Setting priorities

We talked to longtime city politician John Liu about his priorities for the Senate’s subcommittee for NYC education

John Liu, former mayoral candidate, speaks at a protest in 2013. (Photo by Andrew Burton | Getty Images)

Education was already poised to be an area of high interest in Albany this year, with several hot button issues up for consideration and in the wake of the Senate’s recent flip to Democratic control.

Now education will also play a role in John C. Liu’s political comeback.

The senator-elect and former New York City comptroller was named chair of the state Senate’s subcommittee on New York City education. Newly minted Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, tapped him last week for the role, which can influence the fate of legislation by holding hearings on bills, pushing them for full voters, or holding them up in committee.

We chatted with Liu, also a former city councilman and mayoral candidate, about several of the more popular education issues affecting New York City: mayoral control, the specialized high school admissions test, and charter schools.  He was wary of sharing great detail on where he stands or what he’s hearing, citing the need to speak with his colleagues before the press “from the outset.”

But he did share some insight on what we can expect to come up after he arrives in Albany in January.

On the Specialized High School Admissions Test

Some education observers are curious about how much air time legislators will devote to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the city’s most sought-after high schools, since other issues might feel more pressing — like the question of extending the mayor’s control over city schools.

De Blasio’s plan to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test at all eight of the elite schools, in favor of a different system, requires changing state law. A bill to get rid of the test was filed last session, but it failed to progress, with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie saying lawmakers needed more time to weigh it.

And the issue didn’t even make it to the Senate education committees, where de Blasio likely would not have had majority support anyway.

But this year, Liu said the debate over specialized high schools is an issue that he and his colleagues “have strong feelings about” and will be “directly addressed and comprehensively addressed in my subcommittee.” Liu envisions holding hearings in coordination with the full education committee, chaired by state Sen. Shelley B. Mayer, a Westchester Democrat.

For his part, Liu, a graduate of one of the specialized high schools, is against de Blasio’s proposal.  

“I have and continue to believe that de Blasio’s plan is a non-starter,” Liu said.

The city has proposed scrapping the admissions test and instead granting admission to the top 7 percent of middle school students, using metrics that include GPAs and performance on state assessments.

There are groups of parents — many from white and Asian families — who have fiercely opposed the plan. Sixty-two percent of Asians make up the student bodies at specialized high schools.

While Liu, an Asian-American, agrees that these schools have a segregation problem, he has said that de Blasio’s plan does not do enough to prepare students of different backgrounds in elementary and middle school (a critique shared by other opponents, too). He has also criticized the mayor for not getting feedback from the Asian-American community before announcing the proposal in June.

Mayoral control

When asked what some of the subcommittee’s top priorities will probably be, Liu immediately noted the issue of extending de Blasio’s control over city schools, since there’s an expiration date coming up: June 30, 2019.

“That is weighing heavily in the minds of my colleagues in the Senate,” Liu said, “especially since the issue of mayoral control has been thrown around as a political football for so long.”

De Blasio needs state approval to retain his control over the school system. But the Senate’s narrow Republican majority only granted him short-term extensions in the past, using it as a bargaining chip for other issues and a way to punish de Blasio for campaigning against them.

It’s likely that de Blasio will get an extension, and perhaps for even longer than he has in the past, but some progressive Democrats could challenge what control looks like.

Liu stopped short of saying how he currently feels about mayoral control, but has supported it in the past, including when he ran for mayor against de Blasio. However, he suggested that the biggest concern lies in how to keep the top leader accountable for school performance.

Lawmakers will probably explore how mayoral control would get extended, Liu said, and “what kind of changes would be part of that extension.”

Liu said he supported mayoral control in 2002, when state lawmakers first switched the schools power structure. But he noted that for him, mayoral control means “school accountability, as in, one person being held accountable for New York City schools.”

On chairing the education committee

Liu said the New York City education subcommittee will be his no. 1 priority among committee assignments, mostly because he is keenly interested in education.

As city comptroller and mayoral candidate, Liu proposed expanding pre-school for all 3-year-olds. He champions himself as a public-school cheerleader, noting that he and his family are graduates of the city school system and he owes New York City schools a “debt of gratitude.”

Liu said he expects a range of issues to come up this session, from “charter schools to the kinds of foods that should be served in public schools, especially for children who have religious dietary requirements.” Liu, who has in the past said New York City should “get rid of” large charter school networks, wouldn’t speak further about the cap on charter schools, except to say “the cap is not the only issue related to charter schools.”

And he noted that while the state controls a lot of funding, the true responsibility for New York City schools lies with local officials.

“You know the bottom line is, the public schools take up by far the largest share of both city and state budgets, and they necessarily encompass a wide range of issues,” Liu said. “And public schools are the main responsibility of local government, which New York City is one — a local government.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.