showdown

How the winner of the Cuomo vs. Nixon race for New York governor could shape education policy

Voters head to the polls Thursday for New York's gubernatorial primary.

Education seemed destined for the spotlight in New York’s gubernatorial election, with a longtime school-funding activist facing off against a governor whose school policies have shifted significantly during his tenure.

But after a debate with almost no mention of the topic, and campaigns that focused more on crumbling transit systems, schools have taken a back seat in this year’s New York gubernatorial primary election between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon.

Still, whoever wins Thursday’s vote is widely expected to take the governor’s mansion and have enormous influence over education, which at $27 billion is the largest category of state spending.

Here is what your vote could mean for the state’s 2.6 million students — and for schools in your own neighborhood.

Funding

Cuomo: The governor points out that school funding has increased under his watch (including a $1 billion boost last year) and says the state should focus on how current funding is distributed to minimize inequities. That was one of the reasons Cuomo pushed for school districts, including New York City, to more quickly release data on how much money each school spends per student.

“The real issue is the distribution of that money,” Cuomo said earlier this year. “We have an education inequality problem in this state.”

Nixon: The actress best known for her role on “Sex and the City” traces her decision to run for governor all the way back to her time as a school-funding activist and her championing of a lawsuit that argued New York State did not provide students with a “sound basic education.” The lawsuit was ultimately successful in court, but Nixon and other advocates say the state has never fully complied with its terms.

So it’s no surprise that a key pillar of Nixon’s campaign is infusing schools with $7 billion  in additional funding, financed by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, with the goal of reducing class sizes and hiring more counselors and teachers. It’s a proposal backed by some recent research that shows even though New York spends more per student than any other state, more funding would still boost student achievement.

Asked about the her plan’s expensive price tag, Nixon said: “You know what? It is and it should be.”

Charter schools

Cuomo: A beneficiary of donations from pro-charter groups during past campaigns, Cuomo came into office vowing to expand the charter sector and did. There are 253 charter schools operating across the state, according to the New York City Charter Center, a roughly 43 percent jump since 2010. (He was even named a “champion for charters” by a national charter school organization.) This support, along with his push to tie test scores to teacher evaluations, strained his relationship with teachers unions.

But Cuomo has said little about charter schools during this campaign and it is unclear what his vision for them is going forward. And he has largely made peace with the state’s teacher unions (though they still declined to endorse him).

Nixon: For her part, Nixon’s education plan does not mention charter schools — something her campaign has sometimes characterized as a distraction from her plans for district schools. More recently she has said she doesn’t believe they are truly public because they are privately operated.

Excelsior

Cuomo: You can expect Cuomo to continue to tout the Excelsior scholarship, which he has billed as a first-of-its-kind “free college” program that covers tuition at two- and four-year state schools for some New York residents. The 2017-2018 academic year was the first of a three-year phase in, with about 22,000 students benefiting from the inaugural round of funding. Over this year and next, Excelsior will expand to cover more middle-class families, with the income requirement shifting upwards to ultimately include those making $125,000 or less.

But Excelsior has been consistently criticized for serving few students, and leaving out the most needy. A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future found that only 3 percent of the state’s undergrads received the scholarship in its first year. Experts blame the program’s strict credit requirements and other eligibility rules for shutting many students out. Excelsior is currently a “last dollar” program, meaning it only pays for tuition costs that aren’t already covered through other aid programs. Since many poor students already get their tuition bill paid through programs such as Pell Grants, they often don’t benefit from Excelsior.

Nixon: The scholarship rules could change under a Nixon governorship. She has proposed to limit the scholarship to families making $80,000 or less, and said she favors a “first dollar” program that would cover tuition expenses first, leaving poor students to use other financial aid programs for other college costs. Her plan would also lower the credit requirement from 30 hours to 24 hours, according to her campaign.

Mayoral control

Cuomo: De Blasio’s control of city schools is up for renewal in 2019, giving Albany a major bargaining chip over the city in the next legislative session. Cuomo has said lawmakers should address mayoral control alongside the debate around admissions for specialized high schools.

Mayoral control was on the verge of lapsing in 2017, until de Blasio struck a last-minute deal for his first two-year extension of power (lawmakers had previously granted only single-year deals) in exchange for concessions on charter schools.

Nixon: Nixon has suggested a different approach entirely: extending mayoral control permanently.  

Specialized high schools

Cuomo: New York City’s specialized high schools have come under sharp scrutiny for being starkly segregated, with critics pinning the problem on how the sought-after schools admit students. De Blasio has launched an effort to scrap the exam that currently serves as the only entrance criteria, replacing it with a system that offers admission to top students in city middle schools. That would require a change in state law.

De Blasio’s hopes largely rest on the state Senate flipping to Democratic control, but it will ultimately be up to the governor to sign any legislation that may come forward.

Cuomo, who has constantly butted heads with de Blasio, could give the mayor a hard time. He has suggested that any admissions changes should be a part of larger education discussions, including whether the legislature should extend de Blasio’s control over city schools.

Nixon: On the other hand, Nixon has come out in support of a bill that would make the mayor’s proposal a reality. In fact, Nixon seems to go even further than de Blasio.

Her education platform seems to echo the position of many advocates: that the SHSAT is only enshrined into law for three of the eight schools that use the exam. Many say de Blasio could nix the exams at five of the schools — without support from the state legislature. But the mayor’s team has raised legal questions about that.

Yeshivas

Cuomo: Accusations that the city’s Jewish religious schools don’t offer an adequate secular education have long been a cause of controversy for de Blasio. But the schools could become a headache for Cuomo, too, should he remain in the governor’s mansion.

Cuomo received the endorsement of a politically powerful Brooklyn rabbi last week — reportedly after promising not to interfere with the religious schools, which have been the subject of a controversial investigation into whether they are flouting New York law. The governor’s office did not confirm or deny whether he made the comment, but a spokesman told Gothamist that “the governor has no role in this matter as schools are regulated by the state Education Department.”

State law requires private schools to provide a “substantially equivalent” education to public schools in exchange for public money. After a slow-running investigation that took three years, city officials recently released a report that found attendance was voluntary at some yeshivas during secular subjects like English, and that students received little instruction in math and science.

It’s unclear what sway the governor could have over the issue. A recent change in state law means that the New York education department will decide how to proceed.

Nixon: It’s also unclear what Nixon’s leadership would mean for the city’s yeshivas. She declined to comment on the topic when asked about it this summer, and her education platform does not make any mention of religious schools.

Assessing assessments

New York legislators overhaul teacher evaluations, removing mandatory link to state test

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
A New York City principal takes notes on her computer during classroom observation for new teacher evaluations.

State lawmakers easily passed a bill Wednesday that scraps the use of state tests when evaluating New York teachers, but even supportive lawmakers raised concerns about potential loopholes that could subject students to more high-stakes testing.

The union-backed bill is a reversal of a 2015 deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached with lawmakers, which tied teacher evaluations to performance on state testing, seen by many as a political move not rooted in education policy. Strong backlash over that deal led many families to opt out of state tests, and eventually led to a state moratorium on using certain state assessments for teacher evaluations.

The bill allows local districts and their teachers unions to decide what kind of assessments should be used to evaluate teachers and requires State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to decide on a “menu” of alternative assessments for local districts.

The proposal, which now goes to Cuomo’s office for approval, jumps ahead of work the Board of Regents is attempting. Before the session started, the Board of Regents planned to extend the state-assessment moratorium by one year and created work groups to hash out the best policies for assessments and evaluations. Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Westchester Democrat and chair of the Senate education committee, said Wednesday she recognizes the Regents’ work, but “as legislators, we are doing what we are charged to do in making necessary changes in state law.”

