uneven playing field

‘I’m proud that I’m fighting for other kids’: New York City students sue for equal access to sports

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Lisa Parks and Matthew Diaz are part of a class action lawsuit claiming the city denies black and Hispanic students equal access to school sports teams.

At her Atlanta high school, Lisa Parks was a standout on the track team. But after moving to New York City, the junior doesn’t compete anymore.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to. It’s that her high school, Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters, doesn’t offer the sport.

Nor does it offer boys volleyball, the game that Matthew Diaz grew up playing during summers spent with family in Puerto Rico. While his cousins have gone on to play professionally, Diaz only gets to spike the ball when he goes to visit them.

Parks is black. Diaz is Latino. And they say too many students like them don’t get the chance to play sports in New York City schools. Both are part of a class action lawsuit accusing the education department and the Public School Athletic League of discrimination by denying black and Hispanic students an equal opportunity to play on school teams, in violation of local human rights law.

“Our mission is to have sports equity in schools,” Diaz said.

Stats collected for the suit show that the average black or Hispanic student attends a school with about 10 fewer teams than students of other racial or ethnic groups. Schools serving the most students of color are five times more likely to have their application for a team denied, often with no response or clear explanation given as to why, the suit claims. And spending on sports for black and Hispanic students is about 14 percent below what other students get.

The lack of extracurriculars such as band or athletic teams at some schools is traced in many cases back to a movement to break up large campuses into smaller schools. While that tactic led to improvements in graduation rates, it also left many schools with too few students or too little money to offer athletics. But data crunched for the suit found that the disparity in sports holds even after controlling for school size.

In its response to the suit, lawyers for the city deny the allegations.

“We are dedicated to providing the maximum number of opportunities for all students to play on sports teams and take part in a transformative experience that strengthens school communities,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said in an emailed statement.

Both Parks and Diaz are activists with an organization called IntegrateNYC, which pushes for desegregation and equal resources in city schools. They form part of the Fair Play Coalition, which grew out of their efforts to bring sports equity in schools, and are being represented by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Both talked to Chalkbeat about the suit and their activism. Here’s what they had to say about the importance of athletics and getting students involved in decision making.  

How did you realize this was a problem that goes beyond your school?

Diaz: We gather students monthly to these [IntegrateNYC] meetings and we’ve seen a pattern of students saying they have less resources than other students. And we’ve seen studies and facts that schools with a majority of white students have better resources, more sports teams than students in majority black and Latino schools. And we found a lot of those students coming to our meetings, and they created that as our priority to make a policy for it. Specifically, my school asked for many sports teams, and we were denied.

Why did you decide to file a lawsuit?

Diaz: When I started this work, our athletic director was already fighting for this. He basically made our school have a lot more sports teams than it had before, but we were still fighting for more. And then he connected me (because of my activism) to the group of lawyers that we have today. We created this coalition called Fair Play Coalition, and from there we just went on to the lawsuit. We expanded this idea from me being in activism, from him doing his own work of activism in sports, to creating this coalition, and having more students and allies for this work of sports equity.

We’ve attended rallies. We’ve done emails to PSAL [the Public School Athletic League, which approves and supports school teams]. We’ve contacted everyone. And we still didn’t get a word back at all. So we saw we needed to take action.

There are many different ways that segregation and inequities play out in the school system. Why did you focus on sports?

Parks: For me, sports are really a big part of my life. I’m from Atlanta, so I’m used to playing every single sport. I had a dream. My dream is to go to the Olympics. And my mom is my biggest fan, so for her, knowing that I’m not playing sports is a big heartbreak because that’s something that I look forward to doing every single day — after school, before school. So coming to New York and not having a sport to play — the sport I want to play — was a big shocker, and it’s something that I’m proud that I’m fighting for other kids to have.

What do you think you’re missing out on by not having the opportunity to play the sports you want?

Diaz: I’m missing out on a career. I’m missing out on college. I’m missing out on scholarships. As a person from a low-income community, it is pretty hard to get out of that cycle of being in a low-income community again. I feel like sports is a way out for a lot of students. Not having the opportunity to play volleyball, which is the sport I really want to play, kind of sucks.

What do you want from the education department and for students?

Diaz: Basically what I want is a straight way for youth to have enough power to communicate with the people who are in power. They do not have to go to school, and we do. So why not have our voices in the forefront? I want my little brother to play football. He’s in middle school, and once he goes to high school, he’s not going to be able to play football. I want him to have the chance to play the sport that he wants. And I want him to have the voice. If there’s no football, he could complain, and they would give it to him.

