let the games begin

In Albany circus, can Mayor Bill de Blasio get specialized high school legislation passed?

PHOTO: Creative Commons, courtesy JasonParis
Albany statehouse.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to overhaul admissions at some of the city’s premier high schools runs through the New York state legislature.

That plan would eliminate the admissions test that grants entrance into the eight schools, a move de Blasio says would help more black and Hispanic students earn coveted seats at the top schools. But in order to eliminate the test at three of the eight schools, the mayor needs Albany lawmakers who haven’t always been kind to him in the past — to change state law.

That leaves a major question: Will the mayor ever be able to get this legislation passed?

Experts and politicians agree that, with less than a month left in the legislative session, the change is unlikely to happen this year. Shifting dynamics in Albany could give the legislation a shot next year — though it’s far from a done deal, and opposition is already forming.

Here’s what else we know about the political chances of the bill that the mayor backs.

Why will the bill have trouble this year?

For one, this year’s legislative session is set to end on June 20. And while New York’s lawmakers are known for sweeping last-minute deals, this year has been defined by a political stalemate that has kept much from happening.

The backstory: Democrats won two special elections in April, narrowing Republicans’ control over the Senate. They held control by just one vote, thanks to a Democratic senator from Brooklyn who caucuses with Republicans.

Then, a Republican senator was called to return to military service, essentially eliminating the Republicans’ slim majority. Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged on Monday that this deadlock has made it difficult to pass legislation.

“We only have a few days left of the legislative session and, as you know, it’s not the most productive end-of-session that we’ve ever had,” he told NY1.

Still, at least some in the Assembly are taking a hard look at the bill. It is on the agenda for the education committee meeting on Wednesday, which means it is being taken seriously by some lawmakers, said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the Alliance for Quality Education.

To pass, the bill also likely needs support from the governor. Cuomo said Monday he does not believe the issue will be resolved this year.

“I think the issue is an important issue … and I think the mayor raises legitimate concerns,” Cuomo said. But, he added, “I don’t know that there’s much of an appetite in Albany now to get into a new bill, a new issue.”

It also seems unlikely that such a change could build political support in just a few weeks, especially as alumni groups and some Asian-American community leaders are already mobilizing against the plan. (The greatest share of offers at specialized high schools goes to Asian students.)

On Monday, an Asian-American advocacy group held an event with signs saying “End Racism” and called the plan a “21st century Chinese Exclusion Act,” according to tweets from a NY1 reporter who was there.

What could help its chances next year?

As part of Albany’s political upheaval, a group of breakaway Democrats who worked with Republicans in the State Senate disbanded this year, paving the way for Democrats to control the chamber if they win elections this fall.

If the Senate flips it would be good news for de Blasio, who has feuded with Senate Republicans in the past. Senate Democrats are also more likely than Senate Republicans to be aligned with the liberal mayor.

Also, two key players in Albany — Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have signaled that they are at least open to a conversation about diversity in specialized high schools. However, neither has expressly supported the mayor’s preferred bill.

What could still stop the bill next year?

The bill is facing heavy opposition from the politicians themselves, some of whom attended one of the schools in question. Some Democratic senators have already criticized de Blasio’s proposal.

“I couldn’t disagree more with Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza’s plan on eliminating the entrance test for the specialized high schools,” Democratic Sen. Toby Stavisky said in a statement. Stavisky attended Bronx Science and was a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School. “To assume African American and Latino students cannot pass the test is insulting to everyone and educationally unsound.”

The bill could also face opposition in the Assembly. Several Assemblymembers have expressed reservations about eliminating the test.

“Instead of engaging Asian American families to be part of the solution, they have been excluded and pitted against other minority groups,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim.

“Unless all immigrant groups, including Asian American families whose children represent a significant portion of test-takers as well as the student bodies in our Specialized High Schools, are part of the decision-making process, I can’t support [the bill] or any efforts to reform the admissions process,” Kim added.

Democratic senators opposing the plan could be the kiss of death, said Peter Goodman, a close observer of New York state education politics who runs a blog on the issue. (Goodman, like others, pointed out that the bill may change before it is up for a vote.)

“I don’t think it has any shot of getting through the legislature if Democratic senators are opposed to it,” he said.

Additionally, the mayor will have to weigh his attempt to eliminate the admissions test against other priorities, like extending his control over the schools and funding for pre-kindergarten, which have historically taken a lot of the city’s lobbying energy.

“We’re hoping against hope for an opening right now because there’s a lot of support in the Assembly and again the time is right in terms of public debate,” de Blasio said on Sunday. “If we can’t get it done now, it sets us up very well to get it done in the next 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.