coming attractions

Four education storylines to watch as New York kicks off its 2017 legislative session

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address in 2017.

Governor Andrew Cuomo just finished his whirlwind six-stop State of the State tour, but the legislative action in Albany is just heating up.

Education — or at least higher education — is likely to a huge topic of discussion this legislative session, if last week is any indication. Standing next to former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, Cuomo made a striking proposal to provide free tuition at state colleges for families making $125,000 or less.

“This society should say, ‘We’re going to pay for college because you need college to be successful,’” Cuomo said.

The announcement was a showstopper for many in the education world, despite concerns that it doesn’t target some of the state’s neediest students. But there are other stories to watch, including a push to increase the state’s funding for schools, which totaled roughly $24.8 billion last year.

“State aid, state aid, state aid,” said David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, when asked about his group’s top three priorities for this session. “Obviously that is the most crucial proposal that the governor typically makes for schools.”

State aid is front and center, in part, because most other hot-button education issues — like revamping the Common Core learning standards and deciding how to evaluate schools — are being overseen by the State Education Department.

In 2015, the governor proposed several major school reforms, including a contentious teacher evaluation system that stressed the use of standardized tests. After significant blowback, he has, in recent years, left more policymaking to the education department and its governing body, the Board of Regents.

Still, plenty of issues remain on the table for the legislature. Here are a few:

This could (finally) be the year schools get a long-awaited boost in “foundation aid.”

They say this is their year, but they are no strangers to disappointment.

Supporters of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity are pushing, once again, for the state to provide $4.3 billion in funding they say schools are owed under the terms of a 2006 settlement which led to the creation of what’s known as the “foundation aid formula,” designed to distribute aid more fairly among schools. Advocates want the schools to receive that additional funding over the next two years, according to the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that has pushed for the funds.

The funding bump was largely derailed by the recession, which also caused a set of education cuts — called the Gap Elimination Adjustment — that were ultimately restored last year. Now, advocates argue, the time has come to fulfill the lawsuit’s full promise.

Activists have already walked 150 miles from New York City to Albany and staged a massive rally this year to draw attention to their cause. And some in Albany are listening. In his opening speech, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie urged his colleagues to create a timeline to provide the increase in foundation aid, and the Board of Regents suggested phasing in the $4.3 billion sum over three years.

Even the governor, who has not yet released his specific school aid proposal, signaled support for a spending increase in his State of the State address held in New York City.

“I am proud to announce that this year we will increase funding for education to a new record-level all-time high all across the state and that New York City will receive more aid for education than it has ever received by the state of New York ever before in history,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo’s free college proposal could steal the spotlight from K-12.

Cuomo’s landmark college tuition announcement will consume hours of debate. Does that mean Albany will forget about kindergarten through high school?

“It’s definitely possible that the governor will try, in that way, to pit K-12 against higher ed,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.

But Regent James Tallon, who chairs the Regents state aid subcommittee and helped draft what he deemed an “aggressive” school funding proposal, said he is more optimistic.

“I don’t want to fall into the trap of just setting up a zero sum game between [budget] deficits, higher education, and P-12,” Tallon said.

Meanwhile, as the legislative session continues, lawmakers will have to decide if Cuomo’s college tuition plan goes far enough to help the state’s neediest kids. The lawmakers could propose additional funding for low-income students to defray non-tuition college costs, extend the program to part-time students, or work toward including undocumented students — a subject already proving divisive.

The governor is poised to continue a softer approach to education policy.

Two years ago, Cuomo proposed a set of education policies focused on test-based teacher evaluations and outside takeover of struggling schools. After a public outcry, he reversed course. His main agenda item in 2016 was support for “community schools,” giving underperforming schools extra resources to provide things like health services and tutoring.

So far this year, he seems to be sticking with that new approach. Cuomo’s K-12 agenda items include $35 million in grants to support after-school programs in high-need areas, funding for students to take Advanced Placement exams, and support for computer science teachers. Many of the programs echo initiatives that Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed in New York City.

Education advocates, including union officials, are generally pleased with the new policy direction.

“We’ve gotten away from some of the more punitive measures,” said Albert from the School Boards Association. “I think we’re getting toward much more positive, constructive policies.”

The State Education Department could get a boost.

In addition to funding schools directly, the state will also decide whether or not to fund specific policy proposals from the State Education Department.

Funding for the department isn’t headline-grabbing, but without it, the department would struggle to implement its goals.

Case in point: The department has asked for millions of dollars to revamp state tests by creating native language assessments for English language learners, bringing back foreign language Regents exams and piloting project-based assessments, which ask students to complete a series of tasks.

The Regents have floated the idea of substituting a foreign language exam or a project-based test for students struggling with the state’s current graduation exams.

Officials also asked for more funding to help prospective teachers pay for costly certification exams. That could ease the burden on prospective teachers and fulfill another policy goal: encouraging more low-income teachers and teachers of color to join the profession.

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.