Survey Finds Disconnect Between Teachers and Union Interests

July 25th, 2012

By B. Jason Brooks

The Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Sector’s new report Trending Toward Reform: Teachers Speak on Unions and the Future of the Profession examines teachers views on policies that impact their jobs and their views of the unions that represent them.  This rare glimpse into the attitudes of those who are on the front lines of education uncovers a growing disconnect between the interest of teachers – which rightfully is in favor of policies that allow them to best meet the academic needs of students – and the interest of teachers unions, which primarily is a focus on creating and preserving strong political influence.  Some noteworthy results include the following:

  • Despite unions’ insistence on lifetime tenure being a “sacred cow,” 61 percent of teachers would be willing to give it up altogether and 63 percent view tenure as a “formality that has little to do with whether a teacher is good or not.”
  • A majority (54 percent) of teachers support measuring teacher effectiveness by, in part, assessing the growth of student knowledge while in their classrooms.  Teachers are becoming increasingly supportive of the idea of student assessment-based teacher evaluations, with support growing by 5 percentage points over four years.
  • 62 percent of teachers believe unions fail to attempt to “identify ineffective teachers and retrain them,” a responsibility that two-thirds (67 percent) feel should be a priority for the union.
  • Nearly half (49 percent) of teachers don’t think that their unions “expand the career ladder” by rethinking new roles and responsibilities of teachers, a teacher-centered reform that unions should embrace and negotiate into district contracts.  In just four years, 20 percent more teachers have become critical of how the unions have handled this issue.
  • 46 percent of teachers surveyed said that unions do nothing to “update teachers on new instructional methods” and 47 indicated that unions fail to promote adequate job training at all.

To little surprise, an overwhelming majority of surveyed dues-paying teachers approve of the union’s noncontroversial roles, such as filing grievances (81 percent), protecting against unfair treatment (77 percent), and negotiating contracts (77 percent).  This basic functional role has remained the core of union support for years.

What is both very interesting and quite clear in this report, however, is that teachers unions’ public policy positions are no longer reflective of the beliefs and desires of most teachers.  A pivotal moment for the future of teachers unions is at hand, as the report appropriately concludes:

Whether unions really can provide bread and butter protections for teachers and also advance dramatic reforms to the teaching profession remains an open question.  If they can, now is the time to do it.  In the coming years, the viability of the union will be determined by whether teachers perceive them as being part of the problem or part of the solution for public education.

Contributions to this story were made by FERA education policy research intern Ethan Brooks-McDonald.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Albany Times Union Editors In Full Spin Mode

July 11th, 2012

By B. Jason Brooks

Source: https://twitter.com/timesunion/statuses/222819606786621443

Times Union education writer Scott Waldman’s well-done story on the New York Education Reform Commission’s first hearing, which took place yesterday in Albany, was posted live on the paper’s website shortly after 6:00 pm.  Mr. Waldman’s story was ahead of the pack, being the first online covering the hearings.  I give him a lot of credit for covering the story as bluntly as he did, stating that “[t]he three-hour hearing largely consisted of advocacy groups pushing the points they have made for years in newspaper editorials, public rallies and at school board meetings.”  The headline when the story was originally posted on the Times Union website also correctly summarized the event: “Education hearing rehashes well-known problems”.

Anyone who attended the hearing would tell you that testimony was provided overwhelmingly by the usual cast of characters representing the education establishment at the Capitol saying the same things they’ve been saying for years about the state’s educational system.  I attended the three-hour hearing and afterwards our organization issued a statement making a similar point to what Mr. Waldman’s story claimed:

“Panelists – made up primarily of representatives of teachers, superintendents, administrators, school board members, and politicians – failed to call for the innovative, dramatic policies needed to drive an overhaul of the state’s education system.  Little, if anything, new was presented: repeated calls from public education’s entrenched special interests for more funding and a repeal of the property tax cap did nothing to inspire the commission with the vision it needs to rebuild the public education system from the ground up.”

Mr. Waldman even highlighted our points about the lack of new, innovative policies that should been the focus on the day: “Jason Brooks, research director for the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, said speakers at the hearing failed to present any new solutions.”

What was quite interesting is that, despite what actually went on in the hearing, the Times Union went into full spin-mode at 11:14 pm by changing the original title of the story from “Education hearing rehashes well-known problems” to “A new path for education: Panel explores ways to help kids become higher achievers through better schools.”  Contrary to the revised and misleading headline, the hearing included little, if anything, “new” and there wasn’t any “exploring” new ideas going on.  The revised headline no doubt intended to shed a far more positive light on the hearing, and to no surprise, today’s print edition features the story prominently on page 3 with the new happy-talk headline.

In addition to the Times Union’s tweet for the story posted at 6:28 pm, remaining evidence of the change can be found in the two very different web addresses that now feature the same title and story:

www.timesunion.com/local/article/Education-Hearing-Rehashes-Well-Known-Problems-3697223.php

www.timesunion.com/local/article/A-New-Path-for-Education-3697223.php

Waldman delivered an accurate, timely story on the hearing, but others at the Times Union evidently thought it best to portray the event as meaningful.  One can only hope that Education Reform Commission’s final recommendations live up to “A New Path for Education.”  Albany’s hearing was just the first of many more to come and the commission still holds a great deal of promise for righting the path of the state’s educational system.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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The Devilish Details of Teacher Evaluations

February 12th, 2012

By Brian Backstrom

With a hearty round of congratulatory pats-on-the-back, Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Education Commissioner John King, and the most prominent leaders of New York’s teacher unions, state union head Dick Iannuzzi and New York City teacher union leader Michael Mulgrew, yesterday announced an agreement on a plan to require annual performance reviews for public school teachers.

That’s right: for the first time, New York is on the verge of actually being able to show whether classroom teachers do their job well.  More common-sense than ground-breaking stuff, one could say.

While praise is certainly deserved for Governor Cuomo – who knocked-down the union blockade on this issue with the issuance of a drop-dead date after which he’d take the matter into his own hands – and Commissioner King – who pressed forward tirelessly to ensure the structure of the evaluations were meaningful – any legitimate analysis of what was accomplished here requires at least two components: a sense of context, and questions about the details.

First, some context.

In 2008, Iannuzzi’s NYSUT successfully lobbied the state legislature to prohibit the use of any student test score data at all to any degree in teacher evaluations.  This law actually had to be repealed two years later to make New York competitive for, and eventually win, $700 million in federal Race to the Top education grants.  The feds reasonably required the ability for states to show that teachers were able to be judged on whether they improved student learning.  In addition to repealing the union’s blanket ban on the use of student-performance data, the State Education Department polled district superintendents, school board presidents, and local teacher-union heads and got 91 percent of them to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (essentially a contract) saying they agreed to a teacher evaluation plan based 40 percent on student-outcome measures.

After winning the federal funding, however, the teachers union shifted into full-reverse and sued the state, saying it really didn’t want teachers to be held accountable based on students test scores after all.  In addition to objecting to nearly every other detail in the proposed teacher-evaluation plan, NYSUT wanted to avoid having state grade-level test scores count for 40 percent of the evaluation, and wanted to ensure that at least 80 percent of the entire evaluation could be based on factors negotiated between school districts and the teachers union.  This clearly is not meaningful change.

New Yorkers should not be fooled into thinking that the union now fully embraces the use of data to judge whether classroom teachers are doing their job.  No, instead union officials were dragged kicking and screaming to the table and forced to eat their vegetables by Governor Cuomo and State Education Commissioner King.

Second, the details.

The framework of the new teacher-evaluation plan sounds an awful lot like the plan proposed last year by the State Education Department and which was promptly litigated by the anti-reform teachers union.  As negotiations on the new plan reached their final minutes, NYSUT’s Iannuzzi said that the parties involved were down to debating the use of one word here and another word there, noting that certain words conveyed one meaning to the unions but meant another to those that were seeking genuinely meaningful evaluations.  Until the details of the plan become known, parents and students will not be able to tell how many and how large the loopholes are that have been left in the structure of teacher evaluations.

If there is not a heavy and unavoidable reliance on student performance data, the evaluations frankly will not be measuring whether teachers are causing students to learn.  A December 2011 study by Harvard and Columbia universities found that the impact on test scores is a valid way to measure teacher quality. The study tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and found that even having a poor teacher versus an average teacher has a huge effect on a person’s future earnings (almost $300,000). Worse yet, having a poor teacher (as based on student test data) is equivalent to a student missing 40 days of school, or nearly a quarter of the entire school year.  If indeed 80 percent of the entire teacher evaluation is subject to negotiations between school districts and the teachers union, there is cause to worry.  A Buffalo school board member was recently quoted as saying: “No one wants to fight the unions, and this requires us to do that.”  That’s some intestinal fortitude for you.

Using student test score data to evaluate teachers is not a novel concept: a dozen other states already require 50 percent or more of teacher evaluations to be based on student outcomes.  New York isn’t breaking new ground here, it is late to the party.

Good evaluation structures include not only objective measures but subjective ones, too, as the agreed-upon plan does.  Teachers should be repeatedly observed in their classrooms to see how well they’ve implemented the art of teaching.  But we’re talking about real, meaningful observations, not the type that can be found in virtually every public school today.  In fact, NYSUT itself rightly criticized the current process of classroom observations calling them “drive-by evaluations,” with an administrator briefly sitting in the back of the classroom checking boxes on a checklist.  A solution to this would be to have an independent third-party expert observing classrooms guided by a comprehensive and meaningful rubric.  Will local teacher unions allow this?  Will local school boards demand this?  Surely an important detail not to be overlooked.

Critical, too, is to see how the plan handles the four categories of teacher ratings: “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective,” and “highly effective.”  Will those teachers rated “ineffective” be allowed to be fired quickly and easily?  Why allow even one more class of children to suffer?  How long will a teacher rated “developing” be allowed to languish there?  Shouldn’t improvement be required in at least, say, two years?  Will “highly effective” teachers be allowed to earn more than their lower-rated peers, a merit-based concept historically rejected by the unions?

There is little denying that this was a problem needing fixing: the National Council on Teacher Quality recently graded New York a D+ in delivering well-equipped teachers, a C+ in identifying effective teachers and C- in exiting ineffective teachers.  The required use of teacher evaluations is a welcome step in the reform of public education in New York.  Parents, students, and the public in general should be able to know whether teachers are getting their job – educating children – done successfully, and if not, why administrators are continuing to subject students to their classrooms.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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Students Lose as State Softens Pressure on Districts to Hold Teachers Accountable

December 30th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

When New York failed in its first attempt to win hundreds of millions of federal dollars in the competitive Race to the Top (RttT) grant program, it was clear that the state’s education leaders had not proposed enough reforms that were designed to increase accountability for increased student learning.  Seeking to avoid being blamed for the loss of an estimated $700 to $800 million in school funding during tough financial times and under intense public and political pressure, leaders of the statewide New York State United Teachers union and the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s large and influential teachers union, caved and ended their long-time opposition to including student achievement results as part of teacher evaluations.  (In 2008, the unions successfully lobbied for a law banning such practice, making New York one of only a few states in the nation with such a policy.)  Without repealing this law, New York didn’t stand a chance at winning a RttT grant.  With great fanfare, the state education commissioner took the podium with these union leaders and announced a plan that included requiring up to 40 percent of each teacher evaluation to be based on some measure of student achievement results.

The state legislature swiftly adopted the plan and it was signed into law by then-Gov. David Paterson in order to put New York in the most competitive position possible for the federal RttT grant.  An impressive 91 percent of the state’s district superintendents, school board presidents, and local teachers union leaders signed memoranda of understanding (MOU) supporting the new teacher evaluation program as part of the state’s round-two RttT application and agreeing to implement the reforms in their local schools.  As clearly stated in the MOU, districts and unions would have to negotiate new contracts in order to implement the plan and implement the new evaluations:

Implementing a comprehensive evaluation system for teachers and principals based on multiple measures of effectiveness, including student achievement measures, which would comprise 40% of teacher and principal evaluations and ratings in accordance with the following minimum requirements:

– 2011-2012: 20 percent student growth on state assessments or comparable measures for teachers in the common branch subjects or ELA and Math in grades four to eight only, and 20 percent other locally selected measures that are rigorous and comparable across classrooms;

– The remaining 60 percent of the evaluations and ratings would be based on locally developed measures (e.g., classroom observations by trained evaluators), according to standards prescribed by the Commissioner.

