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.

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.