party power

Avella compromises on charter schools to sign off on Senate budget bill

Last January, State Sen. Tony Avella was talking to a reporter in the Senate lobby about a bill he sponsored that sought a moratorium on school closures and co-locations in New York City. The bill had broad legislative support from Democrats, but it needed a few more Senate votes to pass.

“We should see if we can get the IDC into becoming  interested in this,” Avella said, referring to the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats whose formation after the 2012 elections kept Republicans in power. If the IDC Democrats supported the moratorium bill, or better yet they caucused with their party colleagues, its chances of passing would dramatically improve.

Now, a year later, Avella is in a very different position. Last month, the Queens lawmaker defected from the Democratic conference to join the IDC, in a move seen as hurting Democrats’ chances of taking over the Senate.

And when the IDC Democrats signed on to a budget resolution this week that supports, among other education policies, charter school co-locations, Avella vaulted into a new and challenging position. In order to claim a budget win, Avella could have to compromise on some long-held positions.

That includes a belief that charter schools are not an essential sector of education. Back in 2009, when he was mulling a run for New York City mayor, he told a group convened by the leftwing Working Families Party that the city wouldn’t need charter schools if it focused more of its attention on district schools.

“We should make sure that every school has updated equipment, the best computers, the best teachers, and I would make sure that we do that,” Avella sad at the time. “And eventually, you do that, charter schools will just go away.”

So far, Avella said he hasn’t changed his views on charter schools or co-locations. In a statement, he said he had acceded to the charter school provisions of the Senate budget bill because doing so would increase the likelihood that New York City district schools would get extra funding.

“I am voting for this resolution because of the more than half a billion dollars in new funding it asks our state to deliver to non-charter New York City publics schools,” Avella said. “Any legislator stubborn enough to turn down that type of windfall for New York City students and teachers is forgetting about the families who elected them here in the first place.”

The Senate’s proposal includes a bevy of school choice legislation that would bolster more than just charter schools. In addition to giving charter schools access to state facilities aid and making it difficult for Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep charters out of public school buildings, the resolution also includes  a tax credit for donations to private school scholarships that could fund up to $125 million for new students (the credit would be split evenly so that half of donations go toward public school-related programs.

The budget framework is a starting point, seen as mostly symbolic, that will look much different than the final spending plan that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature must agree on before the end of the month. Cuomo said today that the budget resolutions are mostly “political statements.”

“They’re Christmas wish lists,” Cuomo said after speaking at an event in New York City. “You just put everything on there that you want. It doesn’t matter if it adds up.”

But Cuomo also reiterated that one part of the resolution that will be taken more seriously than others is charter schools.

“Some areas are significant and I think the Senate’s language on the charter schools is one of those areas,” Cuomo said.

Avella and his IDC colleagues did not highlight the budget bill’s charter school provisions in their statement. Instead, they focused on the fact that the bill includes enough state funds to fully fund New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for expanding pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.

“This year’s senate budget resolution puts the needs of working families first, by dedicating $540 million for Mayor de Blasio’s universal pre-k and after school program for each of the next five years,” IDC leader Jeff Klein said in a the statement.

Avella’s accommodationist approach drew fire from advocates and elected officials. Queens Democrat Daniel Dromm, who chairs the city council’s education committee, said Avella should have never joined the IDC in the first place.

“I’m disappointed that Senator Avella chose to leave the Democratic Conference and join the IDC,” Dromm said in an interview. “I really feel strong about what it means to be a Democrat and I don’t see how working with the IDC is going to produce any outcomes.”

Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson, part of a parent coalition that helped draw greater scrutiny to the Board of Regents election process this year, said Avella “should resign from the IDC” if he can’t “get the Senate to give up this incredibly inequitable and damaging proposal.” 

Both sides are most likely to lose at least something when the final budget gets hammered out in negotiations. But Avella knows the advantages of being in a leadership position. The Senate leadership last year left him frustrated that his closure and co-location moratorium was going nowhere.

“Well, it’s tough considering that Mike Bloomberg has donated huge amounts of money to the Republican State committee,” Avella said last year. “So it’s tough to get something like this passed even though the Republicans are, technically, in the minority.”


defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.