state of the state of the state

State of the State to offer look at Cuomo’s aggressive ed agenda

After hinting for months that he will pursue aggressive changes to state education policy this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will offer the first real glimpse of his agenda on Wednesday.

Cuomo has released few details about his plans to address K-12 education issues in his State of the State address, which he will deliver Wednesday in Albany. But he is likely to focus on overhauling teacher evaluations and termination rules and dealing with the state’s lowest-performing schools, items the governor said on Tuesday were at the top of his education agenda.

“The single most important function that the state performs is education funding and education regulation,” Cuomo said after an unrelated speech. “And it probably has been the single greatest failure of this state in many ways.”

His pointed remarks, along with letter sent to state education officials last month and other recent statements about his desire to dismantle the public-education “monopoly,” suggest Cuomo is prepared to dive further into divisive policy debates that have made him a target of the city and state teachers unions.

What makes this year’s speech feel more significant, observers say, is that Cuomo has made it clear that a wide variety of policy issues are on the table. In December, a top aide’s letter to Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch asked for her feedback on issues ranging from teacher evaluations to the termination process for teachers guilty of misconduct. The letter also hinted at Cuomo’s interest in seeking more power over the Board of Regents, a 260-year-old body that sets education policy in New York state; lifting the state’s charter-school cap; and developing a way to take over schools that chronically underperform.

“I think the governor has been clear that he is not going to just be tinkering around the edges,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “He’s going to be looking for fundamental change.”

While Cuomo has called for closing low-performing schools in the past, he’s never pushed the legislature to intervene. On Tuesday, he stopped short of calling for such a takeover measure  but described the state’s struggling schools in dire — and specific — terms.

“We have about 178 failing schools,” Cuomo said, referring to the schools the state has designated as “priority” for improvement, 91 of which are in New York City. “About half have been failing for over 10 years.”

“You want to talk about a damning commentary?” he added. “250,000 students went through failing schools and we did nothing.”

For now, districts themselves hold most of the power when it comes to struggling schools. The State Education Department requires districts to submit school turnaround plans, but many of those schools have gone years without improving without significant state response.

But Cuomo’s legislative agenda hasn’t always been as aggressive as his tone when talking about the state’s public education system. In his 2012 State of the State speech, Cuomo appointed himself “the lobbyist for students,” but his main education-related announcement that year was to convene an education reform commission, for example.

In other years, Cuomo used the speech to draw attention to big ideas through relatively small competitive grant programs. In 2011, the grants were designed for districts that saved costs and raised student achievement; in 2013 and 2014, Cuomo proposed grants for merit pay, extended learning time, community schools, and pre-kindergarten.

The State of the State speech also sets up the governor’s priorities in upcoming negotiations with the state legislature, though it’s not always an accurate predictor of what emerges in at the end of the process. Last year, Cuomo didn’t mention charter schools in his State of the State speech, but ended up passing a law that gave New York City charter schools facilities funding after advocates launched an all-out lobbying campaign.

Cuomo’s agenda is sure to prompt fierce opposition from the city and state’s teachers unions.  Teachers and their allies in the legislature are insisting that any budget proposal include large increases in formula-based funding that prioritizes low-income school districts.

On Tuesday, those same groups followed up on a rally in the Capitol last week calling on Cuomo to increase education funding by $2.2 billion, a sum even more than what the Board of Regents has proposed.

“Investing more in public education – and doing so fairly and equitably – must be a high priority this legislative session,” New York State United Teachers Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede