'rigorous and realistic'

Some struggling New York City schools can lose ground and still hit performance targets

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious promise to transform struggling schools, some of New York City’s bottom-ranked schools can backslide this year and still hit new goals that the city has set for them.

For the first time, the city has told schools in its $582 million “Renewal” program to aim for test scores, graduation rates, or attendance rates that fall within a certain range, rather than hit a specific target. But some ranges include goals that are below the schools’ current levels.

For instance, Bronx Collegiate Academy posted a 67 percent graduation rate last year. This year, its city-issued goal is to land between 63.6 and 81.9 percent — meaning its graduation rate can go down and still fall within its target range.

At the Bronx’s J.H.S. 123, the goal is for students to earn an average score on the state English tests of between 2.3 and 2.45 — despite already achieving a 2.42 average last year. (Students must earn a 3 or higher on the 4-point scale to be considered proficient.)

The latest round of goals continues a pattern of modest targets for schools in de Blasio’s signature school-turnaround program, even as the city loads them with extra social services, extended hours, and bigger budgets. Some experts say the goals are appropriate for schools that started so far behind, and note that school turnaround can take years. But others say the goals set a low bar, and question whether they are designed to make it easier for the de Blasio administration to claim its pricey program was a success.

What’s more, the new goal ranges have created some confusion among school leaders about what they are expected to achieve and what will happen if they don’t.

“If [the goals] really are supposed to be guiding stars and shaping what schools are doing on a day-to-day basis,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “fuzzy ranges with unclear accountability consequences is not the way to do it.”

The goals are one of the factors officials consider when deciding whether schools in the Renewal program have made sufficient progress or should instead be closed or merged with other schools.

But if they are meant to provide low-performing schools with clear targets and a sense of urgency, the new ranges have instead created some confusion. The city offered online trainings on the goals, but some school leaders remain unsure of what’s expected of them.

“What we’ve been told is: ‘You need to reach for the upper range of your benchmark,’ said an administrator at a Brooklyn Renewal school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a fixed number, so what’s good enough and what isn’t?”

Eric Ashton, the education department’s executive director for accountability, acknowledged that the new goal ranges had left some people confused.

Still, he defended them as “rigorous and realistic,” and said schools are expected to aim for the upper end of the range. The ranges are meant to encourage schools to focus on making progress rather than fixating on a single number, he added

“If you just have one number as a target then it’s all or nothing,” Ashton said. “We don’t want it to be all or nothing.”

The tweaks partially reflect the political dilemma the education department faces when assigning goals to the city’s lowest-performing schools: Overly modest goals could invite criticism that such small gains do not justify the program’s hefty price tag, while overly ambitious goals could set the program up for failure.

Yet despite their caution, officials have fallen into both traps.

Early goals they set for Renewal schools required such slight improvements that a top state official called them “ridiculous.” Still, many schools have failed to meet those goals, providing ammunition to some critics who say the program has been a costly disappointment.

Some schools have made strides, including a group of 21 “Rise” schools that officials say have made enough progress to begin transitioning out of the Renewal program. Pallas, the Teachers College professor, said that officials may have assigned achievable goals to the program’s remaining schools as a way to ease even more out — raising questions about the city’s long-term plans for the program.

“Setting low targets could allow the department to shift more of the schools to the Rise category, which is the declaring-victory category,” he said. “I think we’re all still wondering what the future of this program is going to be.”

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.