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.

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.