turf wars

Klein dials back, but doesn't withdraw, emergency powers threat

In a major reversal, the city said today it would ask a Lower East Side charter school to find a new space instead of expanding inside its current building.

Facing a threat of litigation, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is backing down, at least for the moment, from using new emergency powers to allow Girls Preparatory Charter School to add a middle school inside the PS 188 building. Klein said last week that he would use the powers to override a state ruling barring the expansion, but the city never took the steps to make his declaration official.

Klein said he hasn’t ruled out taking those steps in the future.

“Given the threats of litigation and continuing uncertainty, we are working with the Board of Girls Prep to find a stable solution for these young women,” he said. “At the same time, we remain prepared to exercise our emergency powers should that become necessary.”

Meanwhile, Girls Prep will delay the first day of classes for some students by up to a month while it searches for more space.

The Lower East Side has been divided for months over the city’s plan to let Girls Prep add middle school grades in the same building, PS 188, that houses its elementary school. The building also houses PS 94, a school for autistic children. Parents there charged that the city hadn’t given them enough information about how Girls Prep’s expansion would affect their school.

State Education Commissioner David Steiner surprised the city by siding with PS 94 parents earlier this month when he ruled against the space plan. In response, Klein said he would use emergency powers given to him by the 2009 school governance law to go ahead with expanding Girls Prep. But the voices opposing Klein’s move were loud and plentiful.

Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance for families of students with special needs, informed the city last week that it would seek a restraining order to prevent Klein from exercising emergency powers, executive director Kim Sweet told me today.

AFC’s threat was enough to make Girls Prep start looking for another place to open its middle school.

“The threat by Advocates for Children to challenge an emergency declaration has created an unacceptable level of uncertainty for us so we are being forced to find another option,” said Kim Morcate, principal of the middle school.

A last-minute hunt to find space for 125 fifth- and sixth-graders means the middle school won’t open on Aug. 16 as planned. Instead, Morcate said Girls Prep hopes to open its middle school “within four weeks,” or around the same time as city schools open for the 2010-2011 school year. Girls Prep’s elementary school students will start Aug. 23 as planned.

“Delaying the start of school for these students is in no way ideal,” said Natalie Ravitz, a Department of Education spokeswoman. “But after consulting with Girls Prep, PS 94, local elected officials, parents and advocates, we feel it is incumbent upon the department to exhaust all other options before issuing an emergency declaration.”

Ravitz also said that the city still considers PS 188 an “appropriate” home for Girls Prep’s expansion.

“They have adequate space available and it would not result in a single special-education student being moved,” she said. “But if we can identify alternative space for one year — whether private or public — we feel it would be the best outcome for all involved.”

“Given the threats of litigation and continuing uncertainty, we are working with the Board of Girls Prep to find a stable solution for these young women.  At the same time, we remain prepared to exercise our emergency powers should that become necessary.”

Morcate said Girls Prep has already begun identifying space options.

“It’s promising that there may some attempt to find another alternative,” Sweet said. “But it’s not over yet.”

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.