survey says

Report: Students and educators say school climate has worsened under de Blasio after sweeping discipline reforms

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When education officials announced last October that suspensions plummeted 46 percent over the last five years, they touted the news as evidence that major changes to the city’s discipline policy were taking hold.

But that data has sparked debate among educators and advocates of school discipline reform. Does the drop in suspensions mean that schools are creating richer learning environments where students — especially those of color and with disabilities — are less likely to be removed for minor misbehavior? Or are educators responding to pressure to look the other way instead of issuing suspensions, making schools less orderly in the process?

New evidence presented Tuesday by the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute may help answer those questions. The report shows that after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2015 school discipline reforms went into effect, which made it harder for schools to suspend students, perceptions of school climate took a big hit.

That conclusion is based on annual school survey data collected by the city during a five-year timeframe: The tail end of the Bloomberg administration, and the first two years of the de Blasio administration. Both of those periods saw similar size reductions in the number of suspensions handed out, but student and teacher reports of school climate — including fights, respect among peers, and drug and alcohol activity — worsened under de Blasio.

“Overall, the pattern is consistent and unmistakable: School climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reforms but has deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s,” according to Max Eden, the report’s author.

Of roughly 1,000 middle and high schools included in the survey data, nearly 44 percent had a larger share of students report more frequent fighting as de Blasio’s discipline reforms rolled out, compared with 25 percent in Bloomberg’s final years.

About 52 percent of the schools surveyed during the de Blasio era reported a decline in the percentage of students who said their peers respect each other, compared with 25 percent at the end of Bloomberg’s tenure.

A higher proportion of teachers at nearly 40 percent of elementary, middle and high schools responded negatively when asked if order is maintained in their schools — about six percent higher than during the last two years of the Bloomberg administration.

And middle and high schools that serve higher proportions of low-income students and those of color were more likely to see their school climate worsen.

Those findings come with some important caveats: Because the city significantly changed its annual survey, only five “school order” questions were similar enough to use across administrations, limiting the picture of how changes in discipline policy are playing out. And multiple school discipline experts said there wasn’t enough evidence to imply that reductions in suspensions were to blame for worsening perceptions of school climate, a point the report acknowledges.

“There could be a million other explanations” said David Kirkland, executive director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center, who added that “the report suggests we need to look at this data more seriously.”

Kirkland, who studies school discipline, stressed that it is important for policymakers to weigh the benefits of reducing suspensions — not simply its costs — including the likelihood that higher-need students may graduate at higher rates or show other academic gains if they aren’t removed from the classroom.

Still, he acknowledged that teacher and student perceptions are important, and may reveal that educators have not been adequately prepared to replace suspensions with “restorative” approaches that favor dialogue and reflection over student removal. The teacher’s union has made a version of that argument — and some educators have said the transition away from suspensions can be challenging.

“I concede the point that maybe we need to roll out the policies in a different way that doesn’t produce backlash,” Kirkland added. “What this evidence suggests is that we need to do more than just reduce suspensions.”

City officials did not dispute the report’s findings — though they noted that the vast majority of students reported feeling safe in their classrooms. “Research shows that overly punitive disciplinary practices are not effective,” mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein wrote in a statement. “Our investments in mental health and school climate programs ensure students are provided with a safe and supportive learning environment and that they are being held accountable for their actions.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.