unanswered questions

On mayoral control, comptroller doesn't fully show his hand

In its review of mayoral control, lawmakers should force the city Department of Education to follow the same financial transparency rules as other city agencies, Comptroller William Thompson said today at Manhattan’s Assembly school governance hearing.

But on the all-important question of whether the mayor should control a majority of the seats on the school board, currently known as the Panel for Educational Policy, Thompson said nothing. According to Elizabeth, when reporters pressed him on the point after his testimony, Thompson declined to provide a straight answer. This separates Thompson from Rep. Anthony Weiner, currently his main rival in the mayoral race. Weiner believes that the city schools should remain firmly in the mayor’s control.

Thompson urged lawmakers to clarify whether the DOE is officially a city agency and to require independent analysis of DOE data and measures to help parents to get involved in school leadership.

Thompson also described how, as president of the city’s old Board of Education, he helped build a foundation for the constrained form of mayoral control he now supports. “In short, we laid the groundwork for a more centralized management of our public school system that helped clear a path towards mayoral control,” he said. “But in doing so we prioritized two things that are currently missing from the current administration’s approach — transparency and parental involvement.”

Below the jump, Thompson’s entire testimony as it was prepared.


Good morning, Chairman Nolan and members of the Education Committee….Thank you for giving me this opportunity to testify today regarding governance of the New York City School District.I want to make clear at the outset that I have always supported mayoral control….But as the sunset of the law draws near, it is imperative that we review school governance as practiced under the Bloomberg administration.

This is a subject of great concern to me, not only as a New Yorker and a product of the New York City public schools…but because as Comptroller I am mandated to audit all city agencies.

Recent audits conducted by my office have found numerous failures in basic governance at the New York City Department of Education.

In the past two years alone our audits have found that the DOE:

  • failed to monitor and track the provision of special education services effectively;
  • failed to adopt effective controls to ensure that violent incidents at city high schools are reported to the State Department of Education;
  • failed to provide both vision and hearing screenings in accordance with regulations due to lack of oversight;
  • failed to exercise necessary controls over universal pre-K payments to non-public schools in Brooklyn and Staten Island; and,
  • failed through its Office of Pupil Transportation to effectively record and follow up on school-bus-related complaints.

Among my duties as the City’s Chief Financial officer, I have also been particularly attentive to fiscal accountability at the Department of Education.

As many of you know, through my office’s responsibility for registering City contracts, I play an important role in ensuring that the laws and regulations designed to encourage fair and open competition are followed.

Under the tenure of this Department of Education, however, the use of non-competitively-bid contracts has soared all out of proportion, with a cumulative total of close to 300 million dollars since Mayor Bloomberg entered office.

How did they get to this point? The DOE refuses to adopt a set of formal procurement rules similar to those followed by every other City agency – a process that is open and subject to public comment and accountability.

Contracts at all other City agencies are subject to the rules of the Procurement Policy Board, which takes a deliberative approach to developing policies under which the City procures goods and services….There is discussion, debate, and an open forum through which the public can comment.

This is a process that, while not always perfect, is at least transparent.

By contrast, since the Board of Education became the Department of Education, it has exploited a gray area in the law … one that allows it to treat itself as a State agency whenever it is convenient to do so … and then as a City agency when it is likewise convenient.

The Department has even taken the position that it is not required to register its contracts with my office if it does not want to — a position I obviously disagree with.

That is neither good government nor good public policy, and has led to a number of questionable contracts in recent years.

In May 2004, I recommended State legislation to make the Department subject to the same procurement rules as every other City agency….Rather than pass a new law, elected officials in Albany encouraged the DOE to work in good faith with my office to resolve the problem voluntarily.

And yet despite the best efforts of my office, the DOE has continued to process millions of dollars in contracts outside of the competitive bidding process….As you consider extending mayoral control, I urge you to make the New York City DOE transparent and accountable once and for all.

When I was President of the Board of Education, I adamantly pursued accountability in our public education system. ….Indeed, such accountability was exactly what I was attempting to bring about when I pushed for a series of reforms in 1996.

As many of you will remember, at that time — some 25 years after the schools were decentralized in 1969 — the system was fragmented….Lines of authority were blurred, there was little accountability for educational failure, and local boards were mired in corruption.

We felt that if the Chancellor was to be held accountable for educational performance, then he or she must be given clearer authority. … We stripped individual school boards of the responsibility for day to day operations of schools and gave that power to superintendents.

The Chancellor in turn was given a more direct role in the selection of individual superintendents and gained the authority to intervene in schools that were failing as well as to transfer or remove principals.

We mandated School Leadership Teams in every school — made up equally of parents, teachers and administrators — that injected more accountability at the school level.

In short, we laid the groundwork for a more centralized management of our public school system that helped clear a path towards mayoral control. … But in doing so we prioritized two things that are currently missing from the current administration’s approach — transparency and parental involvement.

As we look ahead to the sunset of mayoral control we should reauthorize the law, but we must reform and strengthen it.

While Tweed has trumpeted gains in test scores and improvements in city graduation rates, concerns over data manipulation have arisen. … For the years 2003 to 2007, National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests have shown no gains in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading or 8th grade math for black, white, Hispanic and lower-income students. [1]

That is why I support using an independent body to audit test scores and graduation rates. … If the public is to trust the city’s claims of gains, we must remove both the incentive and the opportunity to manipulate results.

At the same time, parents, who have an enormous stake in their children’s educational success, MUST have a true voice in the decisions that impact their children’s schools. … Every study indicates that parental involvement equates with student achievement.

The DOE has failed to ensure that School Leadership Teams have an effective role in influencing school policy. … Last year, the department’s own Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy found that only 51 percent of the schools it surveyed have a functioning leadership team.

Indeed, most parents do not even know what School Leadership Teams and Community Education Councils are. … I recommend that State Education Law require that all parents receive a brochure, translated into relevant languages when necessary, at the start of each school year explaining what these bodies do.

I also recommend that State Law require that schools post their Comprehensive Education Plan — the school’s blueprint for setting its goals and identifying specifically how it will achieve them — online, maintain a copy of the plan in the school’s general office, and inform parents by letter where they can review the CEP.

We must also nurture the development of Parent Teacher Associations in our schools.

When the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council asked the Chancellor in 2005 to publish a monthly account of how many schools have functioning PTAs, it received press coverage in the New York Times, but no response from Chancellor Klein.

It is high time for the DOE to begin publishing monthly tallies.

This failure to involve parents in the education policy process has reinforced a widespread perception that the department is arrogant and out-of-touch.

With its top-down approach, the current administration has sought to avoid debate and public scrutiny, while fundamental decisions regarding education reform have been made by executives with no education background.

The Department of Education has gone through three reorganizations in six years. … As chief investment advisor to the New York City pension funds, I would identify a company that had gone through three fundamental reorganizations in six years as a high-risk investment.

Let me be clear: mayoral control of the schools, when exercised wisely, is a means of bringing efficiency, transparency and accountability to decision-making, but it was never intended to be a green light for unchecked executive power.

With greater authority and control also comes greater responsibility — responsibility to parents, responsibility to the taxpayers who help to fund our schools, and finally — and most importantly — responsibility to our kids, whose educational achievement and advancement are directly tied to the future economic growth and prosperity of our city.

That is an assignment we cannot, we must not, and — with the leadership and foresight of this committee and others — we will not fail.

Thank you very much.

[1] And 4th grade math results reflect twice the number of students with accommodations than the administration initially acknowledged.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.