouldn’t commit to expanding a free-lunch program, despite pressure from lawmakers.

City Council members continued to press the city to expand a free-lunch program in middle schools to include all students, citing advocates who say an additional 120,000 students would eat the $1.75 lunches if they were free. A council report said that more middle-school students ate lunch as a result of the program, while the city did not lose any federal funding — a concern the mayor has raised.

The council estimates that expanding the program to all students would cost $8.75 million next year. Fariña said Monday that the city is “looking into” the possibility of adding money for free lunches, but that “it’s all a matter of priorities.”

Schools could start getting money for students who arrive mid-year.

It frustrates principals every year: Latecomer students enroll after Oct. 31, when school budgets are set based on enrollment counts, leaving schools to serve extra students without extra funding.

Fariña told lawmakers Monday she’s aware of the issue and is considering possible solutions, such as re-calculating a school’s budget mid-year if it enrolls a certain number of latecomers.

“Any child who comes to your school after October 31 is like a blank slate,” Farina said. “They don’t carry money.”

However, she noted that many schools also lose students during the year but still retain the funding tied to them.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.