Future of Schools

Democrats win control of New York state legislature. What that means for education

PHOTO: Flickr
New York State Capitol.

Democrats won enough state Senate races on Tuesday to secure a majority for the first time since 2010, and in the process gained control of the New York legislature.

Senate Republicans previously held a working majority of one seat but in a midterm election where Democrats fell short in some races nationally but had a strong showing in the Empire state, the result was not surprising given statewide trends.

What do Tuesday night’s results mean for the future of education in New York? Not all issues fall along party lines, but there are a few things that are likely gain traction in the new legislative session in January.

School funding

Don’t be surprised to see a push for more state funding for local districts, an issue that every progressive Democrat who ran for office campaigned on.

They, like others who have fiercely pushed for more state funding, point to a school funding lawsuit that forced the state to come up with a new funding formula. Advocates for increasing the money flowing from Albany argue this new formula was never fully implemented, meaning the state still owes billions of dollars to districts.

The Democratic-controlled state Assembly has typically called for more funding than what is proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also won re-election Tuesday. But with advocates for more state funding in both chambers, it’s possible there will be more pressure on Cuomo to open the coffers a little even as the state faces a budget deficit and potential economic uncertainty.

But that doesn’t mean it will happen, said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. There is a property tax cap on districts (though these don’t include New York City) that rely on tax revenue for their schools, and Bloomfield doesn’t think Cuomo would raise state taxes to bring more funding in.

“You’re basically dealing with a state aid formula that’s fixed except for the margins,” Bloomfield said.

Charter schools

The support that the charter sector enjoyed from the previous legislature, thanks to strong backing from Senate Republicans, will likely erode, with several progressive Democrats having campaigned on platforms that included reining in charter schools.

That could mean an increase in oversight of charter schools. Proposals to regulate them more have previously failed in the senate, owing to Republican opposition.

As state officials approved another batch of charter-school openings in New York City this week, the state inched even closer to a legal limit on how many charters can open in the five boroughs and across the state.

Charter advocates want lawmakers to increase this cap, but it’s possible that the newly shaped legislature won’t even consider it.

Mayoral control

Mayor Bill de Blasio will look for legislators to renew his control over the city’s education system.

In the past, Senate Republicans used the issue as a budget bargaining chip and also as a way to punish a mayor who has often campaigned against them.

But a Democrat-led Senate doesn’t necessarily mean de Blasio will easily win support for renewed mayoral control within his party.

Some progressive Democrats, who support more grassroots governance, don’t support mayoral control, including former City Council education committee chair Robert Jackson, who had won 89 percent of the vote with 93 percent of precincts counted on Tuesday night.

But even these Democrats may hesitate to quickly return to the old system of local control, which would introduce new complications.

“I don’t think there’s legislative appetite,” Bloomfield said, “ to go back to community control.”

It’s more likely that mayoral control will be easier to reauthorize, and that de Blasio will earn a more than a one- or two-year extension, Bloomfield said.

Teacher evaluations

This week, the Board of Regents signaled it would extend its three-year-old, temporary ban on using state English and math exams to evaluate New York teachers.

By extending the moratorium by one year, state officials signaled they wanted more time to figure out the best way to evaluate teachers, a subject that has provoked prior backlash from educators and families.

And, with the extension expected to come right before the start of the legislative session, it’s possible that a Democratic-controlled legislature will seize the moment to make legislative changes to teacher evaluations.

Last year, the state Assembly passed a bill that would untie teacher evaluations from test scores, but it failed to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Democrats could try to raise the issue again, now that it might garner more support, or develop another bill after the Regents study the issue further.

Suspensions

A Democratic-controlled legislature might be more friendly toward finding alternatives to suspending students.

Easton, from Alliance for Quality Education, said discipline reform “was never going to see the light of day in the Senate.”

But a shift in party control could mean an easier path for those who want the state to shift away from punitive discipline policies in schools.

Last year, Assembly education committee chairwoman Cathy Nolan sponsored a bill that, in part, would require educators to use suspensions as a last resort to discipline students. The bill didn’t make it to a final vote.

In New York City, de Blasio has promoted a restorative justice model for student discipline, cutting back on suspensions, but the idea remains controversial among some teachers who say the approach doesn’t do enough to ensure orderly classrooms.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan called Tuesday’s results “disappointing,” but that senate Republicans will “continue to be a strong and important voice in Albany.”

“When we need to push back, we will push back,” Flanagan said. “And where we can find common ground, we will always seek it.”

State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, widely expected to be the first female majority leader, projected more Democrats would win their races Tuesday night as results rolled in.

“I am confident our majority will grow even larger after all results are counted, and we will finally give New Yorkers the progressive leadership they have been demanding,” Stewart-Cousins said in a tweet.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that David Bloomfield does not think Gov. Andrew Cuomo would raise property-tax caps on districts throughout the state. Bloomfield was referring to state taxes, not district property taxes.

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