The seven-page MOU signed by superintendents, school board presidents, and local teachers union leaders required the education leaders to certify that they were “familiar with the State’s Race to the Top grant application [including the teacher evaluation plan] and [were] supportive of and committed to working on all portions of the State Plan.”  The state wisely wanted to ensure that districts fully knew that the grant funding came with an unavoidable commitment for real reform.

The effort on the new teacher evaluation plan and the overwhelming local support paid off, with the federal government awarding New York a $700 million RttT grant in August 2010.

Now that the time has come for the new teacher-evaluation plans to be implemented – evaluations which actually take into consideration whether students are learning or not from individual teachers and thus have one of the first real elements of accountability for the state’s public school teachers – leaders of the entrenched local education bureaucracy are thumbing their collective noses at the state’s new teacher-evaluation law and the leadership at the State Education Department that is desperately trying to implement the plan. Despite districts signing on to the state’s new evaluation system a year and a half ago when money was at stake, more than 4,500 principals now have signed onto a petition opposing implementation of the evaluations, instead arguing for watered-down alternatives that in the end fail to hold teachers and principals accountable for genuine student achievement.

In addition to the push-back from principals, school boards, superintendents, and teachers unions are ignoring the commitments they made to reform.  As announced earlier this week by state education commissioner John King, an amazing 80 percent of of districts eligible for $105 million in School Improvement Grants (SIG) to fund reforms to fix chronically-failing schools have failed to implement the new teacher evaluations, a required component of the grant.  Unless districts have the new teacher evaluation plans in place by January 1, 2012, grant funds to fix their most broken schools could be lost.

When districts and union leaders agreed to implement the teacher-evaluation plans back in May 2010, the MOU signed by 91 percent of the state’s school districts outlined the recourse the state had if districts failed to live up to their commitments, consequences that include the withhold of funds and requiring districts to pay-back grant funds they may have received:

“If the State determines that the LEA is not meeting its goals, timelines, budget, or annual targets or is not fulfilling other applicable requirements, the State grantee will take appropriate enforcement action, which could include…putting the LEA on reimbursement payment status, temporarily withholding funds, or disallowing costs.”

Commissioner King stated on Tuesday, “The last thing the students need is to lose resources because the adults who run those schools won’t fulfill their responsibilities…The clock is ticking.  When the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the money drops off the table, and it will be difficult to get it back.”  King went even further claiming that failing to follow through on implementing new teacher evaluations could result in districts losing federal Teacher Incentive Funds and RttT funding.  These were tough words from the reformer now in charge of overseeing the state education department.  But astute observers couldn’t overlook the wiggle room that the commissioner left for himself and those dissenting districts, claiming that “it will be difficult” – not entirely impossible – for districts to somehow keep the grants even if they fail to follow through on their commitments to implement the new teacher evaluations by the deadline.

Opponents pounced.  The day after Commissioner King’s statement, the superintendent of the Schenectady City School District, John Yagielski, announced that the commissioner had backed down and was allowing districts to keep their grants as long as it simply submitted a progress report outlining where the negotiations between the school board and the teachers union stood.  If the progress report provided insufficient information, the state would then take the step of calling for a “hearing” to examine the matter more closely.  If the hearing found that the steps taken by the districts and teachers unions was insufficient, the grant funds would then be “frozen.”  So much for the tough claims of “When the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the money drops off the table.”

If districts and teachers unions are going to continue stonewalling the state’s new teacher-evaluation mandates – well-founded, well-intended, and reasonable reforms that make student achievement a significant factor in determining who has done a good job of teaching and who hasn’t – the State Education Department and Commissioner King should slam closed any perceived loophole and use the tools at its disposal by revoking the grants uncommitted districts have received.  Otherwise it becomes nothing more than simply throwing money at failing schools, a course we know from generations of such practices won’t achieve the dramatic improvements that are needed.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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State Aid to School Districts Likely to Increase with Little Else

December 13th, 2011

By Brian Backstrom

The state Board of Regents today will vote on a committee-approved proposal for state aid to school districts for the 2012-13 school year. The Regents proposal, developed over several months by the state Education Department, is merely a recommendation for the governor and state legislature to consider. It otherwise has no effect.

While the Regents proposal is worth a read and has much to commend, its details are likely to be a dead letter that will gather dust after today. That’s unfortunate.

The Regents proposal recommends a $755 million increase in overall school aid, to more than an amazing $20 billion in total for next school year. An increase of this magnitude was once serious money, even as recently as the go-go nineties. Now it’s merely a shade less than 4 percent more than the current year’s state aid.

“High-need” v. “Low-need” School Districts

The Regents proposal calls for further shifting educational funding from so-called “low-need” (suburban) school districts to “high-need” (urban) districts. That is, most of the recommended $755 million increase would go to the latter districts.  Suburban communities typically have much more property wealth, meaning they have a substantially larger property tax base from which to raise locally-funded revenue for education, and these communities in turn tend to spend much more per pupil than high-need areas of the state. Contrary to the ongoing claims from the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education that urban school districts are being “shortchanged” under the current funding system, state aid formulas already heavily favor high-need districts, which receive an average of 4.5 times more aid per pupil than low-need districts, a fact honorably shown by the Board of Regents in its proposal.

In the legislature, where the actual school aid increases will be determined, attention will also be paid to politically influential suburban areas, communities populated by mostly middle class residents who pay very high property taxes and get a relative pittance in state aid. Their state legislators are a sure bet to resist a further shifting of state school aid “shares” among the state’s school districts.

Reforming Building Aid

While political factors on both sides will affect the debate over state aid distribution, many of the details of the Regents aid proposal are worthy of serious consideration by the state legislature. Most important are “expense based aids,” primarily building aid, which the Board of Regents is proposing to change from a spend-to-get entitlement to a more restrictive formula to reduce the long-standing incentive to build more than is prudent or affordable.

From the 2005-06 school year to 2010-11, state expenditures for building aid increased 10 percent annually. A greater share of state aid being skewed toward bricks and mortar means less for general education needs, including staff and supplies. Another cost-shift is skyrocketing pension costs, the elephant-in-the-room that the Regents continually avoid but which belongs front-and-center in any education financing discussion.  It is another issue that may come up in the budget negotiations between Gov. Cuomo and the legislature.

The Regents’ proposed changes for building aid would not take effect until after the next school year to allow for current-year expenses to be reimbursed in the subsequent year. That necessitates the governor and legislature to enact changes now to take effect by state fiscal year 2013-14 and following for any savings to be achieved.

School aid formula changes are often slow to be realized, so it behooves the Regents and Education Department to prioritize from their comprehensive proposal on what really needs to occur now.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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Class Size Inches Higher. Does it Matter?

November 18th, 2011

By NY Ed Reform Guest Blogger Peter Murphy

For every claim that class size matters, there are plenty of reputable studies that say it doesn’t, at least within a certain variance of students.  A quality instructor that is able to provide differentiated instruction for various learning levels within a relatively large classroom of students often is more likely to generate better academic results than an average teacher using unwavering direct-instruction techniques in a smaller class of students.

Teacher unions’ efforts to push for smaller class sizes, essentially lobbying for more funding to hire more staff,  is analogous to some self-interested corporation sponsoring research that in the end does little to advance its institutional interest (cigarette manufacturers claiming tobacco use is not injurious, oil companies claiming that drilling has no negative effects on the environment, etc.).  Research funded by a party such as a union or a corporation does not necessarily indicate the research is faulty, but the bias of the source should be understood.

This week the union-supported group Class Size Matters released a PowerPoint showing that class sizes have been increasing annually in New York City since 2007, even when state school aid was still on an upward trajectory (that is, before the cuts of the past two years).  For example, Class Size Matters notes that K-3 classrooms increased from 21 students to more than 23, and from 26 to 26.6 for grades 4-8.

To have a shred of respectability, any discussion about the number of students per classrooms also should include a trend analysis of student-to-teacher ratios, which is the number of students per teacher.   If plenty of adult instructors remain in the classroom providing instruction and assistance to students, class size may not matter at all.

In New York City, there were 14.4 students per classroom teacher in 2010-11.  While class sizes have indeed been inching upward, the student-teacher ratio for New York City has been declining in the last decade, from 15.8 in 2001-02, to 14.6 in 2004-05 to the current leveling off number of 14.4.  Statistically, slightly higher class sizes in the last four years have not resulted in more students per teacher.  This is an important point, but one that often goes unmentioned by those hammering away on the class-size issue.

There is cause for concern about New York City’s schools, however, even when looking at student-teacher ratio figures.  The city’s ratio of 14.4 students per teacher remains higher than the state average of 12.9, and the state average is lower because the average ratio outside of New York City is lower still, at 12.2 students per classroom teacher.  With a greater concentration of high-needs students in New York City compared to the rest of the state, the regional discrepancy in student-teacher ratios lends support to the argument to shift funding from lower-need districts to the city.

But even student-teacher ratio data should not be viewed as the ultimate force on funding decisions.  More appropriate is the quality of instructor and the school’s instructional model being used.  The KIPP network of public charter schools, for example, average 27 to 35 students per class – a far greater number than those being whined about by the teachers unions – and yet on average KIPP charter schools regularly out-perform district schools.  So before policy makers get too caught-up in any class-size debate, let’s make sure the right person is teaching the right stuff in the right way before giving further credence to limiting the number of students that go into that classroom.  Without the academic focus, the class-size debate is revealed to be more about the wants of adults rather than needs of schoolchildren.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Do School Aid Cuts Hurt the Poor Mostly? Only if They Get More to Start

November 16th, 2011

By Brian Backstrom

Last school year, spending for K-12 education in New York came in at more than $57 billion.  Of that expenditure total, state funding covered just over 40 percent, the lowest percentage contribution since 1997-98, and down from its 20-year high of 48 percent in 2001-02.

Part of the recent decline in the state contribution share is that school aid itself has been cut in each of the last two years, and simultaneously federal “stimulus” funds for education helped boost total education expenditures.

But talk to almost anyone with a pulse here in New York, land of record-high local property taxes, and they would justifiably argue that the state should contribute a much higher percentage for education, which should in turn translate to less reliance on property taxes.   Many other state governments finance more than half total cost for education.

It is critical to understand, however, that the 40 percent New York state government contribution rate is an overall average percentage, with actual rates varying to a wide degree among the state’s 696 school districts.  For districts that have lower property wealth, which mostly are in upstate and rural areas, state aid finances half or more of their budgets.  By contrast, many downstate suburban districts, which generally have much higher property wealth, have as little as five percent of their expenses financed by state aid.

The NY Ed Reform Blog recently compared one upstate and one downstate school district of similar size and found the upstate, poorer district got $13 million in state aid, which worked out to be $9,172 per pupil, compared to the wealthier downstate district which received less than $2 million, or only $1,275 per pupil.  Such a glaring difference in state support would appear to offset to a great degree the income and wealth disparities – exactly the result state policy makers try to achieve with the aid formula.

A study released this week by the teacher union-backed Alliance for Quality Education complained that state aid cuts came in larger nominal dollar amounts from poorer districts (i.e., upstate and western New York primarily) than in downstate “wealthier” districts.  According to AQE’s study Back to Inequality, the poor and poorest districts were cut this school year by $843 and $547 per pupil, respectively, while the “high wealth” districts lost only $269 per pupil.

The simple truth, however, is more complicated.  Any school district that receives more state aid per pupil, and more state aid in nominal terms, and is more reliant on this source of funding, will mathematically receive a higher funding cut in nominal dollar terms as state aid declines.   As AQE’s own numbers show, the same school districts with the higher nominal dollar reductions got higher per pupil aid hikes when school aid was increasing in 2007.

The Cuomo administration – the target of this AQE study and the teacher unions backing this effort – took great care when allocating school aid cuts to ensure that higher percentage reductions were demanded from wealthier school districts.  Because poor districts get so much more state aid than wealthier ones, as they should, the nominal reduction when there is less aid available might appear to be larger, but wealthier districts clearly are getting a higher percentage cut and thus sharing the pain disproportionately, again as they should.

Even after two rounds of state aid cuts, the reality is that poor school districts still receive much higher state aid levels than wealthier districts on a per pupil basis.  But that doesn’t suit AQE’s politically-motivated agenda, and so that fact isn’t acknowledged anywhere in its “study.”

Let’s go one step further.   Even using the term “wealthy” to describe many downstate school districts can be labeled misleading, as only a few on Long Island or in the lower Hudson Valley have Hamptons-style mansions populated by the rich and famous.  Instead, many “average wealth” and “high wealth” school districts are populated mostly by middle-class New Yorkers with two income-earners already paying property taxes among the highest in the entire nation.  These same New Yorkers also pay high income taxes to the state, most of which then goes for state aid to poorer school districts.