Parks: When I was in Atlanta, I would run track, and my sisters would look up to me. My friends would look up to me. Everyone in the stands would be cheering me on, and they were like, ‘I see you. I see you.’ So [I want] somebody to say that, and for people to really admire me and want to follow in my footsteps. And for middle schoolers, it’s like, ‘You can play sports. You can do it. Anybody can run. Anybody can do anything they could possibly want to do.’ Kids aren’t allowed to play the sports they want to play. It’s just really sad, and I want them to be able to be able to do that.

Why do you think that student voices are so important to include when it comes to naming this problem — and also fixing it?

Diaz: If we weren’t involved, then we would have the problem that we have right now. And if we weren’t involved, it would be this society that does not feel pressured to do anything. I feel like young people should be in the forefront, because we have to go to school and we have to go through not having sports that we want to play, and not having the resources that we need, or not having the guidance counselors that we need in schools.

What if nothing really changes? Will it have been worth it?

Diaz: I think it definitely changes a lot because it gives other students the hope that they have voices and they can do what we did.

Face-to-face

In ‘speed dating’ exercise, Detroiters grill school board candidates about third-grade reading, charter schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Corletta Vaughn, a candidate for Detroit school board, speaks to Detroiters at a forum Thursday evening as Nita Redmond (center) looks on. Vaughn says the district should be open to collaboration with charter schools and suburban districts.

On its face, the public forum Thursday night was about candidates for Detroit school board. In fact, the night belonged to the citizens.

Early in the evening, a tableful of Detroiters — most of them graduates of Detroit public schools, all of them concerned about the future of Michigan’s largest school district — set about deciding what they wanted to ask the candidates during a series of Q&A sessions that CitizenDetroit, which co-sponsored the forum with Chalkbeat, called “speed-dating.”

Shirley Corley, a first-grade reading teacher who retired from the city’s main district, honed in on the state’s “read-or-flunk” law, which could force schools in Detroit to hold back many of their third graders next year if they can’t pass a state reading exam.

“I heard that one on the TV, and I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said.

As a gong sounded, she hurried to shape her outrage into a question: “What are your plans about holding back third-grade readers, and why aren’t they reading better?”

Then Terrell George, one of the candidates for two openings on the school board, sat down across the table. She asked her question.

All across a packed union hall in Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood, similar scenes were playing out. Candidates rotated between tables, where they sat face-to-face with roughly 10 Detroit residents armed with prepared questions and many lifetimes-worth of combined experience with the city’s main school district. Every five minutes, someone hit a gong, and candidates got another chance to lay out their vision for the troubled district and impress the voters who will decide their future at the polls in November.

It is Detroit’s first school board election since the board regained control of Michigan’s largest district, which was run for nearly a decade by state-appointed emergency managers. And it marks a crucial milestone in the district turnaround effort led by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, whose reforms have so far enjoyed the board’s support.

(Six of the nine candidates attended the event. Deborah Lemmons and M. Murray [the full name listed on the ballot] didn’t respond to an invitation, according to CitizenDetroit. Britney Sharp said she had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend.)

From Natalya Henderson, a 2016 graduate of Cass Technical High School, to Reverend David Murray (his legal name), a retired social worker and minister who previously served a long, sometimes controversial stint on the school board, a broad field of candidates are vying to help steer a district through a historic turnaround effort. The winners will help decide what to do about the $500 million cost for urgent school renovations and test scores that are persistently among the worst in the nation.

(Click here to watch the candidates introduce themselves in two-minute videos, and here for short bios.)

candidate statements
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the lone incumbent running for school board, makes an opening statement. Candidates made one-minute opening statements, then rotated through a roomful of 130 people answering questions about their plans for the district. From left: Corletta Vaughn, Shannon Smith, Natalya Henderson, Hunter-Harvill.

The low scores are the reason the state’s third-grade reading law, which calls for students reading below grade level to be held back, will disproportionately affect Detroit. But at Table 1, Corley gleaned some hope from George’s answer to her question about the law. He said more attention should be paid to early literacy instruction: “We must start from the beginning in preschool and kindergarten.”

Corley shook her finger in approval: “That’s right.”

On the other side of the table, Viola Goolsby wanted to know how George would respond if the state attempted to close the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“I would be opposed to any school shutting down any school in any district…” George began.

Then the gong sounded. “That was quick,” George said, standing up.

The table had a five-minute break — with roughly 130 people in the room, there were more tables than the six candidates who attended — and then another candidate, Corletta Vaughn, slid into the seat reserved for candidates.

