On the Agenda

While revealing $7 billion education plan, Nixon criticizes schools that leave kids ‘destined for jail’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon walks away from a speech at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon outlined her education agenda on Wednesday, promising to tackle what she called the “unholy trinity” of racial segregation, underfunding, and over-policing in schools.

The plan’s central element is billions in extra cash, which Nixon would funnel into schools to reduce class size and hire more counselors and teachers. Many elements of the plan explicitly tackle race, including pushing districts to reduce suspensions for black and Hispanic students, attract a more diverse teaching workforce, and create curriculum that explores the history of students of color.

“We have two different education systems in our state – one that sends wealthy white children to college, and another that sends poor children of color to prison,” Nixon said.

Many elements of the plan like sending more money to needy schools and reducing the emphasis on standardized testing continue recent trends in state policy.

But the plan is likely to face a number of obstacles. The price tag will make it a hard sell, particularly in a state that already spends more on education per student than any other state in the country. And Nixon, who left without taking questions from reporters, has yet to explain how she plans to handle other contentious issues like charter school policy or widespread school segregation.

Here’s what you should know about Nixon’s plan for New York’s K-12 schools.

School funding: A massive boost

Nixon has spent 17 years protesting to push more state money into schools. So it’s not surprising that a massive school funding boost is the bedrock of her agenda.

Nixon wants to increase education spending by $4.2 billion over three years, money that advocates say schools are owed based on the terms of a 2006 settlement. She also wants to invest $200 million annually statewide on 500 new community schools, which add non-academic services such as vision and mental health care.

The tough part, of course, is paying for it. Nixon’s plan relies on tax hikes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and on corporations.

She did not shy away from the hefty price tag on Wednesday, insisting that it is necessary to have an expensive plan. “You know what?” she said. “It is and it should be.”

Officials from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office point out that he has increased education spending by 36 percent since 2012, and say there is no legal mandate to spend billions more on schools in the state.

“Cynthia Nixon has been wrong on the facts on every issue she discusses. The difference between advocacy and government is the difference between fiction and non-fiction,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever.

School discipline: Replace metal detectors with counselors

Nixon’s motto for the education package was “schools not jails.”

The gubernatorial candidate says schools are over-policed, with too many students of color being suspended or arrested. Nixon said she would trade metal detectors and tough discipline policies for social workers and school counselors.

Specifically, she would require school districts with high suspension rates to undergo “school climate assessments” and ban suspensions for students from pre-kindergarten to third grade.

Those changes would require navigating tricky territory. While some agree that schools are over-policed, others say some suspensions and metal detectors keep schools safe and running smoothly. While the city has moved to reduce suspensions, it’s prompted pushback from others arguing the changes have made schools more unruly. Additionally, a plan to block suspensions for young students was met with resistance from the city’s teachers union.

Inside schools: More diverse teachers and curriculum

In New York City, more than 80 percent of students are black, Hispanic, or Asian, while only 39 percent of teachers are, according to a recent analysis. Nixon says she wants to tackle this teacher diversity gap across the state by investing $6 million annually in the Teacher Opportunity Corps, a state program designed to recruit and train more teachers of color.

Additionally, Nixon said she wants to invest in creating curriculum that pays more attention to the culture and history of students of color. She would spend $20 million in such “Culturally Responsive Education” efforts, which would include outreach to parents and training for teachers.

Testing: Less of it

New York’s math and English tests have become a political lightning rod, as nearly one in five families have boycotted the tests to protest a suite of education changes they felt focused too heavily on the exams.

The state has tried to address some of these concerns. Officials reduced the number of testing days and temporarily paused the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

Nixon suggested an even more aggressive rollback of the use of standardized tests. She wants the state to “significantly reduce” the amount of testing and “eliminate” serious consequences from being levied based on the tests. She expressed support for the ability to opt out of the exams and is calling for a total repeal of the state’s current teacher evaluation law. (That’s a more substantial change than what the state teachers union is pushing for.)

What she didn’t say

In the 24-page document, Nixon does not take a stance on charter schools, though the state is responsible for deciding how many new charter schools can open and for funding the schools.

A Nixon spokesperson said charter schools were intentionally left out of the plan to avoid distracting from the candidate’s plan for district schools, and that Nixon will share her thoughts on charters in the near future.

