stuck in the middle

How one struggling Bronx school got caught in the crossfire between Cuomo and the State Education Department

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

When the state announced a new accountability system designed to hasten turnaround efforts in New York’s lowest-performing schools, it came with a stern warning: Make improvements or risk being taken over by outside management.

A year after that policy took effect, just one school — J.H.S. 162 in the Bronx — has been threatened with a takeover.

The State Education Department celebrated that announcement as a success: Only one school failed to meet its targets, evidence that the program is encouraging most schools to make progress.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pushed for the law, isn’t happy with how it’s been implemented. His office agrees with the state that receivership is working, but says the State Education Department has let too many schools leave the program, significantly weakening its impact.

Some experts and observers argue this is intentional: The State Education Department and Board of Regents are moving away from aggressive accountability measures and are purposely watering down the program.

“It’s probably ongoing evidence of a political struggle over control of the city’s schools,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College. “The state doesn’t want to be in the business of reaching too far in.”

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The logic of Cuomo’s receivership program, modeled after a Massachusetts law, was that schools like J.H.S. 162 needed stricter incentives to improve. In contrast with the city’s union-friendly “Renewal” turnaround program, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars and infuses schools with social services, the receivership program expects schools to make progress in just a year or two. It offers some extra funding and gives districts wider latitude to restructure schools while circumventing union rules, but threatened them with outside management if they didn’t meet their targets.

Unsurprisingly, when the receivership program was floated in 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted the idea. “The notion of a group of bureaucrats 150 miles away trying to determine the fate of our children sounds like a formula for disaster,” he said.

Under the law that passed later that year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña was granted extra authority — the ability to ask teachers to reapply for their jobs, for instance — over city schools the state flagged as its lowest performers. Sixty-two city schools were identified, meaning they were ranked in the lowest five percent statewide, and seven of them had been in the lowest five percent since 2006.

Those seven “persistently struggling” schools, including J.H.S. 162, were given a year to show improvements on everything from test scores to school climate, or else face the specter of independent management.

But almost as soon as the program got underway, it was clear that state education officials wanted to ensure it wouldn’t be too hard to meet mandated improvement goals, which were selected in consultation with the schools themselves.

“These schools had such a long history of low performance,” said Ira Schwartz, assistant commissioner for accountability at the State Education Department, who added that it didn’t make sense to set unreachable targets. “We’re looking really for green shoots at this point.”

Cuomo’s office agrees that it makes sense to set modest goals, but is critical of the state’s decision to release so many schools from the program. The State Education Department has reduced the number of schools in the program over the last year — just 27 remain in New York City, down from 62 when the program launched.

“It’s clear the new law is working – improving our academic institutions so New York’s best and brightest have a fair shot at success,” Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer wrote in an email. “This makes it all the more perplexing that SED took action to remove a number of schools from this successful program. There is still a long road ahead, and all parties must be held to account.”

The education department pushed back against the implication that schools leaving the program would not receive state support. “We all know that fragile schools, even those moving in a positive direction, continue to require critical funding and appropriate monitoring so they can continue the important work of supporting students,” SED spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in a statement. (The state is currently involved in litigation over whether some schools that were released should still be eligible for extra receivership funding.)

Asked why more than half of New York City’s receivership schools were dropped from the program since its inception, state officials said they reevaluated each school’s status in February based on 2014-15 data, instead of the 2013-14 data initially used to determine their eligibility. Officials confirmed no new schools have been added to the program, but said more could be added in the future.

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That isn’t much solace for J.H.S. 162, the only school in the state that failed to meet its targets this year, and is now subject to takeover or possible closure.

On paper, at least, it isn’t surprising that the school was initially identified for the receivership program. J.H.S. 162, also known as Lola Rodriguez De Tio, has been among the lowest achieving in the state since 2006, and is part of the city’s Renewal program. It has posted single-digit reading and math proficiency rates, and was only recently taken off the state’s list of “persistently dangerous” schools. Nearly 47 percent of the school’s teachers have left over the past three years, according to data provided by union officials.

J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
J.H.S. 162 Lola Rodriguez De Tio

But critics say the fact that only one school was ultimately singled out for takeover shows that the program is hardly the sweeping accountability tool Cuomo originally envisioned.

“To single out one school and say it’s the worst school in the state is misleading on so many levels,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former New York City deputy schools chancellor who is now a professor at Teachers College and visited J.H.S. 162 several years ago. “It’s easy for the school to say there are many other schools in the city and state that match the same criteria.”

Asked about criticisms that the current law arbitrarily singled out one of many low-performing schools for outside management, SED’s Schwartz said, “It was the opposite of arbitrary. There was a very precise algorithm that was shared with everybody. No one is saying there is only one troubled school in New York.”

Schwartz denied that the education department is backing away from the receivership program. In fact, he said, it could serve as a model for broader accountability framework the state is designing under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“If anything, this is a generation ahead of ESSA,” Schwartz said, noting that state policymakers will likely borrow from the receivership program’s emphasis on measures other than test scores to evaluate schools. “This is a pilot in a sense. If it is a successful, we will advocate for its wider adoption.”

Some school leaders see that as an encouraging sign. Though there was some anxiety about the prospect of a takeover, the process of coming up with tangible targets under the receivership program “clarified the work that we had to do,” said Edgar Lin, principal of J.H.S 22 Jordan L. Mott, a Bronx receivership school that was also given one year to show progress. The school hit all of its targets this year, avoiding a takeover, but will have to show gains again next year.

“When we all feel personal responsibility for things, behavior changes,” he added. “We were much more creative and adaptive.”

But uncertainty lingers at J.H.S 162, which could be closed or merged if the city decides to avoid an outside takeover.

The school’s principal, Deborah Sanabria, declined to be interviewed for this story. But on a recent afternoon, a handful of teachers and parents who gathered for dismissal said they hoped the administration would push to keep the school open.

“We are fighting, the school is fighting,” said one teacher who declined to give her name because she said teachers were cautioned against speaking to the press. “They need to give the school more time. They’re working as hard here as any other school I’ve been in.”

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.