the future of advocacy

For Betsy DeVos and her former advocacy group, the future of education means ‘personalization,’ including virtual schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

When Betsy DeVos returned to the advocacy group she used to lead last week, she told attendees to push for systems where students could attend any kind of school.

Traditional, charter, religious, and virtual schools should be options for students, the education secretary argued, as should “an educational setting yet to be developed.”

“Our current framework is a closed system that relies on one-size-fits-all solutions,” DeVos said. “We need an open system that envelops choices and embraces the future.”

This vision was clear throughout the American Federation for Children summit: that schools need to be reinvented with an emphasis on technology. And throughout the gathering, exclusively online schools were a key part of that vision — even though some supporters acknowledge existing virtual schools have not produced strong academic outcomes to date.

Advocates say that online schools have the potential to harness “personalized learning,” a term that generally means using technology to provide an education tailored to each student’s needs.

“The end game … is personalized learning,” said Kevin Chavous, a board member and executive counsel at AFC, in response to a question about virtual schools. “We are going to get to this place where as opposed to every child being shepherded into a schoolhouse where they sit in a classroom and where a teacher stands and delivers, and then they regurgitate back … those days are not going to be the future.”

This belief in personalized learning dovetails with the focus at another recent conference of education reformers, the New Schools Venture Fund summit. But AFC’s emphasis on exclusively virtual schools appears distinct, and comes as online charter schools have endured a wave of negative press and research studies.

In addition to advocating for school vouchers, DeVos has also long backed virtual schools, a small but swiftly growing sector of schools.

For-profit virtual school companies are tightly connected to AFC. The two largest such groups, K12 and Connections Academy, were among the chief sponsors of the conference. Chavous is a K12 board member, and John Kirtley of AFC praised the company, saying, “They’re doing great things in digital learning.”

And although the research evidence for blended or personalized learning models is mixed, the handful of studies of fully virtual schools point to a clearer verdict: students in such schools perform dramatically worse on standardized tests relative to similar students in traditional schools, according to a study of thousands of virtual charter school students in 18 states.

Advocates acknowledged that the research to date has shown that cyber-charter schools have produced dismal test score results, but said that they are good fits for some students and are improving over time.

Chavous did not dispute the negative research findings, but suggested that students who remained in virtual schools for several years saw academic gains. (The widely cited national study of online charter schools did not examine this question, but did show that about 75 percent of students had left their online school within four years.)

K12 as an organization has challenged the recent research, saying it does not sufficiently control for differences between students in virtual schools and those in brick and mortar ones, a point some outside researchers say is a real limitation of existing studies.

Robert Enlow of the group EdChoice described the research on virtual schools as “not great, at the moment,” but pointed out that studies rely on test scores, a limited measure in his view. (EdChoice is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Enlow said that he had seen evidence that online schools could improve life outcomes for students in a presentation from K12.

The results from research and negative press have led some charter school advocacy groups to argue for stricter regulation of online charter schools. EdChoice and AFC did not join this push and K12 rejected the recommendations out of hand.

“The device of making a school virtual — I think we need to preserve the tool,” said Derrell Bradford of the 50-state Campaign for Achievement Now, or 50CAN, which was part of the statement calling for tighter oversight. “At some point, someone’s going to figure out a way to do virtual well.”

Graph from the National Education Policy Center.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”