The Receivers at the Gates

Budget deal gives city tight timeline to fix troubled schools before others could step in

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The city has at least a year to spur improvements at its most troubled schools before it could be forced to hand them over to outside groups, under a tentative state budget deal that Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday would help the city keep control of its struggling schools.

The agreement between state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo scales back Cuomo’s initial plan to put any school that has performed poorly for several years under the oversight of outside groups, which would have the authority to override contract rules in order to make major shakeups. Under the deal, school districts would have more time to make changes before those outside “receivers” are brought in, district leaders would select the receivers, and those entities could not sidestep collective bargaining agreements, according to Cuomo administration officials and people familiar with the deal.

“Per this budget agreement, the city will continue to play the primary role in determining the ways to best address those struggling schools,” de Blasio told reporters Monday, emphasizing that the deal will not be final until it is passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor. The deadline for an on-time budget is April 1.

At the same time, the agreement places even more pressure on de Blasio’s $150 million “Renewal” program to turn around the city’s struggling schools. Under the deal, the schools would have at most two years to make acceptable gains. If they do not, the city must yield control to the receivers it appoints, which can be nonprofit groups, turnaround consultants, or other school districts, according to Cuomo’s original proposal. (De Blasio said Monday that he was “very confident” his turnaround program would succeed.)

The agreement follows City Hall’s public campaign in recent weeks to tout the city’s own turnaround program for struggling schools, part of a broader push to get state legislators to make the law giving the mayor control over the city school system permanent before it expires in June. The budget deal does not include an extension of mayoral control, leaving lawmakers to address that later this spring.

De Blasio said he was disappointed to see that decision “postponed,” but added that the deal leaves much authority over the city’s low-performing schools in the hands of his appointed schools chief, Carmen Fariña.

“The tentative agreement makes clear that every step of the way the action is led by the chancellor,” he said. At a separate event Monday, Fariña said the city’s Renewal program “should not be out of synch” with the changes the state wants to see at troubled schools.

Under the deal, 27 schools across the state that have been classified as low-performing for about a decade would have one year to show “demonstrable improvement” before their local school chiefs would have to appoint a receiver to take over, according to the Cuomo administration officials. A number of those schools are located in the city, according to people briefed on the budget talks.

Another 151 bottom-ranked schools would get two years to make gains before receivers are brought in, the officials said. New York City has 91 of those bottom-ranked schools, which the state defines as having been under state watch for the past three years and among the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state based on test scores or having a graduation rate below 60 percent.

If receivers take control of the schools, they will have the power to reshuffle staffers, extend the school day, or make other specific changes, the officials said. In the year or two that districts will have to revamp those schools before the receivers could take over, the district school chiefs will get those same powers. (In recent weeks, some of those superintendents have complained about the idea of receivers getting the authority to make changes that they were never given.)

However, in contrast to Cuomo’s initial proposal, the deal would not allow school chiefs or receivers to bypass collective bargaining agreements in order to make those changes, according to the officials. Instead, the labor unions would be required to negotiate side agreements to their contracts in order to allow the changes.

If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, then the state education department would make a final decision, according to people briefed on the deal.

Some of the details were still unclear Monday, possibly because they were still being negotiated. For example, some people familiar with the deal said that school districts would set their own improvement goals for the schools, which could include higher attendance or lower suspension rates in addition to test score gains. But the administration officials said that the state education commissioner would judge whether the schools had made enough progress to stay under the districts’ control.

There was also talk Monday of a plan to direct $75 million to those 27 longest-struggling schools. But it was unclear whether that money would arrive in time for next school year or not until the following year, when receivers could take over some of the schools.

“Our question is when does that money become available,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a teachers union-aligned advocacy group critical of Cuomo’s education agenda. “There should be no reason that a school or district should have to wait for a receiver in order to get the resources they need to improve.”

The city and state teachers unions have mounted aggressive lobbying and organizing campaigns against Cuomo’s receivership plan and other education policy changes he wanted in exchange for school-funding increases. After the deal was announced, the leaders of both unions claimed at least partial victory.

In an email Sunday night, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew told city teachers that “the governor’s Draconian agenda has, in large part, been turned back.” In regards to struggling schools, “Local oversight has been maintained,” and “collective bargaining is preserved,” he said.

Geoff Decker and Stephanie Snyder contributed reporting.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.