office politics

Superintendents need more than two aides, lawmakers say

State lawmakers are warning that if the Department of Education doesn’t comply with the new governance law immediately, they will try to force them to.

School officials came under attack earlier this week when they laid out their time-table for implementing changes ordered by the legislature. The law required that community superintendents work exclusively “predominantly” with schools in the districts where they are assigned. Education department officials said that it would take a full school year to make that happen.

Assembly members critical of the department said this week that was too long.

“It’s violating, certainly, the spirit of the law,” said Assemblyman Alan Maisel of Brooklyn.

Maisel said that if the department continued to defy what he said was the intent  of the law, legislators in Albany do have one recourse–amending the legislation.  “There’s no law that says we couldn’t come back and come up with another piece of legislation,” he said.

“You’d have to spell it out so clearly that it would be beyond anybody’s ability to misinterpret,” he said. “I’m not sure quite how we’d have to do that, but it can be done.”

Maisel and others also charged that even when the superintendents are working in their districts, the education department is not giving them enough support to do their jobs properly.

The law added to the list of superintendent’s duties. But it only requires that the Department of Education hire “sufficient staff” to carry out their new tasks.

During Wednesday’s City Council hearing, Micah Lasher, the education department’s executive director of public affairs, told council members that three employees in each community district office — the superintendent, the district family advocate, and an administrative assistant — would be enough to carry out the responsibilities newly assigned to the superintendents in the new law.

When education department chair Robert Jackson expressed surprise that the department thought so few staffers would suffice, Lasher argued that it was too early to know whether the superintendent’s offices would need more staff to fulfill their new roles.

Community superintendents are legally mandated to supervise, evaluate and support principals in their school districts. Under the Bloomberg administration, they were also assigned to support rosters of sometimes more than 20 schools outside their district. Those responsibilities frequently kept superintendents from visiting and working with their in-district schools. The new legislation was intended to remedy that problem, lawmakers said.

Legislators also wanted to strengthen the superintendent to improve parental involvement. Superintendents are seen as the best direct line between parents and schools. Indeed, one of the two people who report to the superintendent is the district family advocate, who work with parents to resolve problems at schools. This is a change from last year, when family advocates reported to the central Office of Family Engagement and Advocacy.

But Queens Assemblyman Mark Weprin acknowledged that the phrasing of the law was unspecific and opened the door for wide interpretation by the education department. “I wish the record was a little clearer on what was meant,” he said.

Both Maisel and Weprin voted against the current legislation both when it passed through the Assembly’s education committee, on which they both sit, and when it was passed by the entire Assembly.


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.