framing the debate

UFT recommendations add fuel to the charter school debate fire

A list of proposals being pushed by the city teachers union to overhaul state charter school laws could shape the imminent debate over how and when to raise the charter school cap.

The proposals, which conclude a UFT report on charter school demographics, are intended to force charter schools to open their doors to the same populations served by district schools, which would mean enrolling larger numbers of English language learners and students with special needs. In the days leading up to January 19, the deadline for states’ applications to the federal Race to the Top competition, the union’s proposals could become bargaining chips for legislators hesitant to raise the charter cap without requiring significant changes in the way state charter schools are run.

Flanked by legislators from both houses at UFT headquarters in lower Manhattan on Sunday, union chief Michael Mulgrew called on Albany to, among other things, require charters to maintain student populations with similar demographics to the school districts in which they are located, centralize charter school admissions under the city or state education departments, cap the salaries of charter school administrators and ban charter schools from sharing space with district schools in New York City until the city has met its class size targets.

Mulgrew and the lawmakers insisted that the changes would bring the state’s charter schools closer to their original mission, as written in state law, to reduce educational inequities.

“The original intent of the law was fairness and access for all students,” Mulgrew said. “The way the law is written currently, we know that is not happening.”

New York’s charter law is currently under heightened scrutiny because states with fewer restrictions on the growth of charter schools are more likely to win the federal Race to the Top grant competition.

State law currently limits the number of allowable charters to 200, a number that many observers expect the state to hit early this year. Education Commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch have come out in support of raising the cap, as has Governor Paterson and State Senate Majority Leader John Sampson. But other legislative leaders, among them Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, have kept quiet on whether they will support a lift of the cap.

At UFT headquarters, a line-up of lawmakers, including Sampson, suggested that if they are to allow more charters in the state, they may also want to make other changes to the way the schools operate in the state.

“I think it’s important that before we race to change the cap or lift the cap, we need more information,” said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal.

Assemblyman Alan Maisel said the UFT’s findings bolstered the case for revision of the law. Maisel introduced a bill last May that would require charter schools to enroll English Language Learners and special education students in comparable numbers to schools in the school district or risk losing their charters, but the bill has sat in committee since its introduction.

“Hopefully this will give us some impetus for that legislation,” Maisel said.

Sampson said the report would help legislators make “the responsible decision” decide how to revise state charter law. However, Sampson stopped short of saying whether the changes should be a condition of raising the cap.

Proponents of charter schools were quick to characterize the UFT’s list of proposals as a politically motivated swipe at the charter movement.

Peter Murphy, policy director of the New York Charter School Association, said the union was “exploiting” the spotlight currently focused on the charter law to attempt greater union control over the schools. Murphy also called the proposals unworkable and in some cases detrimental to charter schools’ ability to operate.

“We have proposals on the table now that can get us more ELLs and special needs students in charter schools,” Murphy said. He pointed to a plan that would allow charter operators to run schools on more than one campus, which he said would allow charter schools to offer more specialized services for needy students that some small charter schools find difficult to provide. Murphy said that NYCSA also supports another proposal that would legally allow charters to give admissions preference to special education students.

“These are ideas we’ve got to deal with this problem,” Murphy said. “They’re realistic, they’re doable. It’s a much more realistic way.”

Here’s the full UFT report:

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.