political games

How state Senate elections, Simcha Felder, and a new Democratic deal could shape New York’s education policy

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis

With two key Senate elections on Tuesday, the fate of New York state’s Senate is up in the air and some important education issues could hang in the balance.

If the Democrats pick up two Senate seats in the Bronx and Westchester County, they will have a majority on paper in a chamber that has been dominated by Republicans for years. They will not, however, be able to move Democratic agenda items forward this term without help from Simcha Felder, a rogue Democrat who has a spot in the Republican conference. Felder sent a statement Tuesday saying he would remain with the GOP until the end of the session, quashing any hopes for an instant change in chamber dynamics.

But the broader sea change, including the reconciliation of two factions of Senate Democrats, could make a difference after further elections in November.

The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled Assembly have split predictably on education issues for years. The Senate fought for charter schools and private schools, while the Assembly protected New York City interests and sought larger sums of money for public schools.

But if Democrats eventually lead the Senate after November’s elections, school funding, charter school policy, and how students are disciplined could all be revisited. Here’s what you should know about how education policy could change:

Immigrant students could get new protections

Year after year, the Democratic-led Assembly has passed a bill that would give undocumented immigrants access to state college aid. The Senate Republicans, on the other hand, has rarely bring it to the floor for debate.

The DREAM act could have better chances if the Democrats take control of the Senate. It’s one of the top issues that Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins mentioned in her budget priorities this March. Additionally, the governor and top state education officials support the measure.

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said she is interested in seeing more support for English Language Learners and undocumented students.

“The unification [of two Democratic factions] is an opportunity to advance many of the issues that, I think have, in many ways, not moved forward,” Rosa said to Chalkbeat on Monday.

Passing the DREAM act could also beef up the governor’s progressive credentials in a year when he is facing a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, who is running to the left of Cuomo.

School funding could get a boost

A Democratic majority in the Senate could help boost school funding.

Senate Democrats support phasing in the state’s “Foundation Aid” formula over three years. Supporters of the formula say that schools are owed billions in school aid as a result of a 2006 settlement.

Though the Senate Republicans typically push for more spending restraint than the Assembly, Cuomo is arguably a more formidable roadblock to increasing school aid. Each year, he proposes spending less on schools than either the Assembly or the Senate. Last year, he proposed a change to foundation aid that some advocates said amounted to a “repeal” of the formula.

“I think that a Democratic Senate would make a big difference,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which has long fought for additional school funding. “But I think that Governor Cuomo would still be a major impediment.” (Since lawmakers have finished this year’s budget, any significant school funding changes would have to take place next year.)

Cuomo is also being challenged a primary opponent who has made school funding central to her campaign and has worked as a spokesperson for AQE. If she pulled off an upset in November, school funding dynamics could change dramatically.

Charter schools might lose a key ally

Senate Republicans have been key allies for the charter schools so losing them would probably spell bad news for the sector.

For instance, Senate Republicans supported charter school priorities in their budget proposal, including ending the limit on how many new schools can open and providing more money for schools that move into private space. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and his conference have also been reliable backers of charter schools at the end of budget negotiations, often helping to secure extra funding.

In stark contrast, the Senate Democrats proposed additional transparency and accountability measure for charter schools. Their budget was praised by state and city teachers union leaders, who are foes of the charter sector.

However, the breakaway group of Democrats now reconciled with their Democratic colleagues are more supportive of charter schools. The leader of the breakaway group, Jeff Klein, has been at Albany’s massive charter school rallies. Klein and his allies could help block any major charter school policy shifts.

School discipline policies could shift

A Senate flip could change statewide rules related to school discipline.

Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who chairs the chamber’s education committee, has sponsored legislation that discourages suspensions and promotes the use of “restorative” discipline practices, including solving behavioral issues through peer mediation and class meetings. It would also prohibit the use of suspensions in kindergarten through third grade, except in extreme circumstances. (New York City has already curbed suspensions for the city’s youngest students.)

Teacher evaluation discussion may get another life

In their perfect world, state teachers union officials would see repeal of the state’s unpopular teacher evaluation law this year and a push to let local districts decide how to evaluate educators.

