negotiating negotiations

Walcott: City won’t strike evaluation deal just to get federal funds

The city won’t strike a deal on new teacher evaluations just to get millions of dollars in federal funding, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said last week.

The city and teachers union are supposed to settle on new teacher evaluations by the end of the school year. An agreement would bring the city into compliance with state law and also enable it to receive millions of federal dollars that have policy strings attached to them.

Earlier this month, a New York Daily News editorial said Walcott “has committed to surrender $60 million in federal school improvement grants unless he and the teachers union have agreed by the end of the year on a pilot system for evaluating teacher performance.” The newspaper, which praised Walcott’s tough-on-unions sentiment, did not report the chancellor’s exact words in its news or editorial pages.

Last week, Walcott told me that the editorial accurately paraphrased a comment he made. Coming to an agreement that satisfies both parties is so important, he said, that he does not want the federal funds to force his hand prematurely.

“I’m not going to be hampered by money being the sole force of what a decision will be,” Walcott said. “So at the end of the day if we have to return money, I will be willing to do that. I’m not going to be beholden to money as determining a decision.”

Last summer, as a federal deadline loomed, the city and UFT struck a last-minute, limited agreement on teacher evaluations at 33 low-performing schools, enabling the schools to receive millions of dollars to fund “restart” or “transformation” improvement processes.

Now, with much more money on the line and negotiations between the city and UFT souring, those schools remain the only ones eligible to receive Race to the Top funds according to state rules. DOE officials say the about 100 other city schools meet other eligibility requirements.

Walcott’s suggestion that the city might miss out on some of the Race to the Top funds it was promised raise a possibility that some supporters of the Obama Administration’s carrot-and-stick approach to effecting education policy changes at the state level have warned from the start: States and districts that don’t keep their Race to the Top promises could be penalized.

“The U.S. Department of Education has said it will stop dispersing money to states that are not complying with their Race to the Top plans,” said Charles Barone, director of policy research at Democrats for Education Reform. “They haven’t done that yet, but it seems New York is a top candidate.”

Promised reforms face an added execution challenge in New York, which requiring districts to negotiate evaluation deals at the local level, according to Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group that advocates for changes in schools’ human capital policies.

“Other states have been much more direct in saying that this is the system,” Jacobs said, referring to statewide systems set out by other Race to the Top winners.

Barone said the state is right to insist on only distributing Race the to Top funding to schools that have new teacher evaluations in place, even though that policy severely limits the pool of eligible schools. But he said the policy could set the state up to lose out.

New York “won the money for than a year ago, and if all they have to show in the entire city of New York is 30 schools, then it seems that they might not be able to deliver on their promise and are reneging on the agreement they made with the feds,” Barone said.

With the deadline to hammer out local teacher evaluation deals still more than half a year away, there’s more than enough time for the city and union to come to an agreement. Walcott said the city is far from giving up on the prospect.

“I’m an eternal optimist, and I believe we will be able to reach some kind of agreement around teacher evaluations and where we’re going,” he said.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

Betsy DeVos

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 Bellevue, 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.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.