Access Granted

Carranza unveils capital plan with $750 million in fixes for disability access

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza visits an art class at P.S. 11's new school building in Queens.

Heeding calls from advocates, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza proposed Thursday a $750 million plan to improve accessibility for students with disabilities at a third of the schools in every district. 

The announcement comes after months of urging from advocates over the lack of access for students with disabilities in a majority of school buildings.

About 80 percent of New York City’s public schools are not completely accessible. Last budget cycle, the city committed $150 million to improve access over the next three years. But in order to make just a third of school buildings accessible, advocates estimated a cost of another $750 million.

Officials said that, under the new plan, they expect half of elementary school buildings will be partially or fully accessible.

Advocates for children with disabilities applauded the news. The plan will “literally open the doors to inclusion,” said Kim Sweet, executive director for Advocates of Children New York, in a statement.

“We have been pushing for improved accessibility since we did the math a few years ago and in speaking to families,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children, at the news conference. “And it’s become clearer and clearer that we needed more accessible options at every school level.”

Accessibility projects will range from “really easy fixes,” such as adding ramps for wheelchairs, to “very big overhaul projects,” such as building access to a second-floor gym, said Karin Goldmark, deputy chancellor for school planning and development.

But the city won’t focus right now on buildings that have zero access, Goldmark said, who noted that many of them are a century old and have certain structural challenges that would require complete demolition.

“You would have to tear down and start over in order for it to be a project that’s really meaningful, and that’s not contemplated in this $750 million,” Goldmark said. “What we’re looking at it is all of the schools that we can really move along, continue accessibility so that we can get schools that are partially accessible to fully accessible, we can get some schools that have some potential to (become) partially accessible in a meaningful way.”

Carranza’s announcement — which came during a visit to P.S. 11’s new school building in Queens — is part of a proposed $17 billion five-year capital plan, which he said was the largest proposal of its kind in the school system’s history.

“You see, ladies and gentleman, when I first came to New York City a little over six months ago and I engaged in my tour to listen to communities across all five boroughs, and to listen to parents and community members and staff members and students, the three things they said to me that were loud and clear were, no. 1, we want more technology —it’s in this plan,” Carranza said. “The next thing they said to me was, ‘We want permanent classroom facilities’ — it’s in this plan. And the other thing they said to me was, ‘We want to have air conditioning in our schools’ — it’s in this plan.”

Carranza toured what he called a “state-of-the-art” building. He visited art and English classes, where children described their projects to him. He credited the new building with engaging the students.

“The facility (at P.S. 11) not only enables but allows students to unleash their creativity,” Carranza said. “What is so clear here today is that when we give students these kind of state-of-the art — and I’m going to underline ‘permanent’ — facilities and resources, we’re helping them to achieve.” 

The plan also includes new funding for 57,000 student seats to fulfill a commitment to reduce overcrowding that officials made about two and a half years ago by building a total 83,000.

These seats won’t necessarily be ready to go in the next five years, officials said. Rather, they will all be “sited” — in some design or planning phase.

Those 57,000 seats include 14,000 that were rolled over from the current capital plan, said Lorraine Grillo, president and CEO of the school construction authority.

Those seats will be added into new buildings or will be additions to existing schools, Carranza said.

The plan also calls for air conditioning for all classrooms by 2021 — a year earlier than previously planned.

About $750 million of the capital plan will go toward increased internet bandwidth and cybersecurity upgrades in schools. A “vast majority” of this funding will go toward upgrading the networking equipment in schools so they can access increased bandwidth, Goldmark said.

Another $550 million will create new pre-K and 3-K seats.

A report from a City Council working group in May found that 54 percent of elementary and middle schools and 47 percent of high schools are “over-capacity.” And 80,000 more students are expected in the city by 2040.

The capital plan will be sent to the Panel for Educational Policy following a public comment period in March and requires final approval from the mayor and city council.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.