No one likes school aid cuts, and poor districts with smaller property tax bases and heavily reliant on state school aid clearly face challenges.  But higher school aid for them is unlikely to come from wealthier areas, whose residents also believe they get gyped by the state.

The quest for more education revenue demands biting the bullet on the expense side – something the teacher unions and AQE are loathed to do and are trying to avoid.  As long as New York’s economy remains in the doldrums, focusing more on the expense side of education, including redirecting more toward actual student needs, is both unavoidable and necessary.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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Will Some NY School Districts Go Bankrupt? Maybe They Should

November 8th, 2011

By Brian Backstrom

The Sunday Albany Times Union published a commentary by James Hoffman, Ed.D, the superintendent of schools for the Fonda-Fultonville School District, a rural area in Fulton County, west of Schenectady that complained about the inequities in spending among school districts.

Not for the first time has a school district official complained that his or her community does not get their “fair share” of state aid.  Travel to every corner of New York State and you’ll hear agreement on one issue:  the state’s school aid formula is unfair and denies their school district its “fair share.”

Dr. Hoffman dusts off the old staple of upstate versus downstate “wealthy districts,” and declares that upstate New York “has been under attack fiscally for the past two decades …and downstate has won.”

That would certainly come as news to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity crowd, which spent years litigating the state’s school aid formula which it believed cheated New York City, that very large downstate school district.  The state Court of Appeals largely agreed with CFE’s case, and the city was given several billions more in dollars beginning in 2007, though every school district in those ensuing years also received state aid increases.

School aid hikes came to a halt last year and are not returning at least in the short-term.  Combine the state’s fiscal frugality with the new state-imposed property tax cap, and upstate school districts are crying foul.  In fact, many of them, according to Dr. Hoffman, believe they will go bankrupt within the next three years.

Dr. Hoffman, like so many upstate school officials, believes upstate gets cheated on funding since the state still provides school aid to wealthier downstate school districts which in turn are able to spend far more per pupil.  For example, he cites the Bronxville School District in Westchester County that spends $10,000 more per pupil than his Fonda-Fultonville District.

Interestingly, both school districts have a similar student enrollment of around 1,500 students.  The inequity, however, may be more of a complaint for Bronxville, since Dr. Hoffman’s Fonda-Fultonville district receives more than $13 million is school aid compared to less than $2 million for Bronxville.  That amounts to about $1,275 per pupil in state aid for downstate Bronxville while upstate Fonda-Fultonville gets approximately $9,172.

Bronxville and most other downstate school districts are indeed “wealthier” than upstate districts and, accordingly, choose to spend far more per pupil based almost entirely from their own local property taxes.  In Bronxville, state aid accounts less than 5 percent of the district’s budget, while Fonda-Fultonville has more than half its budget financed by the state.  Dr. Hoffman’s gripe that Bronxville spends more per pupil is the choice of Bronxville residents, rather than the fault of the state aid formula, which pays his school district more than six times the amount.  Still, upstate school districts like Fonda-Fultonville do not have the property tax base to increase local spending substantially.

Dr. Hoffman’s gripes about school aid aside, he would be better off focusing on his other point about eliminating state mandates that drive school district costs, including employee pension costs. If the situation for upstate districts with a small local tax base is that desperate to provide a sound, basic education, school districts can and should make the case for a voter override of the property tax cap.

Absent any relief from state mandates along with continued stagnant levels of school aid, school district bankruptcy could be the final outcome that would get the state’s attention for drastic mandate relief and other reform.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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Teacher Evaluation Plan at a Snail’s Pace

November 4th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

At the pace things are going, New York State may be lucky to have a meaningful teacher evaluation plan by the time the next generation of school children begin heading off to class.

Nearly 18 months after the state legislature enacted a new teacher evaluation system, backers of the status quo continue to battle virtually all attempts at this reform.  In the latest salvo, more than half the principals of public schools on Long Island, representing 90 of the Island’s 124 school districts, signed a letter that was sent this week to the state Board of Regents objecting to the plan.  The principals wrote that they are “very concerned” the state-required change is being “imposed in a rapid manner and without high-quality evidentiary support.”

Hogwash.  It is simply part of the ongoing attempt to avoid transforming the public education system into one that actually holds the adults accountable for growth – or lack thereof – in student learning.

The Long Island principals instead want any new system to first be tried out on a “piloted” basis, meaning just a handful of schools would be picked to test out this crazy notion that teachers have some responsibility for whether the kids in their classrooms actually learn anything.  But these principals then go on to discourage any use of individual teacher evaluations, instead wanting to use “school-wide achievement results”–if they are used at all—to rate all teachers in one big blob.  Makes it kind of hard to identify and fire just the bad apples this way, doesn’t it.

It’s a scary thought when so many educators from the Long Island suburbs, places that are home to what many consider to be “good” schools, are recoiling and resisting the notion of using student assessment results even as part of the evaluation of teachers’ performance.

The principal cabal also objects to the state’s teacher evaluation system saying, without any evidence whatsoever, that it will harm the “nurturing relationship between teacher and student.”  What? Checking to see whether someone actually can deliver instruction effectively harms the teacher-student relationship more than allowing incompetence to remain in the classroom year after year?  Not even the head of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), Richard Iannuzzi, who was a teacher for many years on Long Island, was buying this pap from the school principals.  “I give a lot more credit to teachers with respect to the fear that they will start to do things differently and make strategic decisions as where they place special needs students,” he told Newsday.

Mr. Iannuzzi may have some pride of authorship and be a little sensitive to criticism since he and his New York City teacher-union counterpart basically negotiated the evaluation system with the Regents and the legislature last year, with not a school principal representative in sight (look who’s NOT is the photo).

Itself reeling from the deal it negotiated, NYSUT subsequently sued the state over the implementation of the plan for, among other issues, allowing through regulation the use of state assessment results to comprise the full 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.  The union won at the state trial court level, a painful body-blow for those hoping for an increased level of meaningful accountability in public education.  The state has appealed.

While waiting for the next round of legal determinations, the principals – whose role would be to do actual evaluations of their teachers – are even softer on the subject than the state and NYC teacher unions (union locals in Buffalo and Rochester this past week also objected to the state evaluation system).

It is a wonder why these Long Island school principals took so long to state their objections.  What is clear is that the education establishment-types are throwing up roadblocks to real reform the closer those changes come to being put in place.  New York State Education Commissioner John King is right to stand his ground, one that favors good education, even if he does give the Johnny-Come-Lately crowd a courtesy meeting.

If ever the state is going to have an effective evaluation system of the teachers of children, it’s going to have to be a stronger system rather than watered-down further as advocated by Long Island’s school establishment or as is being run through the court system by the teachers union.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Low NAEP Scores; Ever Higher Taxes Coming?

November 2nd, 2011

By Brian Backstrom

Will New York State’s poor performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests this year lure policy makers into raising taxes?

With the recent federal release of the dismal and stagnant performance of New York students, many of us are waiting and watching for that nexus to emerge.  Thankfully, we haven’t seen it made – at least not yet – by the usual advocates for tax hikes to fund more education spending, saying that it is really only more public dollars that will equate to better results.   At the time of this writing, there is no mention whatsoever of the state’s dreadful NAEP results on most of the education establishment, higher spending-type websites.

The results of the NAEP show that only 36 percent of New York State’s fourth grade students are proficient in mathematics, down from 40 percent in 2009, and lower than the national average of 40 percent. Eighth grade math results for New York also were lower than the national average. Reading results on the NAEP for New York were comparatively similar for 8th grade.  Only in fourth grade reading did the state manage to eke out a score better than the national average.  (Eighth grade reading results are here.)

At first glance, the lessening achievement gaps between white students and racial minorities is encouraging, showing a narrowing gap in mathematics since the early nineties.  A minute longer look, however, shows that this has more white students doing worse than anyone else doing better.

New York State’s Education Commissioner, John King, described the NAEP results as “disappointing and unacceptable,” while NAEP director David Driscoll said that New York and two other states “stood virtually still” since 2003.

Before More Money, Reform

One of the loudest chants to tax more has been coming from the state teachers union, New York United Teachers (NYSUT) and the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers.  But does anyone still really believe that higher taxes will bring about better education results? Annual state school aid increases since the 1990s, and especially from 2003 to 2009, did not result in better NAEP scores. That much is clear, and reinforced even more with the release of these latest data.

What should come before any increase in spending is even considered is the institution of stronger outcome-based accountability measures.  Such reforms include, but are not limited to: a strengthening the state teacher-evaluation mandates, a system that was neutered by the courts when the union sued to make teacher performance assessment only part of collective bargaining; removing high-cost mandates on school districts and charter schools, especially those unrelated to actually doing a good job teaching children; controlling outlandish pension costs including by creating a Tier VI system for new employees; and, providing more options and the means by which parents with children in bad schools can enroll them in better public and non-public schools.

Let’s embrace what we already know: there is not a shred of valid data showing that spending hikes on the public education system as currently structured improves results.

If the proponents of taxing more and spending more on education would show even a whiff of the same zeal for accountability-based education reform, the state is likely to avoid the same shopworn lament about low student academic outcomes two, five, and ten years from now.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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How Not to Close Achievement Gap:
Spending Alone Has Already Been Tried

October 11th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

How much expertise does it take to want more spending in public education?

Today, a conference is being hosted at Teachers College at Columbia University to make the case that the state should be increasing spending by more than 25 percent for students in poverty, which equates to nearly $5,000 (higher in New York City) above the $18,126 already being spent in New York State.

Michael Rebell, the lead attorney who litigated the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, is one of several authors of white papers that call for more services for poor students to overcome the achievement gap.  The five white papers that were prepared for the conference can be found here.

News of this conference was deemed fit to print by the New York Times, which published the story in its Sunday edition.   In case anyone was wondering, the Times made sure to inform its readers that Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and formerly the NYC teacher union head, was very much in favor of spending more on education.

For all the academic prowess and expense that will attend this conference, it doesn’t take a genius to demand more money for education and poor children.  What does require thought is how to improve education when your state already spends more than any other state per student.  Noticeably absent from this Teachers College event is anything on accountability, increasing productivity, reducing costs and mandates, and expanding educational choice.

The demand for massive new “investments” in education is not new, nor is it newsworthy.   What is significant and damning is how truly out of touch with reality this entire event comes across.  Improving student educational outcomes in tough economic and budgetary times as these should be the focus, rather than making pie-in-the-sky financial demands that even reinstating the so-called “millionaires’ tax” would not fulfill.

It also is intellectually bankrupt to call for massive new spending on education in the name of the worthy goal of closing the “achievement gap” while ignoring the record of the previous decade’s worth of effort to do just that.  New York State, for the eleven years up through school year 2008-09, added an average of more than $1 billion to education aid each year.   Even after the reduction in state aid proposed for this school year by Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo and adopted into law by the bipartisan-controlled state legislature, state spending for school districts amounts to more than $19.6 billion, to which is added more than $3 billion in state payment of local school taxes.  Spending hikes of this magnitude over the last decade, which became more targeted to higher-need areas of the state, still did not narrow the achievement gap.  It is a mystery why these bright people at  Teachers College believe that returning to such spending hikes now—assuming that were feasible—would accomplish what has already failed.

Rethinking education policies, with or without higher spending, is desperately needed, but is glaringly bereft at today’s Teachers College event.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Teacher Evaluation Heading for the Dust Bin?

October 4th, 2011

By Ed Reform Guest Blogger Peter Murphy

Don’t mess with the (Borg) Collective!

The state’s award-winning teacher evaluation program–as in Race to the Top award-winning–is not off to a good start. The recent judicial ruling sided with the New York State United Teachers’ (NYSUT) successful effort to water down its effectiveness by having the program almost entirely subject to collective bargaining at each of the state’s 680 school districts.

As has been written previously, the law itself that created the teacher evaluation is ambiguous and the product of NYSUT’s negotiation with the state Education Department and Regents. When the Regents sought to strengthen the evaluation program through regulation, with the impetus of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, NYSUT went to the court to successfully strike it down.

As this litigation winds its way through the courts, it’s a reminder of several larger issues. First, the effort to evaluate teachers is an example of how education policy emanating from the federal government to the state level, with all its good intentions, can prove feckless at the school district level. Second, the union mindset of refusing to allow for distinctions among teachers–in this case by attempting a meaningful evaluation system–is deeply troubling and harmful to children.