Also, though Nixon repeatedly mentioned segregation in her speech, she has only one element in her plan designed to diversify schools — supporting the mayor’s plan to diversify eight specialized high schools. She does not appear to have a more comprehensive plan to integrate schools in New York.

leader change

Memphis leader of Teach for America stepping down this spring

PHOTO: Teach for America Memphis
From left: Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America Memphis, Ayo Akinmoladun and Barbara Rosser Hyde.

The leader of Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program is stepping down at the end of the school year after nine years at the helm.

Athena Palmer was in the first cohort of 48 Teach for America recruits to Memphis in 2006 and took over as executive director in 2010. Over the next six months, Palmer will hand over the program to Nafeesha Mitchell, a 2009 member of Teach for America in Charlotte who worked her way up to assistant principal before returning to lead the national organization’s chapter there.

In an email to colleagues Thursday, Palmer said she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

“Someone really smart once told me that knowing when to leave is just as hard as knowing when to stay committed,” she said. “As our current strategic plan comes to an end and with our region in an incredible place from which to innovate in the sector, it became clear to me that this was a great time to embrace the feeling I have for my next adventure.”

PHOTO: Teach for America
Athena Palmer

The competitive national program places mostly recent college graduates in schools that districts have a hard time staffing. Teach for America has welcomed about 1,200 teachers over the past 12 years in Memphis with a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. This year, 263 teachers are in 108 traditional and charter schools, including the state’s Achievement School District. That’s fewer than in previous years, keeping in line with national trends.

The program has consistently received high marks from the Tennessee Department of Education in its annual teacher preparation report card, and has enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. Teacher unions have been wary of the program’s influence because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization, including 100 school administrators, 300 teachers, and five in charter network or district leadership roles. Among them is Brad Leon, a member of the top cabinet for Shelby County Schools who was the first regional director for Teach for America in Memphis.

PHOTO: Teach for America
Nafeesha Mitchell

Under Palmer’s leadership, the teachers recruited have more closely matched the students they serve in race and economic background. This year, 42 percent of recruits were teachers of color, and 42 percent came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93 percent of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59 percent lived in poverty.

Mitchell, who will take over in June, is a vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team. She starts as deputy director immediately and will be in Memphis full time in January, according to a statement.

“Memphis is regarded around the country as one of the model Teach For America chapters,” she said. “Athena and her team have built something incredible here, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand on her work and push all of us even harder to reach our goal of true and lasting equity for all children in this great city.”

In the lead

The winners of Tuesday’s Detroit school board election include one incumbent and one new arrival

School board candidates Corletta Vaughn (L) and Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the incumbent, are in the lead with 87 percent of Detroit precincts reporting.

An incumbent Detroit school board member has retained her seat and will continue to help guide the state’s largest school district for another four years.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former suburban school superintendent, will be joined on the board by Corletta J. Vaughn, the pastor of the Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide church in Detroit. The two were the top vote-getters among eight candidates seeking to fill two seats on the seven-member board.

Though the Detroit school board election was near the bottom of a full midterm election ballot, the vote comes at a crucial time for the 50,000-student district. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti will need the board’s support as he continues to overhaul the district’s curriculum and address serious challenges including the $500 million repair bill the district is facing as it tries to bring its aging buildings up to modern standards. 

With so many candidates vying for two seats on the board, name recognition was crucial. That gave Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, a key advantage. She and Shannon Smith, a financial analyst, also outraised their opponents by thousands of dollars and spent their campaign coffers to buy billboards, yard signs, and mailers.

With 100 percent of Detroit precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Hunter-Harville was the clear winner with 22.6 percent of the vote. Vaughn was second with 18.8 percent of the vote. Reverend David Murray and Smith were not far behind with 18.0 percent and 17.9 percent respectively. They were followed by Britney Sharp (13.6 percent), Terrell George (14.7 percent), and Natalya Henderson (12 percent).

Deborah Elaine Lemmons, a sister of current board member LaMar Lemmons, had 12.9 percent of the vote even though she let it be known that she had dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, citing health reasons. Candidate M. Murray was in last place with 5.7 percent of the vote.

At the polls, voters said they wanted to ensure that children in Detroit had the same opportunities as those in the suburbs.

“Access to education is the biggest thing,” said Jesus Hernandez, a 30-year-old resident of Southwest Detroit.

To learn more about the winning candidates, read their answers below to six questions about how they plan to guide the city district over their four-year terms: