Nixon vs. cuomo

Three education issues to listen for during Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo’s only live debate

Cynthia Nixon and Gov. Andrew Cuomo will debate Wednesday.

Cynthia Nixon traces her decision to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo all the way back to her days as a school-funding advocate.

Now, more than a decade after joining that fight, the actress and education advocate will have a chance to press Cuomo on his record and present her own vision during the campaign’s sole debate Wednesday night.

Cuomo’s education priorities have shifted dramatically since he first took office. Once a champion for charter schools and tougher teacher evaluation standards, he has lately made amends with teacher unions and backed away from his early reform efforts.

Education will have to contend with many other issues during the debate. But it could also be revealing for voters who care about what happens in the state’s schools: Will Nixon, who once served as a spokeswoman for the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education, try to capitalize on Cuomo’s shifting priorities? And how will Cuomo use his education record to bolster his case that he should remain in office for another four years?

Here are three things to listen for.

How much money should schools get from the state?

This issue has been the main front for Nixon’s education campaign against Cuomo. Under his leadership, New York has increased its spending on schools by 35 percent since 2012. But Nixon, who first came to activism because of a landmark school funding lawsuit, says that’s not enough. Her education plan would allocate $7 billion more, with the goal of reducing class sizes and hiring more counselors and teachers. Will Cuomo pillory her proposal on TV when he knows that many New Yorkers do think schools would benefit from more money?

How should teachers be evaluated?

As lawmakers considered officially untying student test scores from teachers’ annual ratings this spring, Nixon quickly endorsed the change. That put Cuomo in a tough position: Should he stay quiet and risk losing endorsement by the state’s teachers unions, which are eager for such a change, or should he join her and back undoing a law he originally demanded? Cuomo ultimately split the difference, allowing lawmakers to move forward without officially endorsing an overhaul to the state’s teacher evaluation law.

The legislature then failed to act before the end of its session, leaving the issue open for further debate. In the end, the unions did not endorse Nixon, even though her positions more closely match their own — but they aren’t backing Cuomo, either. The debate could reveal how the pair talk about this issue now that there aren’t union endorsements to jockey over.

How should New York City high schools select students?

Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a political firestorm this summer with a plan to admit more black and Hispanic students to the city’s elite but segregated specialized high schools. One element of the plan, nixing the exam that is now the sole factor for admissions, would require the legislature to act since the test is required by state law for at least three of the schools.

While any admissions changes would affect only a small number of students, how the candidates handle the issue could point to their general approach toward education equity. Nixon has signaled that she would sign legislation to eliminate the Specialized High School Admissions Test, while Cuomo declined to endorse the proposal in June — suggesting it should be part of negotiations over mayoral control of schools, another issue facing the next governor. The debate could be a good time to press him on an issue that has captivated many New Yorkers.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 6 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.