Making Distinctions Among Teachers Proving Futile

At the federal, state, and indeed school district level in New York, people are willing to pay substantially for education, particularly to reward effective teachers. What’s a great teacher worth? A lot. Yet the bedrock arrangement in states like New York prevents great teachers from being paid what they are worth because of the one-size-fits-all nature of teacher union contracts that are fundamentally designed to protect teachers from being judged by district management.

The current teacher evaluation saga reminds me of a previous generation’s attempt by the state to reward great teachers–thereby making forbidden distinctions among them–with the “Excellence in Teaching” program. This program consisted of providing a pot of money out of state aid for school districts to pay merit pay bonuses to high-quality teachers. It ended up being spread out as tiny pay supplements to all teachers. Having been rendered meaningless, by the mid-1990′s the program was scrapped.

The attempt to make quality distinctions among teachers rubs against the whole “collective” Borg-like mindset in public education as structured by the modern union contract. Calling into question the quality of one teacher is viewed by union leadership as “an attack on all teachers.” This charge is ludicrous on its face, but has been very politically effective.

Rewarding Quality Rubs Against Collective

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article by former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton speaks to this issue when he wrote: “The results we’re looking for is students learning, so we need to reward great teachers who show they can make that happen – and get rid of bad teachers who don’t get the job done. It’s what you do in every other profession” especially in the NFL as he described.

Attempts to amend the collective nature of labor relations in public education by implementing meaningful teacher evaluations are proving difficult as a result of NYSUT’s ability to negotiate ambiguity in the evaluation law and so far win out in the courtroom. As the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability recently showed, the resistance to teacher evaluation systems that make distinctions among teachers also is going poorly at the school district level. For example, teacher union locals in several districts are resisting putting in any extra time in for staff professional development as part of the effort to improve teacher quality as required as part of the evaluation process; rather, they are seeking to undergo PD during regular class and have substitutes take their place.

It’s proving to be a long slog ahead for teacher evaluation, which like so many other reform efforts at the district level, may end up in the dust bin of history.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Teachers Union Politics Threatens to Compromise Student Learning (Again)

September 30th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

New York’s new teacher evaluation plan, adopted as part of its federally-supported Race to the Top program, has received attention recently due to the teachers union’s ongoing attempt to block the plan from being implemented because of the degree the plan relies on student-achievement data.  What is just now being realized, however, is how difficult local units of the union can be to school districts that are following state law and putting into place an evaluation process for English language arts and math teachers.

The inclusion of student outcomes as a factor in teacher and principal evaluations is a significant step forward.  The state teachers union, NYSUT, had successfully lobbied for a law that explicitly forbid the practice; it was only after state education officials used the lure of a potential $700 million federal grant – and a loss in Round 1 of the federal grant cycle without reform – did the union agree to change the law.

Under the new evaluation plan, student test results on state exams will be considered for 20 percent of teacher and principal evaluations and an additional 20 percent will be made up of other “locally-selected measures of student achievement that are determined to be rigorous and comparable across classrooms.”  According to the State Education Department (here), the results of the new teacher and principal evaluations are “required to be a significant factor in employment decisions such as promotion, retention, tenure determinations, termination, and supplemental compensation, as well as a significant factor in teacher and principal professional development.”

As the Oswego Palladium Times does a good job of reporting here, upstate New York’s Oswego City School District is doing a dutiful job of moving forward.  Filled with hope and optimism, “Superintendent Bill Crist introduced the topic of RTTT as ‘historic with profound changes,’ designed to revolutionize the current educational standard in New York state.”  In other words, school districts are hoping the law will finally allow them to use objective measurements in evaluating teachers and principals, find help for those who are struggling, and dismiss those who fail to perform.

What stood out in the story was the issue rightly raised by board member Fran Hoefer who pushed back at the local teachers union’s insistence that teachers be pulled out of classrooms during their scheduled instructional time to receive the necessary training.  According to the story, this training will require teachers to “be removed from their classrooms for roughly 10 percent of the teacher year,” resulting in students receiving a significant amount of their instruction – approximately three and a half weeks’ time in a 180-day school year – from less-effective substitute teachers.  As Hoefer pointed out, “Don’t pull them out of class to teach them how to teach.”  Rather, the staff development can and should be conducted “at other times, such as during non-instructional periods, after school hours, or on weekends.”

While the intentions of the new teacher evaluation program are good, when combined with the rigid work rules of local teachers union contracts, implementation is likely to face numerous obstacles from local unions more interested in playing politics and preserving their sacred half hour in the teachers lounge rather than doing what’s best for students.

Additionally, one has to wonder why the teachers union would push for relying so heavily on substitute teachers to deliver a significant amount of instruction when 40 percent of the evaluations of the regular classroom teachers are going to be based on student outcomes.  Oswego’s English and math teachers better have a lot of faith in the subs taking over their classrooms, because if the union has its way a significant amount of the evaluation will be based on content these teachers won’t be delivering.

In another instance, today’s Middletown Times Herald-Record reports here that the Warwick School District may resort to cutting classroom instruction time and dismissing kids early to complete the staff development since union contracts prohibit infringing on teachers free periods during the school day.  One parent rightly recognized that the union policy is harming children, noting that, “That is something that in this day and age we just can’t afford if we hope to keep our kids on the path to higher education.”

Although state and local teaches union officials signed-off on the new evaluation program to help the state win its federal grant, the obstacles the union is now putting up leads one to question whether those agreements were made in good faith.  The local teachers union’s actions will harm the quality of the education being provided to school children and will hinder the best measurement of classroom teacher performance.

But hey, at least teachers can still leave at 2:30 when the bell sounds at the end of the school day.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Reform Set Up to Fail?

September 15th, 2011

The Holy Grail of Collective Bargaining

By B. Jason Brooks

Last month, Justice Michael Lynch of the Albany County Supreme Court (New York’s lowest trial court level) struck down several of the state Education Department’s regulations to implement new teacher and principal evaluation systems adopted as part of the state’s innovative $700 million Race to the Top federal grant program.

SED and teachers union leaders announcement of an agreement to teacher evaluations.

The state was taken to court by the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union, which argued against the adopted regulations saying a number of provisions designed to hold teachers more accountable for student performance were too tough.  Officials from the New York State Education Department (SED) have rightly criticized the ruling and filed an appeal.

In May 2010, SED successfully completed negotiations with NYSUT to end an existing ban on the use of  student achievement data as any part of a teacher evaluation, a prohibition that had been established thanks to earlier union efforts.  According to Peter Meyer’s Education Next story:

[New York State Education Commissioner David] Steiner called Richard Iannuzzi, head of the powerful New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), and invited NYSUT to begin discussions about “how we could get to an agreement on the teacher evaluations.” The union accepted…  “We had anywhere from 8 to 10 people at each of these sessions,” explains Steiner.  “The meetings lasted four to five hours, sometimes longer.”  Most of the sessions, which went on for several months, focused on teacher evaluations, with the big concern being the “firewall” between the evaluations and student performance on state tests, a barrier that the union had always insisted was necessary.

The agreement resulted in allowing 20 percent of teacher evaluations to be based on the performance of students on annual state exams, and an additional 20 percent to be based on locally-chosen assessments.  Working collaboratively with the Board of Regents, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed to ensure that the locally-chosen half of the outcome-based measurement would be rigorous, encouraging that student performance on the annual state exams could be used for up to the entire 40 percent share of teacher evaluations, noting that such a process would allow consistency statewide and would avoid the need for each of New York’s approximately 700 local school districts to adopt a separate measurement tool.

The New York State Board of Regents, which governs SED, acknowledged the wisdom of the governor’s recommendation and in May 2011 adopted the plan allowing up to 40 percent of the teacher evaluation matrix to be based on student performance on state tests.  NYSUT threw a fit.  The union claimed it would hereinafter end all collaboration with SED (as if that would be a bad thing) because of this “bad faith” move, and that it would take the Regents to court.  While publicly claiming it was challenging the specific regulations allowing an additional 20 percent of teacher evaluations to be based on student outcomes on state assessments, the teacher union’s lawsuit actually sought to dismantle nearly all of the agreed-to evaluation plan components adopted into law the year before.  NYSUT claimed that nearly every portion of any teacher evaluation plan should be required to be agreed to whenever any local school board negotiates a teachers union contract.

On one hand, the statute provided for the Commissioner of Education to issue regulations with “standards” to implement the evaluation system.  This appears to be what SED is hanging its hat on to establish the standard share of state test results used in teacher evaluations at 40 percent.  On the other hand, the enacted agreement did establish that most of the evaluation rubric was to be subject to collective bargaining between the local teachers union and the respective school district.  On this latter provision the court based its ruling, deciding essentially that collective bargaining trumps everything else in the law.

The low court’s ruling, issued on August 24, 2011, agreed that the evaluation regulations exceeded the adopted law and sided with nearly all of the union’s positions.  This outcome probably should not have come as much of a surprise, since a close examination of the law reveals ambiguous language in a number of key areas, leading one to question the roles played by SED staff and NYSUT officials in the final marathon Sunday negotiations.   Was the ambiguous language inserted as a result of clever NYSUT attorneys getting it by the SED staff?  Or did both staffs agree to the ambiguous language knowing full well that it left the door open for a potential challenge, but one that would occur after the federal grant money had already been awarded to New York?

The evaluation system originally adopted as part of the state’s Race to the Top plan enabled New York to effectively compete in the high-profile Race to the Top funding competition among states.  Throughout the negotiations NYSUT was rightly being painted as an obstructionist to accountability and endorsing actions (or inaction) that would prevent the state from winning $700 million in new education dollars from Washington.  After intense pressure from education leaders in New York and the media, NYSUT finally relented and agreed to the 2010 plan.

This latest legal action by the state’s teachers union to minimize the role student test results play in teacher evaluations thus isn’t particularly shocking: it is just the latest move in a long pattern of union actions opposing the use of meaningful, objective data to help determine how well teachers are performing.  In fact, one only has to go to the union’s website to read the self-congratulations of its “leading role in securing language that bars the use of student test scores as a yardstick for tenure” and New York State United Teachers union president Richard Iannuzzi claiming that “student assessments are designed to assess students, not teachers.”

Whether this lower-court ruling will stand on appeal is not at all clear; a higher court could read the ambiguity in the law to favor (or at least allow at the Commissioner of Education’s discretion) the tougher evaluation regulations.  If the higher court upholds the decision and rules in favor of the teachers union and its watered-down teacher evaluation system, however, it undermines every good intention of strengthened accountability contained in New York’s “Race to the Top” grant.  President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education would be justified in revoking the funds awarded to New York for a plan that is no longer being implemented as intended.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Charter School Test Scores & Special Needs Students

August 22nd, 2011

By Guest Blogger Peter Murphy

Charter schools have continued their comparatively better academic performance on state tests this past year when stacked up against their home school districts.  Still, often we read the caveat that charter schools do not serve as many students with disabilities and do not serve as many students who are English language learners.

A news story in the Daily News last weekend illustrates this issue while commenting on a useful and detailed comparison of test scores released by the New York City Charter School Center.  In fact, the opening of the story quotes the Center’s study that “charters have lower rates of students with disabilities [and] much lower rates for English language learners,” though the Center correctly minimized the connection to the comparative outcomes.

This “caveat” is getting tiresome – as it is meaningless.

Let’s begin with the fact that math scores in charter schools exceed the rate in New York City by 11 percentage points.   More impressive is that statewide charter school results are above the statewide percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards, albeit slightly.  Importantly, this statewide average includes all suburban districts; the vast majority of charter schools are in low-income urban areas.  For English language arts, charter school results were closer to the New York citywide average, varying by only one percentage point.  If one compares charter school results with those of their respective community school districts within the city, however, charter schools’ average proficiency rate is six points higher.   Similarly, the performance gap widens in charter schools’ favor when math results are compared between charter schools and their respective community school districts.

What strikes me most about the special-education caveat is that the difference in the percentage of students with disabilities in charter schools compared to the New York City school district is 12.7 percent versus 15.1 percent – only 2.4 percent points.  This is a distinction with little difference to all but the most vociferous anti-charter voices who cannot give up this caveat, no matter how meaningless.

It also is worth questioning whether even the narrow gap of 2.4 percentage points exists in the first place on a realistic level.  Special education is a big industry, with a lot of money and employees with a vested interest.  School districts have been criticized for oversubscribing students to special education, especially in the broad-ranging areas areas of “emotionally disturbed” and “learning disabled,” particularly in the upper elementary and middle school grades.

The state Education Department has documented oversubscribing to special education designation on a wider scale, when it found that black and Latino children are classified as special education students at significantly higher rates than are white students.  A 2006 report by the department noted: “Minority students…continued to be disproportionately placed in special education.”  SED had previously highlighted this disturbing trend to the state Board of Regents in a 2002 report.

The likely phenomenon happening here is that local urban school districts too often simply fail to teach students adequately how to read and have low or no behavioral expectations, and when students approach the middle-school years, they are expected to read independently and behave properly but lack the skill sets to do either.  Rather than correct their failures, local district turn too often simply to classifying many these students as “learning disabled” or “emotionally disturbed.”

By contrast, my experience with charter schools over the years is they have been cautious of referring some students to the committee on special education for fear of labeling a child when the solution instead is to get them to behave and read at grade level.  Additionally, what I often hear from charter school operators is the length of time it takes for a district CSE to approve a charter student’s IEP, anywhere from six to nine months in some cases.  Good charter schools often go to great lengths to avoid needless classification of students, and when students come to them with IEPs, typically work tirelessly to get students declassified.  These are not only factors that tremendously benefit some of the state’s neediest students, but serve to lower the percentage of students classified as “special education” in statistical snap-shots of charter schools.

Then there is the issue of English language learners.  The city’s relatively high percentage of students compared to charters is suspect for reasons similar in nature to the disabilities issue.  Namely, students are labeled ELL for longer than they should be from the city’s failure to educate them by teaching English in a timely manner, a fact detailed in a study released earlier this year by the Success Charter Network.   For example, of the ELL students so designated in first grade in 2003, fewer than one-third could pass the state English as a Second Language exam within three years.  The upshot is that the city’s failure to get students to read and speak English inflates the percentages of students who remain ELL which, in turn, should not be used to discredit charter school academic outcomes.

Charter schools, as with district schools, especially in the state’s urban centers, have plenty of room to improve in terms of their academic results and better servicing of special needs populations.  The favorable academic results on state assessments for charter schools compared to their respective districts is unmistakable, however, and these outcomes need not be diminished with what are increasingly dubious arguments about special-need student counts.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Albany School District Blurs Tax Hike to Eke Out Budget Passage

May 19th, 2011

By NY Ed Reform Guest Blogger, Peter Murphy

The $206.5 million budget for the City School District of Albany was approved Tuesday by the district’s voters – barely, by a margin of only 173 votes (51 percent).  One of the many interesting – and simultaneously disturbing – aspects to this outcome was the Herculean and some would say dubious efforts the district took to eke out a victory.  As in most school districts, a prominent consideration by the electorate was the proposed change in property taxes and how much more residents are being asked to pay in support of the district’s schools the upcoming year.

The district’s city-wide literature and email campaign prominently touted that the property tax levy (as opposed to the actual tax rate faced by homeowners) would be flat next year, a zero percent increase.  The district pushed this soundbite very hard at every opportunity, and chose its sales-pitch words very carefully.  If the district could keep taxpayers focused on the fact that the total amount of taxes collected was staying the same, maybe folks wouldn’t ask the next question – would each residential tax payer be paying more?  Wounds were still raw from last year’s budget battle, when the district sold the public on a 3 percent increase in the total levy, only to have it revealed at tax-bill time that residents faced a tax rate nearly 10 percent higher, the tax hike required to fund the district’s “just 3 percent more” plan.

Only once were Albany taxpayers given an inkling about what was in store.  Thanks to the unguarded comments of Superintendent Ray Coluciello, earlier this month he let slip to a local newspaper reporter that tax rates could be expected to increase up to 5 percent under the district’s proposed budget.  The Times Union reported (May 11):  “The tax rate is likely to increase another 4 or 5 percent, Colucciello said…. Last year, a 3.87 percent tax levy increase resulted in a 10 percent rate increase.”

Many residents no doubt believed, based on the school district’s messaging, that they would not face an increase in property taxes, and voted accordingly.  As last year’s experience demonstrated, however, along with Supt. Colucciello’s off-message admission, Albany school property taxpayers are likely in for another surprise when they receive their tax bills this September.

The Albany School District’s lack of truth-telling doesn’t end with the spin of tax levy versus tax rate.  The district also slammed as untrue claims that school property tax rates had increased by almost 20 percent in recent years.  Unfortunately, it was the district leaders that were making untrue claims.  According to the school district’s own website (here), the tax rate on residential properties has increased 25 percent since 2007 ($15.39/$1,000 of assessed value to $19.23/$1,000)—the first year after the most recent city-wide revaluation—and 18 percent since 2008 ($16.30/$1,000 to $19.23/$1,000), when the current chairman of the board of education, Dan Egan, assumed his leadership position.  Add to that Superintendent Colucciello’s projection for this coming year, and school taxes will have increased by nearly 30 percent in just four years, and nearly 23 percent since 2008.

Interestingly, this school property tax rate history was suddenly and suspiciously removed from the Albany district website right around the time officials were denying that property taxes were increasing around 20 percent over just a few years.  It cannot be a mere coincidence that such damning tax hike information was removed just as this year’s budget battle heated up – thereby denying to the voting public the truth of the property tax burden.

The misleading information presented by Albany school district officials, including the superintendent and board president, carried the day and the budget they wanted enacted.  As the true property tax burden of Albany’s school spending practices unfolds, however, don’t be surprised if the erosion in the district’s credibility results in much greater harm than a budget defeat ever would have.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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The Emancipatory Promise of School Choice in 2011

May 4th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

The first use of state tax policy to promote school choice by lessening the burden of education-related costs to families occurred in Minnesota in 1955.  More than a half century since the Minnesota law was adopted, however, only ten states now offer similar programs, despite the nearly bureaucracy-free route these programs provide for making better-quality education more available to students.  In 1990, Wisconsin became the first state to enact a program to provide publicly-funded school-choice vouchers to low-income students trapped in Milwaukee’s failing schools, making better-quality private schools an option for thousands of children.  At the start of 2011, an entire generation later, only nine states and the District of Columbia have adopted similar programs.

Despite the historic slow pace at which states have adopted programs that make publicly-funded private school choice options more widely available – due to a great extent to the teachers unions’ success in killing such proposals – 2011 is shaping up to be a year that more than any other changes the landscape of education across the country.

On March 15th, students in Douglas County, Colorado became the first in the nation to adopt a locally-funded full-fledged voucher program when the local school board adopted the Optional Certificate Program.  A month later, on April 12th, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a state bill into law creating Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that allow students with disabilities to use a portion of their per-pupil state funding to pay for private school tuition.  And just a few days after the Arizona plan was signed into law, on April 15th President Barack Obama signed into law a federal bill that not only revived but significantly expand the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarships program (a previous attempt to kill the program, then backed by President Obama, prohibited scholarships to new students as of 2009).

The tide kept rolling when just last week, the Indiana legislature adopted the nation’s most sweeping voucher program in the nation, due to be signed into law by Gov. Mitch Daniels tomorrow.  The Indiana voucher proposal will allow students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals (an annual income of $42,000 or less for a family of four) to receive scholarships of up to $4,500 for elementary grades and up to 90 percent (no cap) of the money that would have gone to their local school district for high school grades.  Additionally, families earning up to 200 percent of the cut-off for subsidized school meals ($84,000 for a family of four) will be eligible for scholarships valued at 50 percent of those for students from poverty.  The new program is authorized to provide 7,500 scholarships in 2011-12, 15,000 scholarships in 2012-13, and no cap on the number of scholarships beginning in the 2013-14 school year.

In addition to the significant 2011 school-choice victories that already have been realized in Arizona, Colorado, the District of Columbia, and Indiana, there are active bills with a good chance of becoming law in:

  • Florida (scholarships for students with disabilities);
  • New Jersey (education tax credits for business);
  • Ohio (expansion of scholarships for low-income students and a new scholarship program for students with disabilities);
  • Oklahoma (education tax credits for individuals and businesses);
  • Pennsylvania (scholarships for low-income students and an expansion of education tax credits for businesses); and,
  • Wisconsin (expansion of scholarships in Milwaukee).

(For summaries of these bills and a “watch list” of additional bills in states where approval does not appear to be imminent, see the Foundation for Education & Accountability’s recent publication A Summary of Active School Choice Legislation in the U.S.)

The prospect of having nine school-choice programs newly created or significantly expanded in a single year is unprecedented.  In more than a half-century since the nation’s first school choice program was adopted, the chance to emancipate tens of thousands of disenfranchised students trapped in failing public schools has never looked so promising.

Now if New York’s state legislative leaders in Albany would wake up and join the movement.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Scholarships for Private Schools Would Benefit Rochester Students

April 15th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

Rochester Democrat & Chronicle education reporter Tiffany Lankes’ recent feature story shined a needed spotlight on how Rochester’s schools are failing to provide the city’s mostly minority, mostly low-income student population with a decent education.

As President Obama stated last week in a speech given in New York City, education equality is the civil rights issue of our time.  Requiring low-income and minority students to attend chronically underperforming schools – schools that have failed their communities for generations – is unacceptable.  A radical change is long overdue.

The need to address the segregation of Rochester’s public schools and the schools’ poor performance was publicly recognized in the early 1960s when New York’s Commissioner of Education required the region’s school districts to work together to find a way to improve educational opportunities for low-income minority students.  A coalition of influential politicians, churches, community groups, the media, and even a teachers union successfully advocated for creation of the Urban-Suburban Inter-District Transfer Program in 1965.  This program provided students in the Rochester City School District with the option of transferring to suburban schools, and made Rochester a national leader in innovative school-choice programs designed to alleviate segregation and improve educational options for urban students.

In addition to multiple suburban districts, private Catholic schools participated heavily in the program through the early 1980s, enrolling nearly 1,600 city students.  Though the constitutionality of publicly-funded scholarships for students to attend religious schools was not upheld until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, such a program already had long been in place in Rochester.

Since its inception, Rochester’s transfer program has provided scholarships to approximately 6,000 students to attend better-performing schools.  Unfortunately, the demand has far exceeded the number of available spaces, and numerous students hoping for the opportunity for a better education continue to be disenfranchised.  One report notes that as many as 500 students apply annually for the 70 to 100 spots available in suburban schools through the program.

In an attempt to build upon the program, in 2002 Rochester school board member Bolgen Vargas proposed a “Guarantee for Student Success” that would have transformed the entire local per-pupil share of education funding into a school-choice scholarship for any parent with a students attending a failing city school.  Unfortunately, this “next-step” innovation was not adopted by the city school board.

In addition to publicly-funded scholarships to cover the cost of private school tuition, some states offer individuals and businesses with tax benefits for making donations to nonprofit organizations offering scholarships to low-income students.  In Rochester, some fortunate low-income students have found their way out of failing district schools by receiving scholarships to attend local Catholic schools funded by generous donations from the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation.  Creating an education tax credit program to encourage more donations for scholarships would benefit the Rochester students and go a long way toward promoting educational equality.

Nationally, there are nearly 200,000 students in 25 programs benefitting from publicly-funded scholarships and education tax benefit programs allowing them to enroll in private schools.  This number is likely to explode as multiple states are considering the creation of new school-choice programs or expanding existing ones.

Giving city students the option of attending high-quality private schools would help bring an end to the city’s multi-generational struggle against segregation and chronic academic failure and a scholarship program benefitting Rochester students would once again put the city on the cutting-edge of reform.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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It’s Time to Face Up to Rochester’s School Crisis

April 14th, 2011

By NY Ed Reform Guest Blogger, Peter Murphy

Reporter Tiffany Lakes’ excellent story on the racial segregation in and devastatingly poor performance of Rochester schools unfortunately only scratched the surface of the state of the city’s educational problems.

As highlighted in the story, Rochester is a school district overwhelming populated by low-income minority students.  A whopping 86 percent of the district’s student population is Black and Hispanic and 85 percent come from low-income households.

The poor academic performance of the schools that serve these students is heartbreaking: in 2009 (the most recent data reported by the State Education Department), fewer than half (46 percent) of Rochester students graduated high school within four years of entering ninth grade and fewer than one-third (30 percent) earned a Regents diploma.  Between 2004 and 2009, Rochester’s graduation rate dropped as low as 37 percent and never reached higher than 48 percent.  In the city’s best year, the likelihood of graduating on time from a Rochester district school was less than correctly guessing the flip of a coin.

During the 2009-10 school year, 75 percent of Rochester students in grades 3 through 8 failed to score proficient on the state’s English language arts exam, a proficiency rate among the lowest in the entire state.  In math, an equally unacceptable 72 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 failed the state assessment.