“Since 2015, when these provisions were initially adopted, parents, teachers, and the legislature have — in a bipartisan way — have all recognized a flaw in this law,” Mayer said.

In a statement, Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie called the bill’s changes “common sense reforms” that will help teachers “prioritize the needs of their students.”

State Department of Education officials will “work to implement the new law” and will “continue to engage stakeholders in the process,” Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state education department said in an email.

The bill is not likely to have a drastic effect on New York City schools, since the district already chooses from a menu of local measures to evaluate teachers. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, who praised the legislation dismissed concerns about the bill leading to more testing, at least in New York City, because of how it already uses alternative local options.

“You should be active in making sure your school district is using performance indicators that are not tests, if you believe in that,” Mulgrew said.

Despite the bill’s passage — unanimously in the Senate — even supporters expressed concerns about allowing local districts to select their methods for evaluating teachers. What if another type of standardized test shows up on the “menu” that the state commissioner creates? Or, what if local districts decide they want to use more standardized tests?

“There are serious concerns that this bill will actually double the amount of testing (one tests for student achievement, the other teachers), while making it harder to compare across districts,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for teacher group Educators for Excellence, in a tweet.

When a similar question was raised on the Assembly floor, bill sponsor Assemblyman Michael Benedetto doubted the chances that local districts would agree to more testing.

Wary lawmakers also raised concerns about the bill not going far enough to decouple state assessments from teacher evaluations, formally called Annual Professional Performance Reviews or APPR.

The New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of parents and teachers who oppose standardized testing, believes that this law would subject students to more tests, a view shared by Sen. Robert Jackson, a Harlem Democrat. Jackson and Queens Democrat Sen. Jessica Ramos both voted to support the bill nonetheless, but cautioned that it “does not go far enough” to eliminate the use of assessments completely.

“We have an opportunity to take a couple more weeks before budget season  begins in earnest to really workshop these ideas,” Jackson said. “With so much riding on reforming APPR, we owe it to students, teachers, parents, and other  advocates to get this one right.”

measuring up

Gateway is only Memphis charter school flagged as low-achieving on district scorecard. How did your school do?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Gateway University is already at risk of closure after a Shelby County Schools investigation found a slew of misconduct at the high school.

Most Memphis schools improved in academic achievement and student growth in the second edition of Shelby County Schools “scorecard.”

About two-thirds of 186 district and charter schools improved their score on the district’s tool that helps parents examine school-level data and compare it with other Memphis-area schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

The district grades each school on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the most favorable. The tool relies on state data on test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, ACT scores, and other factors like attendance and suspension rates. But the district’s scorecard differs from the state’s report card in that it only compares Memphis-area schools with each other. The state compares the district’s schools with others across Tennessee.

The scorecard is also the district’s main measurement of charter schools, which are managed by nonprofits using public funds. Only one charter school, Gateway University, fell below a 2, the district’s threshold for charter schools to remain in good standing. The school scored 1.64.

None of the high school’s students performed on grade level in math on the state’s test TNReady. Less than 2 percent scored proficient in English, making it the worst performing of 54 charter schools in the district.

Gateway University, now in its second year, is already under investigation for a slew of accusations including awarding students grades for a nonexistent class, hiring an employee who did not clear a background check, and having an inactive governing board. Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended the school board close the charter school. The board will likely hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon and vote that evening.

Last year, the district flagged seven low-performing charter schools at risk of closure, but all have improved academics and other measures enough this year to escape the district’s watchlist.

However, the state uses a different yardstick and has placed four of those charter school on its list of lowest performing schools. The school board delayed a vote in October to close those schools and has not released a new date for a decision. (The other three schools either closed, converted to a different governing model, or are still in operation.)

Even if those charter schools didn’t improve, the district could not have used last year’s state test scores as a factor in closing them. A series of technical failures of the online test led state lawmakers to ban use of the scores in judging schools.

To view individual school report cards, search here.