doing a 180

New York City students can be suspended for an entire year. Officials say changes could be coming.

PHOTO: Monica Disare/Chalkbeat
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016

After successfully pressing Mayor Bill de Blasio to reduce the overall number of suspensions issued to New York City students, advocates are focusing on a new target: reducing the maximum length of suspensions — which can now last an entire school year.

In the wake of new discipline data that continue to show stark divides — including a report that found black students often receive longer suspensions than students from other racial groups for the same infractions — advocates and a group of city councilors argue the city must adopt a series of new reforms, including a cap on the length of suspensions to 20 days. Now, the education department is seriously considering a strict cap on the number of days a student can be suspended.

“The biggest thing we can’t wrap our head around is why you can suspend a student for 180 days,” said Tannya Benavides, a fourth grade teacher and volunteer with Organizing for Equity. The organization, which formed about a year ago, is conducting door-knocking campaigns in districts with high suspension rates to help create momentum for discipline reforms, including limits to the amount of time students can be removed from their classrooms.

Only a dozen city students were suspended for 180 days in the last school year, according to city data, but “superintendent suspensions,” which are issued for more serious infractions and can run from six days through the whole school year, were handed out more than 10,000 times. About a quarter of those long-term suspensions were for 30 days of more, meaning that thousands of students were kicked out of their schools for at least a month last year. 

Those suspensions were heavily tilted toward students of color. Black students, who make up 26 percent of the city’s student body, received 52 percent of last year’s superintendent suspensions. White students — who make up 15 percent of students — received 6 percent of the long-term suspensions.

In response to recent advocacy, both City Hall and the chancellor say they are eyeing changes to the discipline code, essentially the manual that dictates how educators respond to student misbehavior, including the length of suspensions.

Advocacy efforts in recent years have broadly focused on decreasing suspensions overall, an effort that has been largely successful. De Blasio has implemented a series of school discipline reforms that have made it harder to suspend students for certain infractions, and dramatically reduced suspensions for the city’s youngest students. Overall, suspensions have fallen by roughly 32 percent since he took office.

But the number of lengthier suspensions has not fallen as precipitously. 

Students who receive superintendent suspensions — which can be issued for infractions ranging from minor shoving to bringing a weapon to school — have the right to a formal hearing and are removed from their school to one of the city’s 37 “Alternative Learning Centers” where students are expected to continue their studies. 

Multiple advocates said that even if students continue to have access to instruction, lengthy suspensions can have serious consequences, setting students on a path to falling behind in school and dropping out. A recent study, focusing on New York City, found that suspensions contribute to students passing fewer classes, increasing their risk of dropping out, and lowering the odds of graduating.

“Our experience has been with young people who are already struggling, that the long-term suspension compounds those struggles,” said Kesi Foster, who has worked closely with students in the school discipline system and is a coordinator with the advocacy group Make the Road New York.

A group of city councilors penned a letter to de Blasio and Carranza last month seeking a series of discipline policy changes, including the elimination of arrests and summonses for low-level offenses and eliminating suspensions entirely for “insubordination” — a category that advocates argue is subjective and can invite bias. But at the top of their list was a demand to limit the length of suspensions, and shrink the range of days a student can be suspended in several categories.

Top city officials now say they are revisiting changes to discipline policy, which has already been edited under the current administration.

Jaclyn Rothenberg, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said the mayor has asked schools Chancellor Richard Carranza “to take a hard look at our current discipline code.”

The mayor is concerned with the length of our suspensions coupled with the suspension trends in some of our most vulnerable communities,” Rothenberg said in a statement.

In a brief interview last week, Carranza suggested that he is considering a wide range of possible changes, saying there are “no sacred cows” in the city’s discipline policy.

But previous efforts to overhaul the discipline code have been controversial. Some educators, union officials and school leaders have resisted policies that limit their power to suspend students, arguing that is has lead to more chaotic school environments. And while the city has made some efforts to train educators on “restorative” approaches — such as mediation, in which school adults or peers encourage students to talk through conflicts — critics argue those efforts have not reached enough schools.

Still, advocates hope to take advantage of the latest signal that city officials are open to a new set of policy changes.

It’s getting new attention from the [education department]” said Dawn Yuster, the School Justice Project director at Advocates for Children, an advocacy organization that has pushed for school discipline reform. “We see that we can get traction now, so we’re looking at as many openings as we can.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.