Accentuating these results, a regional business publication conducted an independent ranking of the four-year academic performance of all 67 school districts in the eight counties of the Rochester area last year and found that the Rochester City School District ranks dead last, sitting as the worst-performing district in the entire region.

Rochester’s ongoing failure to fix the city’s struggling schools is feeding demand for the continued growth of public charter schools in the city.  Like Rochester, upstate cities Buffalo and Albany have been home inner city schools that have been failing decades.  The demand for alternatives has led the state to approve 16 schools in (or near) Buffalo that are now serving nearly 18 percent of the student population there.  Albany is home to 11 charter schools enrolling approximately 25 percent of the public school students in that district.

Up to this point, Rochester has seen limited growth among charter schools, currently hosting five schools serving nearly six percent of the public school population (though two more are opening this fall).  The city seems to be ripe for a significant expansion of charter school alternatives, and as long as district schools continue to underperform, the state will seek to approve qualified charter school operators.  An encouraging sign is the effort by the  superintendent of schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, to expand charter school options as one reform-minded tool to improve the city’s school system, but more must be done by more stakeholders than just the superintendent for any hope to tangibly improve the city’s public schools.

Those who wish to gloss over the dramatic failure of the city’s public schools to effectively serve low-income and minority students risk narrowing their view of what reforms are needed, embracing changes that are far too little and far too late.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Setting the Record Straight on State Funding for Syracuse Schools

April 13th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

A recent editorial in the Syracuse Post Standard included some gross inaccuracies about state funding of that city’s school district.  The record needs to be set straight to ensure that the public has the facts.

First, the article wrongly claimed that the state Court of Appeals ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case in November 2006 “ordered the state to add billions in aid to high-need school districts.”  The CFE decision dealt exclusively with state funding for New York City schools, and recommended only nonbinding guidelines for a multi-year funding increase target for public schools there.  It was left to the governor and legislature to determine state aid appropriations based on this recommendation.  The court never ordered more state aid for Syracuse city schools, or any other districts outside of New York City for that matter.  The governor and legislature simply decided that if the state would be appropriating increased aid for New York City schools, it would allocate some extra funds for other districts, too.

Second, the editorial falsely claims that the new state budget agreed to by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature this year would have such a drastic impact that spending in “Syracuse and other high-need districts [would be returned] to where they were when the courts intervened.”  Total state aid proposed for Syracuse city schools in the 2011-12 executive budget was $251 million, a cool $28 million (13 percent) more than the $223 million in state aid that the city school district received in 2006-07.  Add to this the additional $7 million in funds added back by the state legislature as part of the final budget and Syracuse’s $258 million is a $35 million above state funding levels for the district in 2006-07, a 16 percent increase.

The Post Standard’s claim of any cut in state aid at all since the CFE decision for Syracuse city schools is simply wrong.

Furthermore, if the Syracuse City School District isn’t able to adequately educate 21,250 students on a $334 million budget – nearly $16,000 per pupil – the state should make this amount of funding available to families as a scholarship and allow students to use it to pay for tuition at local high-quality private schools that can do the job.  Based on the experiences in other cities where this has occurred (Cleveland, District of Columbia, Milwaukee, New Orleans), thousands of families trapped in the city’s failing schools would jump at the opportunity.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Albany School District Illegally Overtaxing Residents

April 12th, 2011

by B. Jason Brooks

According to data recently published by the Office of the State Comptroller, the Albany City School District is illegally overtaxing the city property taxpayers by millions of dollars in order to pad its reserve fund.  As a recent news story noted, “Capital Region school districts have more money in their reserve accounts than the state average” and Albany’s reserve fund stands out among the largest statewide.

The Albany City School District’s whopping $15.4 million unreserved fund balance represents 7.6 percent of its current $202.8 million budget, nearly double what the state law permits.  Because state law mandates that school districts use-up reserve fund balance in excess of 4 percent before needed tax levies are calculated, it is clear that the Albany City School District has been illegally overtaxing city property owners.

Making matters worse, Albany district officials told voters in May 2010 that the proposed 2010-11 budget would increase the tax levy by just 3.87 percent.  In September, Albany property tax owners received tax bills that the Times Union described as “a shock-inducing tax rate increase of 10 percent.”  Despite the district’s efforts to falsely blame charter school payments for the increase, it’s clear that the district put forth a budget that overtaxed to pad its reserves.

In comparison to the reserve funds for the school districts in the rest of the state, Albany ranks 8th and is larger than the reserves for 99 percent of other school districts.  (Albany’s student enrollment ranks 27th among districts in New York.)

The district’s $15.4 million fund balance amounts to an extra $720 in property taxes per household that they did not need to collect.  Recognizing that local school district spending across the state has been driving up property taxes, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on districts to use existing undesignated reserves to offset reductions in state aid for the 2011-12 school year.

As recently reported, the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability has asked the State Education Department’s top attorney to investigate the Albany City School District’s illegal overtaxing city property tax owners.  Hopefully SED will take swift action to ensure that the Albany district’s 2011-12 school budget spends down its massive reserves instead of continued overtaxing to further pad its reserves.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Education Spending Cuts “Unconstitutional”?

March 19th, 2011

By Brian Backstrom

The fight over state education funding took an acrimonious turn this week as the state budget drew closer to enactment by the legislature.  Governor Andrew Cuomo and education spending advocates traded tough words about the impact of the funding cuts in the Governor’s budget, only a fraction of which are proposed to be restored by the state legislature.

The Governor’s budget has been labeled by the spending lobby with all the usual barbs: “slashing programs,” “hurting kids,” doing “permanent damage,” etc.  A new line of attack this week from a more serious standpoint, however, came from Michael Rebell, a law professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, one of the plaintiff attorneys on behalf of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in its successful state lawsuit to secure more school aid for New York City.

Prof. Rebell claimed this week in the Daily News that the Governor’s proposed funding cuts, if adopted, “clearly will be violating [NY State’s] constitution.”  He asserted that “state aid funding gains in New York City and other high needs districts have achieved since 2007 will be wiped out.”

The professor’s argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.   Gov. Cuomo and his immediate predecessor, Gov. Paterson, each delayed implementation of a 2007 multi-year school aid deal designed to fulfill the Court of Appeals recommendation to increase state aid to New York City.  But, this deal went far beyond what the court’s actual spending figure sought for New York City.

The Court of Appeals in fact sought a middle-ground approach in its mandate for remediation of the funding needs of New York City and its proportionately higher-needs student population by avoiding an outright court order of legislative action. Instead, the court set forth guidelines for the legislature to follow, with a minimal threshold of an additional $1.93 billion in aid for New York City.  Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the legislature followed in 2007 with a four-year, $7 billion increase in school aid on a statewide basis that steered a greater percentage of funding toward high-need school districts, more than covering the court’s established threshold for New York City.

Delaying a massive spending increase many times above the court’s spending increase guideline for New York City – or even backing away from it some – does not make such action “unconstitutional.”

As legislative commitments go, this multi-year school aid increase has two limitations: 1) the next annual state budget; and, 2) the revenue to the state’s treasury.  Both of these have changed, and thus it is reasonable to expect legislative actions to change in step. Interestingly and importantly, even as state aid increases have slowed or reversed, New York City itself has continued to hike education spending using state, local, and federal resources to the point where City education spending increased by well above  $3 billion, about 20 percent higher in the four years since the outcome of the CFE case.

Daily News columnist Bill Hammond was critical of the court’s reasoning throughout the CFE case, but credited it for setting a “very low bar for compliance” for the state.  Indeed, the CFE case really should be yesterday’s news since the court’s guideline of nearly $2 billion in funding increases has long since been met; or, as Hammond put it, “case closed.”

Still, the teacher unions and other spend-more organizations such as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity group continue to use the case as a morality play for their agenda of ever-higher spending, virtually ignoring the court’s concomitant concern for improving student skills and “resulting outputs.”

Given the realities of all that has occurred in the past several years, it is silly to behave as the old CFE case remains particularly relevant.  Every elected official in state government typically strives to deliver more school aid, with or without CFE, and state politicians are wise to stop indulging the fear-mongering higher-spending crowd.  Even New York politicians understand that years of ever-higher spending need a periodic breather, especially when the money simply runs out as it did this year.  With all due respect to Professor Rebell, it’s time to move on.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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Reigning In New York’s “Ever Upward” Education Funding

March 8th, 2011

By B. Jason Brooks

New York’s motto of “ever upward” has perfectly described the state’s education funding.  That is, until now.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2011-12 Executive Budget proposes a $1.5 billion cut in school aid, dropping from $20.9 billion to $19.4 billion.  This would be the second consecutive year state aid was cut, an unprecedented event in recent memory.  Not since the 1990-91 school year has school aid ever dropped in absolute terms, and back then the cut was a one-year occurrence.

State school aid policy is more than just giving money to New York’s nearly 700 school districts.  It captures the political debates reflective of the state’s diverse regions, including urban-vs.-suburban-vs.-rural; New York City-vs.-suburbs-vs.-upstate; poor-vs.-wealthy (often absent in this latter discussion, however, is “middle class”).  Interest groups even took these debates to the courts, winning a decision that New York City schools were entitled to billions more in state aid than they were receiving.

Rather than becoming a stream of financial aid making its way into local classrooms, however, state education aid now constitutes the life blood of a public education industry.  Although the largest source of funding for education remains property and local taxes, state aid is tied to a vast “more spending” lobbying infrastructure that includes the teacher unions (NYSUT and UFT), the School Boards Association, the Council of School Superintendents, the state PTA, and other similar adult-centered groups.  And as such, state legislators work overtime to bring as much state school aid home to their local districts, a very public deliverable about which they can boast.

Times have changed in a bold nod to fiscal accountability.

The reversal of the “ever upward” trajectory of school aid is being pursued in a fascinating way by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.  He not only is unapologetic, but is publicly and staunchly defending his plan across the state, and using his political capital in the process.  Yancey Roy’s Newsday article points out how the Governor is going on the “offensive” in political campaign style.  In so doing, he’s not letting the unions and other groups gain the upper hand, nor establish undesired boundaries around his policy, nor attempt to define his approach for him.

The Governor’s message points out the substantial fund balances school districts have built-up that could be used to weather a temporary reduction in state aid.  He also notes how much state school aid has increased (e.g., it is still more than $5 billion higher than a decade ago), the huge salaries of many of the state’s superintendents (which he’s proposed to cap), and the need for the state to get its fiscal house in order to improve its business climate and expand its economy.

Interestingly, opposition to the Governor’s proposed school aid cuts, led and financed by the teacher unions, has seemed muted compared to prior-year multi-million dollar public relations efforts.  While I may have missed it, not a single radio or television ad that I’ve seen mentions the Governor by name or criticizes him directly, for example.

What’s going on?

Gov. Cuomo seems to be taking advantage of his ability as a new Governor with stratospheric approval ratings, making tough spending choices now that will correct the state’s fiscal imbalance and make budgeting much easier later in his term.  (This is in sharp contrast to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who came into office determined to provide higher school aid spending than even the court warranted (see here), increasing spending by 10 percent in his first (and only) year as Governor.)

The state budget’s outcome is far from settled and battles remain.  The state legislature surely will amend the Governor’s school aid proposal and increase spending, but maybe only on the margins.  Still, the Governor is poised to prevail this year on keeping levels down relatively sharply, forcing school districts to both use rainy funds and realign spending to necessities and priorities, cutting out administrative bloat and other excesses in the process.

Clearly Gov. Cuomo is not assuming this inevitability, but he’s surely steering the political ship that way.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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NYFERA President’s Op-ed in New York Post

February 14th, 2011

Today’s New York Post publishes an op-ed by Tom Carroll, president of the New York Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, that presents an education reform plan for Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to accompany the likely reduction in state education funding.

Carroll also puts the Cuomo-proposed education cuts in some perspective by noting that state spending has increased in the last decade by more than $7 billion, and the current cuts represent less than 3 percent of the $53 billion in education funding this year.  He also recommends that education outcomes will not improve much until students are given the opportunity to learn in a better school, and urges more charter schools, tax credits for children attending private and religious schools, and reforming the last-in-first-out provision in state law to enable school districts to keep better teachers instead of just protecting teachers based on seniority.

The op-ed is linked (here) and reprinted below.  For more discussion of education reform ideas and topics, check out the NY Ed Reform blog (here).

-New York Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability
(518) 383-2841
www.nyfera.org

New York Post

A better recipe for fixing NY schools

By THOMAS W. CARROLL.

