Election 2018

Here are six ways your vote on Tuesday could affect schools across New York

PHOTO: Blend Images - Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

As schools begin morphing into polling sites in advance of Tuesday’s election, voters’ decisions could have big implications for classrooms across New York.

Since 2010, Republicans have retained control of the state Senate, shaping policy on hot-button education issues ranging from charter schools to school funding.

Senate Republicans have historically championed school choice, and pushed for more conservative levels of school spending. They have also repeatedly threatened to withhold approval of mayoral control of New York City schools in a tug-of-war with the Democrat-dominated Assembly, which has typically fought for larger school funding increases and defended city interests.

And while nothing is certain until all the votes are tallied, observers say Democrats — currently just one seat shy of a majority — have a strong chance of taking the Senate. In one sign of the changing political winds, half a dozen Democrats who voted with Republicans on many key issues, including charter schools, lost their primaries in September.

“It’s more likely than not we’ll see a Democratic majority,” said Julie Marlette, the government relations director for the New York State School Boards Association.

Still, it’s difficult to predict exactly which issues a new majority may prioritize — or even how large that majority could be. Some issues, like the debate over the city’s specialized high schools, aren’t neatly organized along party lines. Moreover, many of the Senate races have not made education issues a hallmark. And new political faces don’t have extensive track records to scour for clues.

Any legislation will be subject to negotiations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has his own set of legislative priorities. In the past, Cuomo has supported charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores but the governor has backed away from some of those issues, and it’s unclear how strongly he will lobby for them.

But a Democrat-controlled senate could still have a big effect on perennial education battles, and in an email blast, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza urged students and their parents to vote. Here are six issues, which we also highlighted earlier this fall, to look out for.

Efforts to rein in charter schools, with some limits

Senate Republicans have been stalwarts of the charter sector, helping secure increases in per-student funding and additional subsidies for renting private space. A Democrat-controlled Senate would be likely be much less favorable.

Some of the progressive Democrats campaigned explicitly on a promise to maintain the limit on the number of charter schools that can open in New York City, which is rapidly approaching the current cap.

“I think the cap is a very real issue,” said Bob Bellafiore, a consultant who has worked for charter schools and helped push for the state’s charter law in the 1990s. “It’s a thing to watch because of the campaign rhetoric.”

Charter advocates say they’ll continue to pressure lawmakers to raise the cap, but after pushing the issue for years, it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to drum up support in a more challenging climate.

Charters could also face additional challenges if Democratic majorities seek to ratchet up oversight of the sector. In 2017, Senate Democrats put forward proposals that would require charter schools to have specific enrollment targets for students with disabilities and English learners, make it more difficult to share buildings with district schools, and limit how much charter leaders are paid.

Those proposals had virtually no chance of garnering necessary Republican votes but could plausibly pass in a Democrat-controlled Senate. If they do, lawmakers could wind up prompting an intra-party fight with Cuomo, who has previously supported charter schools.

“The question becomes: Would those proposals ultimately be approved?” said Marlette.

Less likely: any legislative efforts to increase teachers unions’ influence in charter school operations, considered a holy grail for the unions. Even with Democratic majorities, lawmakers will be hemmed in by recent federal labor rulings that classify charter schools as private, meaning that their employees would not be represented by public unions. (Charter school employees can still seek to form unions on their own.)

Still, some within the charter sector are not optimistic. “I can’t see it being a good year,” said Steve Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter School. “The movement writ large has fallen out of favor with progressive politics — that’s not a secret and in the Trump-DeVos era, it’s only gotten worse.”

More pressure to increase school funding

Not every progressive Democrat who unseated an incumbent in the primary cited maintaining the charter cap as a priority. But they are all united on another issue: that the state should send more money to local districts.

Like Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star who took on Cuomo in the primary, these politicians say the state has not fulfilled its funding obligations under Cuomo. They point to a landmark school funding lawsuit that prompted the state to come up with a new funding formula, but which they argue has never been fully implemented.

They insist the state owes billions of dollars to districts. One of the lead plaintiffs on that original lawsuit, former City Council education committee chair Robert Jackson, unseated a Democratic state senator to win the nomination in Harlem and could be a leading voice on this issue if he wins on Tuesday.

“Every one of the challengers ran on the demand of fully funding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for more funding, referring to the Democrats who unseated state senators who voted with Republicans.