“We are hopeful that there is a serious discussion about teacher evaluations,” said state teachers union spokesman Carl Korn.

But so far, lawmakers haven’t been taking up the issue. Instead, the Board of Regents has been leading the charge by spelling out a long-term plan to revamp the evaluations.

Would having Democrats in charge in the Senate change that dynamic? It’s possible but not likely. In their budget proposal, Senate Democrats seem philosophically-aligned with the state teachers union, arguing that there are too many “state mandates” when it comes to evaluations. But their proposed process for solving the problem (convening a team of experts) is more in line with the Board of Regent’s vision. Additionally, any teacher evaluation change would require Cuomo to tackle the unpopular issue in an election year.

This story has been updated to reflect that Senator Simcha Felder will remain with the GOP until the end of the session.

change of heart

Chicago school board backs down on ID policy but clings to limits on speakers

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
The Chicago Board of Education

Public visitors to the monthly Chicago Board of Education meetings will not be required to show ID to enter the meetings, despite a notice in the September agenda prominently displaying the rule.

“It is crucial for the board’s monthly public meetings to be open to all interested community members, and to ensure no barriers to participation exist, we are rescinding the photo ID requirement for tomorrow’s meeting and all future meetings,” Chicago schools’ spokesman Michael Passman said Tuesday.

The identification rule was not new, and no one had ever been denied entrance for failing to bring ID, according to Passman. But the Chicago Teachers Union and several community members complained when the September agenda was released earlier in the week, prominently displaying the rule front-and-center.

Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called the ID requirement a “Jim Crow-era voter suppression” tactic that could “disenfranchise black voters and scare off undocumented residents.”

The board, however, is not planning to back down from another rule it also highlighted in the September agenda, according to Passman: That one prohibits public commenters from addressing the board two consecutive meetings in a row.

Similarly, the limit is not a new policy — in fact, it dates back to 1999. The board opted to spotlight it this month to deter consecutive speakers from signing up for speaking spots and then finding out later they would not be permitted to participate.

Chicago still requires public commenters to register before meetings and limits the number to 60. The two-minute spots usually fill up a day early. Same-day slots for observers who wish to attend but not participate are first-come first-serve.

Among the planned speakers on Wednesday is a group of parents who have written a letter of concern over a district policy requiring Local School Council members to undergo fingerprinting for a background check. They argue it deters participation from undocumented families. Chicago had nearly 200,000 undocumented residents in 2017, according to one demographer’s estimates.

who is in charge

School turnaround leader promoted to oversee all academics in Memphis schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district's academic chief.

After nearly two years without an academic chief, Shelby County Schools has promoted a longtime expert in improving low-performing schools to the position.

Antonio Burt returned to Memphis last summer to oversee some of the lowest performing schools in the state as an assistant superintendent. In his new position as chief academic officer, Burt is responsible for creating goals for schools, training and recruiting teachers and principals, and overseeing academic strategy to meet state academic requirements. The chief academic officer reports directly to the superintendent.

During his first stint in Memphis, he was principal at Ford Road Elementary School under the district’s Innovation Zone, which has boosted test scores in underachieving schools.

“Throughout his tenure as a transformational school leader, Dr. Burt has shown tenacity in removing educational barriers for all children and a deep understanding of teaching and learning,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a statement Tuesday.

His hire completes a long search to replace Heidi Ramirez, who resigned in February 2017. Since then, the position’s responsibilities have been shared between Burt, Angela Whitelaw, interim chief of schools, and Joris Ray, assistant superintendent for academic operations.


Read our Q&A with Antonio Burt from when he first returned to Shelby County Schools


Since returning to Memphis last summer, Burt reorganized school leadership teams to coach teachers in subjects such as reading, math, science. He has also overseen the addition of two schools to the district’s Innovation Zone.

Burt previously worked for the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that helps to recruit, train, and place effective teachers in high-need districts, and was briefly employed by the state-run Achievement School District, according to his LinkedIn page. He later was the director of school transformation at Florida’s Pinellas County Schools.

Chalkbeat reached out to Burt for comment, but did not receive an immediate response.