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.

Movers and shakers

Memphis Education Fund has a new leader. Here’s what the group will put money behind going forward.

PHOTO: Memphis Education Fund
Terence Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town.

Memphis’ most prominent education philanthropic fund officially has a new leader in former interim CEO Terence Patterson – and one of his big goals for Memphis Education Fund is to finance more creative, grass-roots solutions to education problems facing the city.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait for someone to bring us an idea,” Patterson said. “We’re getting out in the schools and meeting regularly with school leaders, as well as education partners from across the country.”

(Memphis Education Fund supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The philanthropy is significant in the Memphis education funding landscape – where cash-strapped districts and charter schools seek outside funding funneled through the Education Fund to improve school facilities, add new curriculums, and even fund in-school positions.

Patterson wants to see multiple types of giving as he enters his second month as CEO.

He is introducing “innovation grants.” His organization will work with education partners, districts, and school leaders to identify innovative programs already happening in Memphis classrooms or elsewhere. Patterson said there’s not a set dollar amount for the grants or any formal application process.

In addition, next year the Education Fund will focus on initiatives that help parents better understand their school choices, increase the number of quality school offerings in Memphis, and improve equitable access to school facilities.

“We see this as helping to fill gaps in bringing quality resources with quality instruction to schools,” Patterson said. “We’re in a position to collaborate with the county commission, the school board, and district leadership to really push on academic achievement.”

The Memphis Education Fund has invested more than $50 million in education initiatives since 2015 — ranging from helping charter schools pay for new curriculums to bolstering teacher and principal pipelines.

The philanthropy has also worked with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift on the possibility of creating a “unified enrollment system.” Each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top school choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent.

Currently, Memphis has multiple types of schools that require applying in different ways, on different websites. Supporters of unified enrollment, such as Memphis Lift, say it will benefit parents who don’t have the time to research schools on their own.

“To have a true choice district, this is an important component,” Patterson said. “The Memphis landscape has its own nuances. … but common enrollment is an important factor in how we think about choice.”

He also said he hopes to see his organization be more vocal about education policy and continue to prioritize groups focused on teacher and school leader recruitment and retention.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 with help from a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists wanted to transform Memphis into a destination for talented teachers. In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools, brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson from Indianapolis, and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

Robinson left in April for a job in St. Louis, and Patterson stepped in as interim. Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town. He was the former chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.

Patterson said he is the right fit for the job because of his background with Memphis schools, in managing districts, and in fundraising. He also said part of his job responsibilities would be bringing more national funders to Memphis.

Outgoing Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would be “thrilled to partner” with Patterson.

“He’s world class, and I can’t think of a better selection to support this community’s work to continue to improve student achievement and access to high-quality education,” Hopson said. “He’s worked in a large school district and understands the Memphis context given his grantmaking experience.”

Policy impact

Controversial school inventory report starts to surface in Chicago decision making

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

When Chicago Public Schools rolled out a comprehensive inventory of its schools and programs earlier this fall, community activists feared that the district would wield the report to close yet more sparsely attended neighborhood schools, and bring in more charters.

But just the opposite happened this week. The school board rejected Intrinsic Schools’ proposal to open a new charter high school in the Loop next school year that would draw students from across the city, following staff advice drawn on the report, the Annual Regional Analysis.

The vote disappointed backers of Intrinsic charter school, which operates a top-rated high school in the Irving Park community on the Northwest Side. The problem, school officials explained, is that the plan didn’t mesh with the district’s map pinpointing which neighborhoods need such high-quality schools.

It turns out, the Loop doesn’t fit the bill.

Build schools where CPS needs it, and then we’ll have a different conversation,” board President Frank Clark told crestfallen supporters of Intrinsic.

The school board and district leadership are under increasing pressure to justify any new school openings as enrollment continues to drop, and as neighborhood schools losing population call for investments and programs to better serve and attract more students. Declining enrollment was cited on Wednesday as one of the most formidable risks the school system faces.

The school board also voted Wednesday to deny two other charter school applications, although for reasons not tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which the district compiled with assistance from school-choice group Kids First.

Since it was made public in September, the inventory of academic options, enrollment, and quality has become a tool used by the district to convene conversations about neighborhood-by-neighborhood options and, as the board meeting made clear Wednesday, to make hard decisions. Mary Bradley, executive director of the district’s department of innovation and incubation,  said the Intrinsic proposal “does not align with needs identified in the ARA.”

“Where are the needs?” Clark asked Bradley following her presentation explaining the denial.

“Quality needs are mainly on the South and West sides of Chicago,” schools chief Janice Jackson said.

Intrinsic parent Lucy Weatherly said she was deeply disappointed. She touted the current Intrinsic school’s Level 1-plus rating and supportive school community.

But her plea and those of other school supporters did not sway the board.

The denial might have been the first board decision about a school’s fate explicitly tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which divides the city into 16 planning districts, including the one Intrinsic had proposed a school, the Central Area Region. The area includes downtown, the Loop, and the South Loop.  

The district touts the detailed report as a base of facts to aid planning and community engagement, and it has hosted a series of workshops in neighborhoods around the city to discuss the findings. (There are six meetings left.) But several groups have criticized the document as too reliant on data and school ratings and questioned the district’s intent, given that school quality and enrollment that has been used to justify school closings, turnarounds, and proposals for more charter schools.

On Wednesday, however, school officials used the report to argue that the Intrinsic charter proposal doesn’t meet any existing community need for additional high quality seats.

The majority of students who live in the Central Area Region or attend school there attend top-rated schools. The region’s student population is about 20 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 34 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic, and it’s the only region where white and Asian students outnumber black and Hispanic students. The area is gaining Asian students and losing black students, and the families are growing more moneyed.

The region houses two top-rated selective enrollment schools that draw population from across the city, Jones College Prep and Walter Payton College Prep.

The Intrinsic school would have been the fifth high school in the region and the third charter high school, after Noble-Muchin and Perspectives-Joslin, two citywide schools rated Level 1-plus and 2-plus, respectively.

The area’s population and enrollment have increased since 2014. That’s a sharp contrast with most communities, hence Chicago Schools’ much bemoaned enrollment crisis, which in 2013 was used to justify closing 50 schools.

The challenges posed by Chicago’s dwindling number of children wasn’t lost on school officials at Wednesday’s meeting, especially during a presentation Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett provided about the key risks facing the school district.

Clark asked her what the biggest problems were.

Even amid a state takeover of the troubled special education program and continued fallout over the student sexual abuse scandal, her first response was declining enrollment.