February 14, 2011
Teachers unions and school officials have answered Gov. Cuomo’s pro posed cut of $1.5 billion year-over- year in state school aid with one doomsday scenario after another.

No matter that Cuomo put the cut in context: It’s less than 3 percent of the $53 billion spent by New York schools annually — and school districts across the state have $1.2 billion in reserves, as well as hundreds of millions in unspent federal dollars.

Also, the proposed cutback pales in comparison with the $7 billion increase in state support for public schools over the last decade.

But the debate about education shouldn’t even be about money at this point.

Despite billions in added spending and considerable talk of reform and higher standards, the number of students left in bad schools hasn’t changed much. That’s because money isn’t the answer and because most of the reforms are either too small or have been suffocated by union obstacles (like the 150-page master union contract in New York City).

After all this spending, literally hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in district schools to which no politician would ever send his or her own children or grandchildren.

Finding a way to provide high-quality schooling for these children — now, not 20 years from now — is the central educational issue of our day.

What should be done?

First, clear away obstacles to the growth of charter schools. More than 40,000 students remain on charter waiting lists around the state, yet bureaucratic and political obstacles have started to slow charter-school growth.

For example, the process for siting a charter school in New York City is becoming Kafkaesque. Just witness the travails faced by two high-performing charter networks — Success Charter Network and Public Prep.

A fast-track process — with set deadlines — must be instituted for locating charter schools in available public space.

Second, empower parents who want a private or religious education for their children to make that choice. Moving children from overcrowded district schools to lower-cost private schools could save state and local school districts hundreds of millions of dollars in averted expenses. (The mechanism for this empowerment could be education tax credits or tax credits for scholarship donations.)

Although charters have created 52,000 seats since 1999, this progress has been undermined by the loss of even more private-school seats over the same time period, many due to Catholic-school closures.

Third, use layoffs as an opportunity to change the mix of teachers standing in front of classrooms, removing deadwood and protecting the best and the brightest.

Unfortunately, the state’s “last in, first out” law will mean that many burned-out teachers will keep their positions and some of the most talented and dynamic teachers will hit the street. This makes no sense. Cuomo needs to push through a law giving districts the authority to weed out the worst and retain the best teachers.

Fourth, modernize the substance of what we teach. Most schools continue to deliver instruction based on a factory model and on a school calendar from an agrarian era. Students need longer school days and school years, and greater use of virtual learning. At the same time, curricula must place greater emphasis on world history, international economics and the teaching of languages such as Mandarin Chinese.

Cuomo is doing what he must to clean up the fiscal mess created before he arrived. But we should not lose sight of the very real need to rescue those children being denied educational opportunity in our midst. Both are important — and the goals are not contradictory, no matter what the special interests claim.

Thomas W. Carroll is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability.

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Letting the Cup Pass on Mandate Relief?

February 8th, 2011

State Regents Talk About the Issue, but Do Nothing (Yet)

By NY Ed Reform Guest Blogger, Peter Murphy

As a follow-up to yesterday’s NY Ed Reform blog post on mandate relief, I attended the state Board of Regents meeting yesterday where it reviewed the Education Department’s list of mandate relief options to recommend to the Governor’s Mandate Relief Redesign Team.

The Regents’ discussion of mandate relief encapsulated the very reason that so little is ever done about this subject, namely, several members raised concerns or objections to rescinding or recommending legislative repeal of many of the mandates.

Regent Anthony Bottar, for example, objected to relaxing curriculum mandates in non-core subjects in middle school grades, while Regent Roger Tillis raised red flags against rolling back special education mandates that Department staff made clear serve to raise costs without any marginal education benefit.  The continued rise in special education costs only serves to steer more funding away from general education.

Mandate Relief Urgency

Regent James Tallon, a former Assembly Majority Leader, tried to set the tone of the discussion of why mandate relief is an issue whose time has arrived.  Tallon explained that the state’s “capacity to fund education” faces a “permanent reduction,” which necessitates action on mandates that drive higher school district costs.  Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch confirmed this urgency.

Still, the Board this month was not prepared to recommend or vote on any mandate relief actions, which left Education Commissioner, David Steiner, with little to recommend to the Governor’s Redesign Team, of which he’s a member.  The Team must report back its mandate relief recommendations by March 1st.

Governor & Legislature Can Act Without Regents

Ultimately, neither Governor Cuomo nor the state legislature needs the Regents to do much on the issue of mandate relief since nearly all the measures require statutory changes.   But the Regents should not sit out this debate out of fear of offending some interest in the vast public education blob.  Perhaps it’s a hopeful sign that most of the Regents at the meeting said little to nothing on the subject as they digest the Department’s list of mandates.

Similar to the Regents’ successful push for federal Race to the Top funding, and the reforms that led to winning this competition, leaders like Chancellor Tisch, Regent Tallon and Commissioner Steiner will need to move their colleagues from their status quo-supporting comfort zone.  Doing so can affect the debate during the state budget negotiations, as opposed to sitting it out.

The Governor appears determined to make changes, but the legislature also will need a push, considering their own reluctance on display this week when they questioned New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposals for mandate relief on pensions and other areas.

With state aid declining and the likelihood of a school tax cap, this is no time to be timid.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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State Ed Dept Takes First Steps Toward Mandate Relief – More is Needed

February 7th, 2011

By NY Ed Reform Guest Blogger, Peter Murphy

The New York State Education Department last week released a memo to the state Board of Regents containing a list of mandates for the board to consider at its meeting today to rescind or to recommend for legislative repeal.

This initiative by the Department was publicly broached by the Regents last December to mitigate the expected reduction in state aid to school districts.  Also looming was Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature campaign promise to cap local property taxes to no more than 2 percent annual growth or the rate of inflation – whichever is less.

Financial Need for Mandate Relief

Last week, the Governor unveiled his proposed Executive Budget for the 2011-12 state fiscal year that contains a reduction in school aid of $1.5 billion.  In addition,  the state Senate passed with bipartisan support the Governor’s property tax cap bill, moving it one step closer to enactment (it now awaits negotiation with and action by the state Assembly).

Mandate relief from state-imposed requirements to spend local dollars is not a new issue.  Over the years it has been spoken of extensively by state policymakers with little to no action.  This is because every “mandate” tends to have a constituency that benefits either by receiving mandated services or the union employees delivering it.

Times have changed.  Local governments, particularly school districts, more than ever are in need of the state to ease up on spending pressures required of them.  Gov. Cuomo also has called for mandate relief proposals from his Mandate Relief Redesign Team by March 1st to allow a month for the legislature to consider them in time for the April 1st deadline to enact the state budget.

State Ed Proposals

The Education Department outlined a number of proposals that can best be described as an important first step.  The fiscal savings from each proposed item are not calculated, however, a key element of determining how impactful these items may be.  Some of the items, in fact, appear to be on the small side or reform while more significant mandate relief options go unmentioned.  Among the issues on the Department’s list, for example, are proposals to: repeal certain school district reporting and audit requirements; eliminate middle school curriculum requirements in home and career, technology, and library skills; and, streamline some special education mandates, including conforming to less restrictive federal requirements, and with controlling classifications by encouraging response to intervention approaches for students.  The Department also recommends repeal with the “Wicks” law that mandates separate contracting for plumbing, electric and other components of construction; and promoting “consortium” programs for neighboring school districts to share services.

While clearly helpful, these items could and should be supplemented by changes more desperately needed by local school districts.

Boldness Needed to Tackle Big-ticket Mandates

Missing from the Department’s recommendations, for example, is any discussion of pension relief, a huge cost-driver for school districts, or repeal of the “Triborough” amendment that requires continuation of provisions for expired labor contracts, including step increases in employee salaries.  These and other big-ticket mandate relief measures, including several proposed by the New York State School Boards Association and demanded by local officials such as NYC Mayor Bloomberg, should be taken up by the Regents.

The Board of Regents previously showed effective leadership and successful boldness in the state’s pursuit of federal Race to the Top funding, an effort that landed the state $700 million in new education dollars.   Absent the Regents efforts, a charge led by Chancellor Merryl Tisch, the legislature would never have made changes in teacher evaluation reforms nor raised the cap on charter schools as part of this package of reform.

Similar boldness against similar reluctance by the legislature is now needed to enact genuine mandate relief.  Governor Cuomo has raised the stakes in the effort to break from state’s past fiscal practices, and  the Regents should take up his challenge.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Inching Closer to Merit Pay for Teachers

January 31st, 2011

Paying public school teachers based on the strength of the job they do in the classroom, rather than simply based on the number of years they’ve held their job, is one of several perennial topics in education reform marked by much talk and little action.  Such “merit pay” systems, however, have been taking on a higher level attention and of new sense of urgency over the past few years.

Last summer, Harvard University’s program on Education Policy and Governance, directed by Paul Peterson, held a  conference on merit pay where a study was presented by Ludger Woessmann, an economist at Munich University in Germany, which found that students in countries with merit pay policies were performing about 0.25 standard deviations higher on an international math and science test than students in countries without merit pay.  As Professor Peterson mentioned, a one-quarter point deviation is about a full year’s worth of learning.

Financially rewarding a job well done is as American as apple pie.  But merit-pay systems have long been resisted by teacher unions that operate and view its membership as a collective.  Recognizing and rewarding individual accomplishment rubs against union-driven contracts that treat teachers as a single blob, varied only by seniority.

There are modest exceptions to this: for example, many collective bargaining agreements contain incentives for completing education credits or earning professional development bonuses and such.  And there is no doubt that performance pay systems can vary widely in comprehensiveness and effectiveness, a fact that has led to varied results in the outcomes of such programs.  More and more lately, however, good merit-pay programs are being proposed, advocated, and implemented.

Federal Merit Pay Incentives for High-Need Schools

The federal government has been encouraging states and school districts to move toward more merit-pay structures, highlighted in 2006 with the creation of the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), a grant program that gives awards for the development and implementation of performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems that are designed to increase educator effectiveness and student achievement in high-needs schools.  Improving teacher and principal effectiveness through evaluation systems based on student performance also is a component of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education funding and reform program.

The New York State Education Department last fall was awarded $40.5 million from the TIF program and will be using these funds to develop performance based compensation systems in 68 high-need schools in four of the five largest districts in the state:  New York City, Yonkers, Rochester and Syracuse.

New York City Pulls the Plug on School-wide Bonuses

As the state develops these programs, two of the four targeted large urban districts are moving in opposite directions on this important reform.  Last week, New York City’s Department of Education announced it was “suspending” its three-year-old program to award annual bonuses to teachers school-wide where student academic performance achieves stated benchmarks (bonuses to principals and assistant principals ranging from $16,250 to $32,500, a component of this program, were awarded last week to administrators in eight city schools).

The City’s stated reason for discontinuing this program is necessary cutbacks in education spending and an as yet unfinished study be the RAND Corporation on the program’s effectiveness.  Additionally, although the City’s teacher union, the United Federation of Teachers, previously agreed to the program’s adoption as long as teachers were awarded on a school-wide basis, it now is strongly advocating for the program’s demise, sensing an opportunity to bury a merit-pay program.

Rochester’s Push to Reward Teachers

In Rochester, the city school district and the union there, the Rochester’s Teacher Association, agreed to a school-wide monetary incentive for teachers at East High School, one of the city’s nine “persistently lowest achieving” schools (Rochester has the highest percentage of schools with this state-level designation).   This program includes bonuses to all school employees based on six separate criteria:  higher results in English and algebra Regents exams; higher percentages of students passing five or more courses during the year; a 7 percentage point increase in the school’s graduation rate; a decrease in the student disciplinary rate; and an increase of at least 2 percentage points in the student attendance rate.  While in effect only for the current 2010-11 school year, this new program could lay the foundation for a model that spreads throughout Rochester and beyond.

Rochester’s Superintendent of Schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, continues to push for increased merit-pay in the district, including a more meaningful teacher evaluation system that would more honestly distinguish “effective” from “non-effective” teachers – and for the latter he proposes to deny pay raises.  The teachers union, not surprisingly, is opposed to any deepening or further spread of any merit-pay program, one reason why the city school district is currently operating without a contract as negotiations drag on.

As the federal and state governments demand more proof that the public education system is actually adequately educating students, and districts upgrade their teacher-evaluation systems to include student-performance components, the push for more teacher merit-pay systems is bound to grow.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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League of Women Voters Not Independent or Unbiased

January 10th, 2011

Partners with Teachers Unions to Oppose Tax Limits and Education Reforms

By B. Jason Brooks

League of Women Voters Legislative Director Barbara Bartoletti and New York State United Teachers President Dick Iannuzzi see eye-to-eye on opposing tax caps and school reforms.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) of New York State, typically through its Legislative Director Barbara Bartoletti, is a frequent contact for media seeking “independent” commentary on a range of state government issues.  While the League’s traditional annual call for greater transparency and ethics reform in the state legislature is usually spot-on, the League’s commentary beyond these issues can hardly be construed as an independent voice or as part of any unbiased voter-education effort, often wading into waters murky with conflicts of interest.