Lewis EL, a realtor who works in Detroit, read a question from the list provided by Chalkbeat and CitizenDetroit, the non-profit that hosted the event: “What are the pros and cons for the district in collaborating with charters and suburban school districts?”

Vaughn’s voice fell: “I firmly believe that the district alone is without resources. We just don’t have it. So I would like to see a collaboration.” She said other districts could help Detroit train its teachers: “I think we have to do a better job in terms of exposing our teachers to better development.”

“Are they not coming with that knowledge already?” Lula Gardfrey asked.

“But I think that we can support them more,” Vaughn replied. “Our students have mental health issues. They have economic issues. Just what the teacher learned in school isn’t going to be enough when that child arrives at 8 a.m. in the morning.”

detroiters
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Shirley Corley and Lula Gardfrey work on the questions they planned to put to candidates for Detroit school board.

When the gong sounded again, Nita Redmond felt torn. She believed Vaughn had good intentions but was suspicious of any collaboration with charter schools.

The rise of charter schools, which enroll about one-third of the city’s 100,000 students, “should have never happened,” she said. “It seems like it has lowered the regular schools.” When another candidate, Shannon Smith, joined the table, Corley got to hear a different take on her question about the third-grade reading law.

“We need to communicate with parents,” Smith said. “There are a lot of parents that aren’t aware. Second, we need to work together with the administrators and the teachers on the curriculum, and figure out which curriculum would best support the students in reading.”

On the opposite side of the hall, another table asked Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, about her plans for improving instruction in the district.

“Because nationally we’re at the bottom in reading and math, I start from the bottom,” she said. One of our policies is that parents attend parent training free to understand what their kids are being taught. All of our parents don’t come, but if you just get 40 in one classroom in one day, they go home and tell other parents.”

Theresa White had a seat right next to Hunter-Harvill, and she liked what she saw. “That has been a culprit, the lack of participation by parents,” she said.

In the next seat over, Rainelle Burton, who attended high school in Detroit and has lived in the city for decades, came to a different conclusion.

“I’m not hearing anything that says, ‘this is inventive and creative,’” she said.

The up-close-and-personal format didn’t make things easy for the candidates.

“It was definitely not comfortable,” Vaughn said, adding that she wished she’d had access to the pre-written questions beforehand.

reverend david murray
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Reverend David Murray, who served on the school board member for 16 years during a period when the district was largely controlled by emergency managers, said those managers were responsible for the district’s decline.

But for voters in the room, the format made things easy. In a straw poll after the event, virtually everyone in attendance said they planned to vote.

“We were able to talk to them one-on-one, it’s not just looking on TV,” Nita Redmond said, adding that she came away with a good idea of who would get her vote (she declined to say who). “We were able to talk to them and evaluate ourselves if this would be the best person to lead my district.”

Surveying the room as the forum wound down, Michelle Broughton was of two minds. She carries with her four generations of experience with the district — she is a computer instructor at Renaissance High School, her father graduated from Chatsey High School, a Detroit Public School, in 1961, her children attended the district, and her grandson is in the eighth grade at McKinsey Elementary — and she said she’d heard a lot of what she called “pie-in-the-sky” ideas at the forum.

No one had offered a solution for the roughly 90 classrooms in the district that were without a teacher on the first day of school — a problem that had affected her family in the past.

“If my child goes to school every day and comes home and says, ‘Grandma, I don’t have a math teacher,’ that child is losing weeks,” she said.

But she said the event gave her a feel for the candidates — and reminded her how many Detroiters share her dream of a thriving school district.

“I’m here because I have hope,” she said. “I see a brighter future, and I hope that I pick somebody who will help.”

Future of Schools

Here’s how new federal rules could impact Indiana’s $14M private school tax credit scholarship program

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at the Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, a private school, play during music practice. The Oaks accepts tax credit scholarships.

Some school choice advocates are uneasy that new federal tax rules could be detrimental to Indiana’s $14 million tax credit scholarship program.

In August, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released rules clarifying new tax law that limited how much state and local taxes an individuals could deduct from their federal taxes. Some fear the changes might discourage donors from contributing to charities like the state’s tax credit scholarship program, in which individuals and businesses can give money to fund students’ private school tuition in exchange for a tax credit from the state.

“Our primary concern is to make sure that the families who are relying on these scholarships, that they can continue to do so,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for EdChoice, a national school choice advocacy organization based in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Jerry Stayton, superintendent of Elkhart Christian School, submitted a public comment about the regulations saying the scholarships are vital to helping private schools stay afloat and give opportunities to low-income families. The tax incentives have “encouraged giving to schools on a scale never before seen.”

