race to the race to the top

Assembly lifts charter cap; Senate still divided over for-profits

The State Assembly passed a bill this morning to more than double the number of charter schools allowed in New York State.

The deal, hammered out in negotiations that lasted into the early morning, raises the cap on charters from 200 to 460. But charter operators hoping to open new schools will have to jump through a new hurdle, a new Request for Proposals process managed by the Regents and the State University of New York charter authorizers.

The bill includes several measures dear to charter school critics. It bans for-profit charter operators from managing schools, allows the state controller to audit the schools, and creates new regulations around how the schools serve special education students and English language learners. And the bill sets up new rules that govern how New York City charters share building space with district schools.

The bill includes one change from the version of the bill that was being circulated this morning. The Assembly passed a chapter amendment that clarifies that SUNY can act as an authorizer independently from the Regents.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where sources tell us that Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson is ready to vote the bill up. But Republicans are holding up the bill because they oppose its prohibition of for-profit charter operators.

Many of the key players in the debate, including authorizers, are just seeing the legislation in detail for the first time this morning. Lots of questions, including exactly how the RFP process will work and how the bill will affect where charters will be able to open, should become clearer over the course of the day.

The full press release from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office is below. The full text of the bill that just passed is here.

ASSEMBLY APPROVES SWEEPING EDUCATION REFORMS TO SUPPORT NEW YORK STATE’S APPLICATION FOR RACE TO THE TOP FUNDING

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Education Committee Chair Catherine Nolan today announced the passage of legislation to reform the state’s charter school system.

The legislation (A.11310) would raise the cap on charter schools from 200 to 460, helping to ensure that New York State will have one of the nation’s most competitive applications for federal funding under the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program in time for the June 1 deadline. This measure, in conjunction with a strong teacher evaluation system authorized earlier in the week and funding for long-term assessment of student achievement, will help ensure that New York State receives maximum RTTT funding.

“These sweeping reforms will help put an end to divisive fighting over school space and give a meaningful voice in the process to traditional public school parents,” said Silver (D-Manhattan). “The legislation also increases transparency by giving the State Comptroller auditing power over charter schools, while ensuring that they enroll and retain children with special needs. This measure will undoubtedly encourage the creation of more successful charter schools in New York State.”

“This bill will allow New York State to submit a competitive application for federal Race to the Top funding and increase our chances at receiving up to $700 million for our schools,” said Nolan (D-Queens). “I would like to thank New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Senior Deputy Commissioner John King for their leadership, cooperation and hard work.”

The legislation creates a new request for proposals process for the creation of 260 new charter schools. The new system favors applications which best respond to certain Race to the Top objectives such as increasing high school graduation rates and addressing student achievement gaps in reading/language arts and mathematics. Requests for proposals for new charter schools would be issued by the Board of Regents and SUNY trustees after undergoing a public review process.

In addition, the legislation would:

  • Institute a four-year period over which the 260 new charter schools would be created;
  • Prohibit for-profit organizations from operating or managing any new charter schools;
  • Ensure that charter schools serve more children with disabilities, English language learners and free- and reduced-price lunch program participants;
  • Require the chancellor to develop building usage plans for fair allocation and usage of space;
  • Require matching capital improvements to the traditional public school portion of a building when such an improvement is made in excess of $5,000 to the co-located charter school;
  • Authorize the State Comptroller to audit charter schools at his or her discretion; and
  • Increase accountability by new disclosure and ethics provisions.

The Assembly also passed legislation today that would provide financial support for a state longitudinal data system to measure long-term student achievement (A.11309). Earlier this week, the Assembly passed legislation enhancing the statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals (A.11171).

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”