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.”


McQueen: Working with Haslam on education was ‘a perfect match’ — and it’s time to move on

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen meet with members of his teachers advisory group in 2015.

When Gov. Bill Haslam recruited Candice McQueen to take the helm of Tennessee’s education department in 2015, he wanted someone close to the classroom who shared his passion for preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Four years later, the former teacher and university dean calls their work together “a perfect match” and her job as education commissioner “the honor of a lifetime.” But she says it’s also time to transition to a new challenge as Haslam’s eight-year administration comes to an end.

In January, McQueen will become CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization that works to attract, develop, and retain high-quality educators.

Haslam announced her impending departure on Thursday from a job that has elevated McQueen as a national voice on public education, whether testifying before Congress about Tennessee’s work under a 2015 federal education law or serving on the boards of national organizations seeking to improve student achievement.

The announcement ended months of speculation about whether the 44-year-old McQueen would stay on in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration, either as an interim chief or permanently (although headaches from the state’s testing program last spring decreased the likelihood of the latter).

McQueen said the institute was among a number of organizations that approached her this year as Haslam’s administration was winding down.

“I had a conversation with Gov. Haslam some time back to let him know that I was most likely going to be making a decision about one of these opportunities,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview following the announcement.

Asked whether she had entertained a role in the next administration, McQueen said her focus had been on her current commitment.

“When I came into this role, I came to work with and for Gov. Haslam. I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been remarkable to work with a governor who has been so intentionally focused on improving education on the K-12 and higher education side and be able to connect the dots between them.

“It was a perfect match in terms of vision and what we wanted to accomplish,” she added.

"I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done."Candice McQueen

Under McQueen’s tenure, Tennessee has notched a record-high graduation rate of 89 percent and its best average ACT score in history at 20.2 out of a possible 36, compared to the national average of 20.8. The state has risen steadily in national rankings on the Nation’s Report Card and pioneered closely watched reforms aimed at improving teacher effectiveness.

McQueen called her new job with the teaching institute an “extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said, citing research that high-quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in helping students grow academically.

At the institute, she’ll be able to leverage nationally the work that she’s championed in Tennessee. The group’s goal is to ensure that a skilled, motivated, and competitively compensated teacher is in every classroom in America.

“Coming in as a CEO of an organization that breathes this work around human capital is the work I want to be part of going forward,” she said. “And CEO roles of large national nonprofits don’t come around every day.”

A Tennessee native, McQueen will work from Nashville under her agreement with the institute.

In announcing her hiring, Chairman Lowell Milken said the organization will open a Nashville office, with much of its teacher support work moving from its current base in Phoenix, Arizona.

McQueen will succeed Gary Stark, who stepped down over the summer after a decade with the organization.


Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit


Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.