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.


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.


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.


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.

Career-technical education

How Chicago schools are using cool classes like aviation and game design to repopulate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Students in a pre-law class at Chicago's Mather High fill out college applications on Sept. 19, 2018. The class is one of the school's career technical education offerings that it hopes will attract more students to enroll in the school.

Vocational education used to mean machine shops and sewing classes, programs aimed at students who weren’t headed for college. But career education has changed to fit the tastes of today’s students and the needs of the 21st-century job market, and now encompasses courses ranging from game design and aviation to architecture and digital media.

And Chicago schools are expanding their array of career-prep courses in hopes of enticing students back to languishing neighborhood high schools.

A tour of Mather High on Wednesday demonstrated how Chicago schools are viewing career education differently. It’s a means of both attracting students with training in popular subjects and using those practical classes to teach fundamental concepts — all very much aimed at sending some career-track students to college.

For example, Mather’s pre-law curriculum includes a criminology course where students learn about psychology, as well as a mock-trial element where they learn classical principles of rhetoric and argument. The pre-law program also dedicates time to helping its students submit college applications — hardly the focus of traditional trade-school curricula.

At Mather in West Ridge, second-year Principal Peter Auffant reversed a five-year slide in enrollment after expanding career-related classes. About a third of Mather’s 1,500 students are enrolled in one of its four career-education tracks, including a brand-new pre-engineering curriculum. A digital media track is slated to begin next fall. Besides more than three dozen classes, career-related offerings also include internships, such as stint working in city council members’ offices or at downtown law firms.  

“CTE allows us to provide very unique programming that students can’t get anywhere else,” Auffant said, referring to the commonly used shorthand for career technical education. “We leverage that to create stable enrollments.”

Mather senior William Doan is a case study. Three years ago, the West Ridge resident was looking at high schools outside his neighborhood — selective-enrollment schools as well as those offering the rigorous, college-preparatory International Baccalaureate curriculum, but ultimate chose to stay close to home because Mather’s pre-law program aligned with his interest in law enforcement.

“It kind of just drew me in,” Doan said. “You get a taste for the law and how it really is in the real world.”

Doan’s experience reflects a trend that’s shaping curricular decisions in Chicago and around the country. Congress this summer approved $1.1 billion to expand career education. Such offerings are among Chicago Public Schools’ most popular, according to a report released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.  

Some of those programs focus on traditional vocational education, such as the building trades program at Prosser High in Belmont Cragin that Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced this month would be funded with a $12 million investment. Others like those at Mather include non-traditional offerings, described as “21st century CTE” by Jarrod Nagurka. He is advocacy and public affairs manager for the Alexandria, Virginia-based Association for Career & Technical Education, which sponsored Wednesday’s school tour.

Nearly every Chicago high school has at least one career offering, though access to the most popular programs varies across the city, as does the breadth of the programming at each school. One factor among mid-sized schools such as Mather is the administrative burden of supporting extensive career programming alongside other elective programs such as International Baccalaureate.

“To do both (IB and career education) really well you have to be larger,” Auffant said.

So Mather is pursuing a hybrid strategy that uses career-education classes to teach college-prep concepts. Teachers use real-world vocational settings to explore the academic concepts that undergird them.

“The foundation of curriculum design is backward design,” said Sarah Rudofsky, the school district’s manager of curriculum and instruction for CTE. That means consulting with industry partners about the skills graduates need, then building curricula to suit. In a pre-law course, for example, those core skills are destined to overlap with traditional college-prep coursework, but geared to a practical application.

“It’s important to us to change the conversation from ‘CTE is for students who don’t want to go to college’ to ‘This program is for any young person who wants to have some employability skills before they graduate from high school’ — applied math, applied science and applied literacy,” Rudofsky said.  



it's official

Brooklyn middle schools eliminate ‘screening’ as New York City expands integration efforts

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a Thursday press conference at M.S. 51 in Park Slope, Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza approved an integration plan for District 15 middle schools.

New York’s Department of Education on Thursday approved sweeping changes to the way students are admitted to middle schools across an entire Brooklyn district, marking one of the most far-reaching integration efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.

Along with the admissions overhaul, the city launched $2 million in new grants for other districts that want to develop their own integration plans, signaling that officials want local communities to continue to take the lead in addressing a systemic problem.

Officials also announced that an existing citywide school diversity task force will continue to advise city leaders on school diversity issues even after the group issues its recommendations this winter.  

Together, the moves dramatically ramp up the city’s efforts to integrate one of the country’s most segregated school systems — something de Blasio has only reluctantly taken on. While the mayor has been criticized for steadfastly avoiding even saying the word “segregation,” the issue has become impossible to ignore with the arrival of schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has captured national attention for his frank calls for action, coupled with relentless activism from some parents, educators, and elected officials.

“Momentum for change is growing,” de Blasio said at a press conference at M.S. 51 in Park Slope, a sought-after middle school that the mayor’s own children attended. “What’s so powerful is that it is coming from the grassroots.”