“It’s not a slam dunk,” Easton said. “But I think it’s an atmosphere we’ve never seen in Albany before.”

A consensus among lawmakers on school funding would reshape the annual budget dance. In recent years, the Democratic Assembly has called for much more spending than Cuomo has proposed, while the Senate has previously come out somewhere in the middle. If both chambers unite in calling for more aid, Cuomo could face pressure from within his own party to go along.

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said in an interview in September that she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes would lead to more money for schools. Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — require significant spending, Rosa said.

But Cuomo will still wield considerable power in the budget process, which is hammered out with the leaders of the Assembly and Senate in a process known as the “big ugly,” because so many issues are negotiated at once. And he may be reluctant to dramatically boost spending, especially given the state’s budget deficit and potential economic uncertainty. He has also suggested that the level of funding is not as important as how it is spent.

The governor and leaders of the Senate and Assembly will “have to come together and agree on a final number,” said Marlette of the school boards association.

A more straightforward path to renewing mayoral control

Whether New York City retains mayor control of its local schools will also be on the docket next year — along with any restrictions on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s power the state legislature or Gov. Cuomo wants to impose.

Mayoral control has previously been used as a crowbar by Senate Republicans, both to bludgeon de Blasio campaigning against them and as a lever to exact concessions in the budget, including on charter schools.

But Democrats have also critiqued the governance system for being too top-down — a criticism that occupied lawmakers’ energy extensively when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. As City Council education chair, Jackson was particularly strident in his calls to roll back mayoral control.

It’s possible that Jackson and the new wave of progressives could level that kind of criticism again. But they might not have an appetite for squaring off against de Blasio, especially after years of mounting consensus that returning to the previous, complicated system of local control or creating a completely new system would be unwieldy at best.

A more likely outcome, according to the Alliance for Quality Education’s Easton, is that reauthorizing mayoral control could be easier, with de Blasio getting more than just a one- or two-year extension that lasts into his successor’s administration. Still, the issue will still be subject to negotiation, and Cuomo could use it as a bargaining chip if legislators ask for a longer extension.

Teacher evaluation legislation, but potentially with a twist

During the last legislative session, the Democrat-controlled Assembly passed a bill repealing elements of an unpopular law that could eventually tie teacher evaluations to test scores — but it died in the Senate.

With a new Senate, the Assembly might simply pass the bill again with a greater chance of success.

“It’s possible that we might see swifter action on [teacher evaluations] than we would otherwise,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

It’s also possible that lawmakers might advance a different bill with broader goals. Some of the state’s top education officials, including Rosa, the Board of Regents Chancellor, favor a slower overhaul of the teacher evaluation system with more opportunity for input from educators as opposed to an immediate legislative change. The Regents have placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests, and on Monday Rosa asked to extend it another year.

A statewide shift away from suspensions

In recent years, New York City has significantly curtailed student suspensions in favor of more “restorative” approaches, which emphasize peer mediation and less punitive responses to student misbehavior. De Blasio has also made it much more difficult to suspend the city’s youngest students, though there are still big disparities between different student populations according to data released last week.

Cathy Nolan, chairwoman of the Assembly education committee, has previously sponsored legislation that would require those types of discipline reforms across the state, but which have not gained traction.

Discipline reform “was never going to see the light of day in the Senate” under Republican control, Easton said. “I think you’ll see a push.”

Continued debate over specialized high schools

One big issue on the table this year doesn’t have a clear party line: whether New York City will be allowed to scrap the admissions test at its elite specialized high schools, which is written into state law.

De Blasio has proposed eliminating the exam to promote diversity at the hyper-segregated schools, but the issue has divided city Democrats. John Liu, a former city comptroller who defeated Tony Avella in the primary, does not support de Blasio’s plan. Current legislators, some of whom attended specialized high schools, have also spoken out against it.

The issue is so new and murky that many of candidates have not yet weighed in. And while de Blasio remains optimistic, Michael Mulgrew, the city teachers union chief who supported the proposal when it was announced and whose take counts with many Democratic lawmakers, is not.

“I don’t believe at this point in time it can pass in the next legislative session because it has been so highly politicized,” he said — before the primary election that ushered progressive Democrats onto the November ballot.

Polling locations will be open across the city from 6 a.m. to 9.m. Find your polling place here.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year