wish list

Assembly budget invests in college tuition, rejects governor’s ‘repeal’ of foundation aid

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie, after meeting with Assembly Democrats in 2015.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly made its education positions known on Monday night when it released its budget bill, embracing a college affordability agenda beyond what the governor has proposed, and calling for more funding for traditional public schools.

The education provisions in the bill are in keeping with the Assembly’s past stances. The chamber generally supports the Foundation Aid formula, designed to distribute school funding more equitably, takes a hard line on charter schools and wants to extend mayoral control. With those positions now established for this budget cycle, the Assembly will haggle with the Senate and the governor to hammer out a final budget deal.

Here are some of the highlights from the Assembly’s budget:

— The Assembly budget increases school aid by $1.8 billion, with a $1.4 billion increase in foundation aid. That’s more than the governor proposed. It also rejects the executive budget’s decision to not fully fund the foundation aid formula, calling that a “repeal,” and commits to a four-year phase-in.

— The Assembly budget would reconfigure state aid so state college students could use a third of their Pell grants to pay for non-tuition expenses.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior scholarship offers free college tuition to full-time students at state colleges whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. It has been criticized for providing little additional help for low-income students who already have their tuition covered by state and federal aid, but need help paying for non-tuition expenses like books, rent and food. The Assembly budget would raise the cutoff for families to $150,00o per year  in the fourth year of the program.

Another provision in Cuomo’s college tuition plan calls for students to average 15 credits per semester. That measure has been called “punitive” by at least one Assembly member and has been criticized by the chair of the Assembly’s higher education committee. (Most SUNY students don’t graduate in four years.) The Assembly’s budget allows students to take two semesters of 12 credits during their college tenure. In addition, it increases the maximum TAP award, or the amount students receive in state aid.

— The Assembly’s budget is not kind to charter schools. In fact, it rejects benefits included in the executive budget and provides some strings of its own. The Assembly would freeze charter school tuition, rejects the idea to lift New York City’s charter school cap and includes provisions related to transparency, enrollment and discipline.

— Mayoral control is extended for seven years in the Assembly’s budget, but it’s not the Assembly that stands in the way of a longer extension for Mayor Bill de Blasio. It’s Republicans in the Senate who have forced the mayor into one-year extensions for the past two years.

— The Assembly’s budget would require New York City to study the admissions process at the city’s specialized high schools. Though the city has said it wants to increase diversity at the elite crop of schools, its efforts do not seem to be working. Only 10 percent of specialized high school offers went to black and Hispanic students this year, despite the fact that those students make up about 70 percent of the city’s total student population.

— The budget includes $15 million in grants for school districts with growing English Language Learner populations, earmarked to help improve graduation rates. That is another area where New York City has struggled recently. Though graduation rates improved overall in 2016, those for English Language Learners decreased by almost 10 percentage points. (The city argues that is a misleading statistic because when current and former ELL students are combined, 57 more students graduated this year.)

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: