charter chatter

Mayor de Blasio almost proposed a universal enrollment system for district and charter schools, emails show

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

Just days before Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the backbone of his education agenda in 2015, the education department’s top strategist chimed in with a surprising suggestion.

“I’d like to propose that that we offer to include charter schools in our central enrollment system,” Josh Wallack wrote in an email to several other senior officials that September.

“It’s a nice ‘tip of the cap,’” Wallack said. “It also allows us to settle, once and for all, the question of whether the charters are operating with any selection bias because all families would use exactly the same admissions process. Equity. One system.”

Common — sometimes known as “universal” — enrollment systems exist in cities from Newark to Indianapolis. Backers of the approach argue it can simplify the often complex and time-intensive process required to apply to either district or charter schools in cities that allow parents to choose among both. Streamlining the process can put parents on equal footing instead of allowing those with more time, knowledge or resources from automatically getting a leg up.

Early in de Blasio’s administration, emails show, the idea was initially met with approval from other senior officials, including Karin Goldmark, an education advisor to de Blasio who now serves as a deputy chancellor responsible for overseeing partnerships with charter schools among other programs.

De Blasio’s aides quickly worked the idea into a draft of his 2015 speech, according to records released by City Hall in response to a lawsuit filed by NY1 and the New York Post. But standing in the auditorium of Bronx Latin just a few days later, the mayor made no mention of the potential overhaul of the city’s enrollment process, focusing instead on a slew of new initiatives known as his “equity and excellence” agenda.

Common enrollment systems have gained traction in recent years as some cities have embraced a “portfolio model” of schools, a new way of organizing school districts that has developed strong backing. This enrollment approach is central in New Orleans and Denver, which received input from Neil Dorosin, who created and once ran New York City’s high-school application system.

But unified enrollment also depends on a degree of trust and goodwill between district leaders and charter operators or advocates, which has sometimes appeared lacking in de Blasio’s New York.

That’s why the revelation de Blasio previously considered including charter schools in a common enrollment system is somewhat surprising. Even before de Blasio became mayor, he campaigned on the idea that charter schools have a “destructive impact” on traditional public schools.

And while he has at times softened that rhetoric and supported district-charter collaborations, the mayor recently said that charter schools should not be allowed to expand. (The state cap on the number of charter schools could prevent new ones from opening if the state legislature doesn’t act soon.) Pro-charter groups have also been unafraid to push back against his agenda.

Yet common enrollment can be seen as a kind of compromise, said Betheny Gross, who has studied the model in multiple cities and is a researcher with the Center for Reinventing Education.

“Everybody is asked to give something up,” Gross said. “Charters are asked to give up a lot of their direct control over enrollment, which is important to them because they get paid by the student.” Districts, meanwhile, have to cede the possibility that a simplified process may mean more students will consider and choose charters, taking per-pupil funding with them.

Under the plan briefly entertained by the de Blasio administration, families looking for an elementary school would have been able to select 12 options on a single application, regardless of whether the choice was a traditional district or charter school.

Families would have then been matched with their highest-ranked school that had space for them, as determined by a complex algorithm. Such systems also sometimes take into account other criteria, including siblings already attending the school or a certain proportion of low-income students. (Importantly, a unified application system does not necessarily mean all students can be admitted to a district school only via a lottery. Schools could conceivably still use screens or require students to clear academic bars for entry, which has led to intense academic and racial segregation among the city’s high schools.)

It’s unclear how seriously the administration considered the plan. Multiple charter leaders said the prospect of a unified enrollment system had been raised under the charter-friendly Bloomberg administration. But they did not have detailed conversations with de Blasio administration officials about the proposal.

“It was an idea that was floated before the speech, but it wasn’t the subject of a full policy analysis,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a de Blasio spokeswoman. “It obviously wasn’t the route City Hall eventually took.” She did not answer questions about whether the mayor is still considering the approach.

Any such plan would face logistical hurdles, including the need to revise state charter school laws. It’s also unclear whether the sector would line up behind a universal system, which would likely depend on charter schools opting in.

James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said there is “a lot of support from charter leaders” for a common enrollment plan. The Charter Center runs a separate common application system that includes most of the city’s charter schools, which educate over 100,000 students and is itself larger than Denver’s entire school system.

“We’d be very interested in seeing it,” Merriman said. “It’s embarrassing that New York City is behind in a process” that other cities have adopted. A spokeswoman for KIPP, which operates charter schools in several cities with common enrollment, said the network supports the idea in New York City.

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter School in Queens, said a universal enrollment system could help charter schools avoid a common critique: that the city’s most vulnerable students may not know about the application process, or that schools dissuade certain students from enrolling. “It might take away some of the questions about who [charters] accept and who they don’t accept,” she said.

But Gauthier and others in the charter sector were less enthusiastic about the idea without first seeing all the elements of such a plan.

A spokeswoman for Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, said their support would “depend on the details.”

And Derrell Bradford, executive director of the pro-charter group NYCAN, said it does not make sense to trust the de Blasio administration to take control of the enrollment process for charter schools, given its historic antagonism toward the sector.

You should never let your competitor be your regulator,” he said.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”