The middle school admissions changes are the culmination of years of advocacy from critics who blamed a complicated and competitive admissions process for exacerbating segregation in District 15, which encompasses brownstone neighborhoods such as Carroll Gardens and Park Slope and immigrant enclaves including Red Hook and Sunset Park.

Under the new system, District 15 middle schools will no longer “screen” their students based on factors such as report card grades, test scores, or auditions for performing arts programs — eliminating selective admissions criteria altogether. Instead, the district will use a lottery that gives extra weight to students who come from low-income families, are learning English as a new language, or are homeless.

The aim is to enroll a similar share of needy students across each of the district’s 11 middle schools. And since class is often tied to race and ethnicity, the lottery priority could also spur student diversity on a range of different measures.

“The current District 15 middle school admissions process presents itself as a system of choice and meritocracy, but it functions as a system of hoarding privilege,” said Councilman Brad Lander, who has been supportive of the diversity push.

Advocates hope that District 15 will be a template for integration efforts elsewhere in the city. The process has been hailed for being far more inclusive — and less contentious — then the path that helped lead to the creation of two other districtwide integration plans. District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side and part of Harlem, recently approved middle school admissions changes that give priority to students from low income families and those with low test scores. It came on the heels of a similar plan for elementary schools in District 1, which includes the Lower East Side, East Village, and part of Chinatown.

The new grants are expected to support similar work in about 10 districts, with about $150,000 dedicated to each. In District 15, the city spent about $120,000 for a planning firm that essentially served as a mediator throughout a year-long community engagement process to develop the changes that were ultimately approved . City officials expect the money to go towards districts that have already received a state grant to tackle diversity issues. Those communities span the city from Staten Island, to the Bronx, to Coney Island.

“We’re signaling we want communities to do this work and we’re going to pay for it. We’re going to invest in this work,” Carranza said.


Critics have called on the city to take a more aggressive role in leading citywide efforts to integrate schools, rather than leaving it up to local communities that may actively resist change. De Blasio, who grew up in Cambridge when Boston was roiled by protests against busing students to integrate schools, said diversity plans should reflect the unique reality of each community. But he also said he hopes that successful integration efforts will serve as an example to nudge other school districts forward.


“I think we have to maximize parent involvement, community involvement, and believe that, that will get us to a good place,” de Blasio said. “And if we find where there’s something that can be done and parents are not yet there, we’re obviously going to work hard to get them there.”

In District 15, the admissions changes are just the first step towards integrating schools in a district where students are starkly segregated by race and class. Families will still be free to apply to the schools of their choice, so overhauling enrollment policies will have little effect unless parents are willing to consider a wide range of options.

Winning over parents presents a formidable challenge since middle class and white families in District 15 clamor to get into just a few vaunted schools, and parents of color may feel unsure about venturing beyond their neighborhood. To grapple with parents’ apprehension, advocates fought to couple the admissions changes with efforts to make schools more inclusive and appealing to families.

“Our work is only starting,” said Carrie McLaren, the mom of a fifth grader in Boerum Hill, who was involved in drafting the district’s integration plan.

The city announced it would dedicate $500,000 towards new resources, training, and other supports for parents and educators to help make the plan work. A new coordinator will be responsible for helping families navigate the admissions process, and an outreach team is tasked with contacting every parent with information about how to apply to middle schools. Additionally, it will be up to a new “diversity, equity, and integration coordinator” to oversee the district’s work, which will include providing teachers with anti-bias training, social-emotional learning, and alternative discipline practices.

Advocates pushed for those measures to try to make schools more fair and inclusive of students from different backgrounds. They called for the training for teachers and support in creating classroom materials that reflect diverse cultural histories and viewpoints, as well as the overhaul of discipline practices — which often treat black and Hispanic students, and those with disabilities, more harshly than their peers.

“If we’re simply moving bodies, and not changing pedagogically or culturally, then we’re ultimately setting up students of color to be in environments where they’re not welcome,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate with the nonprofit New York Appleseed.

For Laura Espinoza, a mother in Sunset Park who helped draft the District 15 integration plan, the real work lies in making sure her community schools are equipped with the same resources as those in more affluent neighborhoods. Admissions changes alone don’t solve that underlying problem.

“The solution comes through focusing on the resources schools have,” she said. “Why are they called public schools if they are given more in some areas, and less in others?”

Advocates have called on the city to focus on the distribution of resources within schools as part of its integration effort, including an analysis of arts programming and even parent fundraising — moves that Espinoza hopes become a reality and not “only words.” The city announced “targeted funding” for technology and other resources will be part of the District 15 plan.

Messaging will also be an important piece of the work ahead. McLaren said families will be responsible for reshaping narratives around what makes schools desirable, and also taking a hard look at their own school’s practices and working across communities to problem-solve when barriers to integration arise.

“As a parent, and a white parent specifically, I see my role as having to talk to other white parents… and think about how our structural inequities have fed stereotypes and bias,” McLaren said. “It all takes a lot of work, and I don’t think there are easy answers, but at least this is changing the conversation.”