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.


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.

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.