“For the federal government to impose a tax on a state tax credit represents a strange and dangerous precedent,” Stayton wrote. “While the federal government is supreme in the United States, its strength is derived from strong, growing, supportive states with great local economies and excellent education.”

There’s optimism, though, that the regulations’ impact could be far more limited in Indiana than in other states,  given how established its scholarship program is, how low income taxes are here, and how many donors are individuals making smaller contributions.

“So far, Indiana is in a better position, I’d say, than some of the high-tax states,” Hiner said. “Nonetheless, that uncertainty is the thing … I have a lot of faith that people in Indiana, and I’m hoping, that any impact in Indiana because of its long history of charitable giving will not be great.”

Below, we break down how this news could impact Indiana’s school choice programs, as well as how the program works and got its start.

First, what are tax credit scholarships?

Indiana’s tax credit scholarship program, which lawmakers passed in 2009, lets taxpayers donate money to nonprofit, state-approved “scholarship granting organizations” in exchange for a 50 percent credit on their state taxes.

Those donations are then distributed to the nonprofits and given out to income-eligible Hoosier families as private school tuition scholarships. To participate, a family of four can’t make more than $92,870 per year.

In 2018-19, the program could distribute as much as $14 million in tax credits, though the amount that can be donated has no cap. Indiana’s tax credit cap has steadily increased up from $2.5 million since 2009.

While the use of vouchers far outstrips the tax credit scholarships, the program is still sizable. It serves 348 private schools across the state. In 2017, the program awarded 9,349 scholarships totaling more than $16 million.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of 2017, 17 states had tax credit scholarship programs. The largest one in the country is in Florida, where many corporations participate and the program collects and doles out hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Is the program controversial?

Yes, though it gets far less attention than Indiana’s voucher program, where families use state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It also predates vouchers, which weren’t allowed in the state until 2011.

Tax credit scholarship supporters say the donations benefit students in need who otherwise could attend the school of their choice. They also argue the programs can results in savings for states, as the cost for the tax credits is lower than the cost to educate students in public schools.

Critics of the program say it’s just another version of state-subsidized private school, not unlike vouchers. They also point out it is unclear whether these programs allow states to save money — partially because data on where students go to school and how they transfer between public and private schools can be hard to track.

In Indiana, students do not need to have attended a public school before receiving a tax credit scholarship, and the scholarships can pay up to the full tuition amount at their desired school.

What’s the IRS rule change that is causing the concerns?

It comes in response to a part of the 2017 federal tax bill that limited how much state and local taxes someone could deduct from their federal taxes — up to $10,000. Hiner said federal officials proposed the change to allow the government to get more revenue. Giving fewer opportunities for deductions means the government collects more in tax dollars.

In order to get around the $10,000 cap, some high-tax states, such as New York, California, and New Jersey, took advantage of tax credit programs. As a result, the IRS proposed new rules that prohibit the tax credit workaround, and that’s what has school choice supporters up in arms.

“The IRS had a good reason for taking action, but unfortunately in taking action against those bad actors, they swept in thousands of nonprofits across the country,” Hiner said.

How will the rule change affect Indiana?

Advocates hope is that Indiana won’t take as big a hit as other states with higher taxes.

In a press release, the treasury department said most taxpayers will not be affected by the change, with about 1 percent of taxpayers seeing “an effect on tax benefits for donations to school choice tax credit programs.”

It’s really not clear yet if that will come to pass, Hiner said, because taxes won’t be filed until next year. No one can really say now how donors might change their behavior.

The state-approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” that manage private tuition scholarship funds are already fielding questions from donors. Indiana has seven such organizations, six of which are currently granting scholarships.

“The one thing we’re stressing with everyone is to always contact your accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer to walk through what the impacts could be,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, one of the state’s scholarship granting organizations.

But in Indiana, according to an analysis from CNBC, taxpayers on average don’t claim deductions over $10,000. While the rule change could impact corporations or very large individual donors, most Hoosiers don’t fall in those categories. The vast majority of donors are individuals, and 43 percent of those donations are for less than $1,000, Wiley said.

Wiley hopes the federal government decides to pause implementing these new rules until after taxes for 2018 are filed. This would give donors and nonprofits more time to understand what the effect might be so they can adjust at the state level.

Federal officials are collecting feedback through November, when there will be another hearing on the rules.