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
Albany statehouse.

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.

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.