Future of Schools

New York DREAM Act poised to pass before end of January

PHOTO: Aleksandra Konstantinovic
Principal Carl Manalo's small high school in Queens enrolled more than 100 new Central American immigrants.

New York state lawmakers will likely pass a bill extending tuition assistance for undocumented students before the end of this month, one of potentially several clear shifts in education policy as Democrats assume control of the state Senate.

The bill is more commonly known as the New York DREAM Act and has been proposed annually since at least 2013. Members of the Democrat-controlled Assembly have passed the bill, but it has died each year in the formerly Republican-controlled Senate. Democrats now hold 39 of the 63 seats in the Senate, with several new progressive senators joining the body after November’s elections.

Specifically, the DREAM Act would allow children of undocumented immigrants to apply for state financial assistance programs, such as tuition help and college savings programs, for New York State colleges or universities. The bill — expected to be filed over the next few days — would also create a scholarship fund for undocumented students, said Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, a New York City Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.

Beyond some private scholarships, undocumented students do not currently have access to state or federal tuition aid.

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Former Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has said Republicans are strictly against the bill, arguing the state must focus on “struggling” middle-class families with children who are eyeing college.

In a speech Wednesday, newly minted Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, named the DREAM Act among legislative priorities and said an eventual law would be named after Sen. Jose Peralta, who had sponsored a version of the bill since 2013. Peralta, who lost his primary reelection bid, died suddenly last year.

De La Rosa and Sen. Luis R. Sepúlveda, another New York City-area Democrat and co-sponsor, said they have the votes for the bill to pass easily through both houses before the end of January. Sepúlveda said it could happen within the next two weeks.

“I think it’s an injustice when we look at the right of educating our communities, educating our children, that when they get to 12th grade and they basically enter the most vulnerable phase of their life, we then tell them they no longer have this right in New York state,” De La Rosa, who has sponsored the bill before, said in an interview.

Stewart-Cousins asked Sepúlveda to step in for Peralta this year to sponsor the bill, he said, adding that he’s “ardently” supported the bill in the past. The stark change in how fast it could be approved this year is “clearly a result of the election,” he added.

Passing the DREAM Act is also a priority for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but he has removed it from the budget after Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on the policy.

It’s tough to measure the impact of the law on New York City students since education officials don’t track students’ immigration status. A March 2018 report on immigration estimated 560,000 undocumented immigrants live in the five boroughs. Lawmakers estimate that 4,500 undocumented students graduate annually from New York high schools.

The number of students who might decide to attend college and choose to apply for tuition assistance would likely be a relatively small number — out of 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school annually in the United States, only about 5 to 10 percent actually enroll in college, according to statistics from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

In a statement, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza called these students — so-called “DREAMers” — “the best of New York City and America.”

“They have gone to school, gotten great grades, and in many cases served our communities and country,” Carranza said. “I encourage the New York State Legislature to stand up for these young Americans and pass this bill.”

In 2016, Cuomo initially included an annual $27 million in his budget to pay for expanded eligibility. A similar law in New Jersey, passed in May, resulted in 1,365 applicants applying for aid by the first deadline in September. (That law’s proponents expect the number to rise but knowledge of the tuition assistance has been slow to spread, and some students remain wary of applying while their legal status remains uncertain).

Immigration advocates, who have pushed for New York to pass such a law for years, welcome the bill.

“Our students from immigrant families are facing fear and uncertainty in many aspects of their lives,” said Rita Rodriguez-Engberg, director of the Immigrant Students’ Rights Project for Advocates for Children of New York, in an emailed statement. “New York State should play a leadership role and show its commitment to immigrant students by passing the DREAM Act.”

Yatziri Tovar, a DACA recipient who attended high school in the Bronx, said the law could have eased the pressure of working odd jobs, with help from her dad, while attending City College of New York. She said she took a couple semesters off to work, hit pause on work to focus on school and could only afford to pay for one class one of those semesters.

“I was able to take off from school and work,”  Tovar said, who now works for the immigrant advocacy group The Road New York. “But there’s other youth as well that are not able to take off.” Sometimes they are head of their family, or sometimes they need to contribute to their family economically. “This is the reality for a lot of our youth,” she said.

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.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.