An analysis of the most recent public financial reports available form the U.S. Department of Labor, for example, shows that the powerful New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union makes annual contributions to the League of Women Voters of New York State.  Given this financially dependent relationship and NYSUT’s fervent opposition to school choice and property tax limits, it’s no surprise that the League then takes nearly identical positions to the teachers union on these key education reform issues.  Smacking of further hypocrisy, despite the League’s continual push for more transparency from those involved in government, the League’s own website fails to disclose any of its sources of revenue, including donations coming from the teachers union and other lobbyists with vested interests before the state legislature.

While the League’s lack of independence from other prominent lobby groups and apparent unwillingness reveal its biases may be surprising to many, it isn’t new.  Over the past quarter century, a distinct pattern has emerged of the League taking-up the teachers union’s positions on key education-reform policy issues.  NYSUT and the League both have pushed for increased education funding without any increase in accountability for how the funds are used.  Both have fought attempts to limit government spending on local public education.  And rather than focusing on the right of every student to receive a high-quality education, the League adopted the teachers union’s position of fighting against school choice proposals that would emancipate the state’s neediest students from failing schools.

Property Tax Caps and Education Funding

New York has among the highest property taxes in the nation, a problem dramatically targeted by the state’s new democrat governor, Andrew Cuomo, throughout his campaign for office.  NYSUT and the League of Women voters have consistently maintained positions against property tax caps, however, citing the forced restraint it would put on school district spending.

Following the newly-elected governor’s first State of the State speech this month, NYSUT president Dick Iannuzzi said: “There are many ill-conceived property tax cap proposals being promoted and we are clearly opposed to them.”  The League holds the same position, with its testimony to the state legislature in 2009 stating: “We recognize that there is a visceral appeal to tax caps as a means of appeasing vociferous constituents.  The idea of using the cap to slow down school spending, however, is a dangerous one…”

The teachers unions and the League both have focused on pushing more funding for New York’s school system, already the most expensive in the nation.  Both supported a New York City-based lawsuit that sought solely to increase state education funding by billions of dollars, excluding any call for increased academic results in return.  And both continue to oppose a property tax cap.

Education Tax Credits

A variety of bills have been introduced in New York to make private school tuition, tutoring, test preparation courses, and other education-related expenses more affordable by allowing families to deduct a portion of such expenses payments from their income taxes.  By tying tax relief to prior expenditure on educational programs, the state can be assured that every cent of public money allocated here has gone directly to aid the learning of children.  Yet, each time these proposals are introduced, the League of Women Voters and the state’s teachers unions once again join together in opposition.

New York’s teachers unions have a long history of opposing education tax credits.  In 1982, the New York City teachers union president Al Shanker’s New York Times opinion article included, “Get ready for a fight against tuition tax credits… Nothing could be more dangerous…There can be no doubt that tax credits will mean more and more students in nonpublic schools.”  And a 2003 NYSUT report includes “Bills have been introduced in the New York State legislature to establish education tax credits and tax deductions.  Through NYSUT’s efforts, these bills have never been acted on.”

Dating back to at least 1985, the League of Women Voters has stood with the teachers unions on this issue.  That year, an education tax credit bill was introduced, and the League urged opposition to it stating that the policy could “erode the amount of money available for the traditional support of the public schools.” Of course, the League failed to note that reimbursing parents for out-of-pocket education expenses isn’t tied to state spending on public schools.

The League and NYSUT again fought together against a similar education tax credit bill proposed in 2006.  According to the League, it “opposed this measure and it was deleted from the final budget.”

Publicly-Funded Tuition Scholarships

Publicly funded school-choice scholarships gained national recognition upon the citywide implementation of them in Milwaukee in 1990.  Since then, this bold reform – where the government provides parents with a portable lump-sum amount of education aid that can be redeemed at a school of the parents’ and students’ choice – has spread and taken hold in places such as Washington, D.C. and Florida.  And a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2002 on a Cleveland program upheld the constitutionality of allowing parents empowered with government-funded scholarships to choose their children’s schools.

For as long as these innovative education reform programs have been around, however, the League of Women Voters and NYSUT have opposed them.  Even scholarship programs targeted to low-income students, or to students trapped in failing schools, or to students with special needs have come under attack.

A 1997 story on the teachers union’s website notes “NYSUT vigorously opposes the use of public funds for vouchers” and a 2003 position paper notes “Public education is under increasing attack.”  The League of Women Voters again has aligned itself with the teacher unions to register similar opposition.  In 1991, the state Board of Regents considered a proposal that would have provided 5,000 provide publicly-funded scholarships valued at $2,500 each to low-income students trapped in some of the state’s chronically failing schools.  The scholarships would have provided funds to allow these students to transfer to better performing schools.  But, as the League’s website notes, “the League opposed the plan and the Regents withdrew it.  In the next legislative session, the issue of vouchers was again raised, and the League along with other public education supporters [like NYSUT] opposed their passage.”  In 1996, the League again successfully lobbied the Board and state education commissioner to reject a similar plan.

Public Charter Schools

NYSUT and the League of Women Voters have worked to prevent school choice solely within the public-school sector, too, opposing the creation and expansion of public charter schools since their arrival in New York in 1998.

The League notes that it “lobbied vigorously against the proposed legislation” to create public charter schools.  The League has continued to oppose charter schools, advocating policies to curtail charter school funding and expansion and supporting bills detrimental to these public schools.  In 2006, for example, the League sought to prevent the expansion of charter schools by opposing an increase in the number of charter schools allowed to operate statewide.  It is also “opposed to State provision of capital construction and renovation services and reimbursement of capital expenditures for charter schools” (facilities funding is one of the largest impediments to the creation of new charter schools).  Similarly, NYSUT vigorously opposed the original Charter Schools Act and has opposed each attempt to strengthen the charter-school law and to increase their presence in New York, including launching a quarter-million-dollar ad campaign “to put an end to using public dollars to fund and create more charter schools.”

Not Independent; Not Unbiased

The League of Women Voters takes money from the state teachers union, and adopts positions against education reform initiatives identical to the union.  The League’s mission statement says, in part that policy statements are issued after “thorough and impartial study. Members discuss the issues; pros and cons are researched; and everyone has an opportunity to express an opinion.”  If only it were so.

The League of Women Voters should take a page from its own “good government” advocacy stance and reveal sources of funding from lobbying entities, such as the state teachers unions, with vested interests in policies commented upon by the League.  Until that time, no one should buy the line that the League of Women Voters is independent or unbiased.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Wall Street Attacks By Teacher Unions Counterproductive

January 5th, 2011

Cooperative Cost-Reduction a Better Strategy

By Brian Backstrom

The latest ad campaign from the state’s public sector labor unions dusts off their old staple of attacking “Wall Street” and its “record bonuses.”  Not surprisingly, the ad sponsors include the New York State United Teachers, the NYC United Federation of Teachers, the NYC Central Labor Council, and other hanger-on groups like Alliance for Quality Education, which is largely funded by NYSUT and UFT as an echo chamber for its agenda.

This ad campaign is only the beginning of the union-led fight to oppose looming efforts by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration to reduce state spending to close a budget deficit of at least $9 billion in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Keep in mind, New York faces public funding retrenchment in large part because it already leads the fifty states, or is among the leaders, in public spending on numerous categories.  For education, the U.S. Census Bureau calculates that New York spends the most money on a per pupil basis, at $17,173, which is two-thirds above the national average.

The state’s high spending on education and other areas is only part of the story.  The ability to increase spending demanded by the unions is becoming not only an impracticality, but counterproductive to the public sector itself.  The teacher unions and their allies have their sights on increasing the transfer of resources from the state’s private sector to the public sector, notwithstanding the reality that New York State is ranked 50th worst among the fifty states according to the Tax Foundation’s annual business climate index – meaning, the state has the worst business climate in the country.  Yes, the country has been in a tepid economic recovery for the last 18 months, and nearly all the states have fiscal challenges, but New York’s is among the worst because of this dubious distinction of being last in business climate.

In fact, New York’s Division of the Budget has documented New York’s worse-than-the-nation economic condition, which revealed a pattern of having longer downturns than the national economy for at least 40 years (see pp. 97-100).  DOB also documents that the state’s employment and income are “profoundly affected by the fortunes of financial markets;” meaning that a healthy, profitable and bonus-paying “Wall Street” will generate on its own more tax revenue in the state’s coffers, with the converse being true as well.  Accordingly, trying to tax this sector at even higher rates will cause more companies to locate or downsize to other states, which has been the trend in New York for decades.

The teacher unions’ appetite for higher taxes will only exacerbate this problem, and at the same time will make the broader public sector – including its own membership – worse off in the process.  The weaker the private sector business climate is for New York, the worse off public sector interests will be in terms of their ability to extract tax revenue.  This is especially true in a weakening the state’s financial sector centered in the New York City metropolitan area, that is, “Wall Street.”

New York’s state government remains dependent on the fiscal health of the downstate financial sector.  Trying to squeeze more out of it will make the problem worse, not better, for the public sector and education especially, which is the state’s largest expense.

Governor Cuomo throughout his campaign and with his inaugural address last weekend recognized the state’s perilous condition because of its weakened private sector business climate.  Saying New York State is “at a crossroads,” the Governor went on to assert in his inaugural remarks that taxpayers “cannot afford never-ending tax increases [and] this state has no future if it’s going to be the tax capital of the nation.”

The new Governor further contrasted his agenda with the unions’ demands by promising to let the state’s tax hike on higher-income taxpayers, enacted in 2009, expire at the end of the year.  Doing so will translate to the Governor’s goal to “right-size…government [which] has grown too large, we can’t afford it.”  This means education funding, at $23 billion this year, is too large to be exempt from the Governor’s effort.

Rather than running continuous ad campaigns in its attempt to squeeze more from New York’s private sector for the unions’ benefit, the teacher unions should instead heed the new Governor’s call for cooperation in solving the state’s fiscal economic problems.  Unless governments spending gets under control at all levels, the biggest-ticket public-sector programs, such as education, will face further cuts and contraction no matter how many ads the unions finance on the airwaves.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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Teachers Sacrifice While Union Spends Big on Itself

January 4th, 2011

NYSUT Staff Totals more than 530; Average Compensation Tops $100,000

by B. Jason Brooks

At a time when thousands of teachers in New York have foregone raises simply to keep their jobs, and while the state is poised to cut an additional $1 billion or more in education funding, data recently made available from the U.S. Department of Labor shows the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash and investments and spending lavishly on six-figure employee salaries and conferences at high-end resorts.

The 225-page report (here) details NYSUT’s finances from September 1, 2009 to August 31, 2010 and includes detailed information on items such as assets, dues collected, employee salaries, and spending on lobbying, conferences, and entertainment.

NYSUT’s assets total a whopping $127 million, including $32 million in cash and $56 million in total investments.  The union collected $218 million in revenue, including $113 million in dues withheld directly from working teachers and in agency fees.

The average salary for New York’s hard-working teachers is $66,760 a year, the second highest average teacher salary in the nation.  This amount pales in comparison to the pay given to the teachers union’s own staff, however, which totaled a huge 533 individuals: the average total compensation for NYSUT’s employees is a stunning $103,966 (salary alone averages $99,381), nearly 50 percent above what classroom teachers earn.  The union spent a total of $56 million on compensation in total for its own employees.

The union bosses are paying themselves very well, with 10 leaders receiving salaries of more than $200,000.  The union spent a total of $3.2 million alone on compensation and expenditures for its whopping 87-member board of directors.

While most private businesses and government agencies are being forced to cut their budgets and finding ways to save, NYSUT spent dues collected from teachers on entertainment and conferences at high-end resorts and allocated millions of dollars to cover the occupancy costs of its palatial headquarters building.  The union spent $52,569 on Aramark Sports & Entertainment, $13,425 on tour busses, $9,500 for a performance of the Capital Steps comedy group (which is based in the Washington, D.C. area), and $5,500 for tickets to the Tri-City Valley Cats minor league baseball team.  A few of the big-ticket conferences at high-end resorts include $488,110 spent at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, $175,350 at the Sagamore in Lake George, and $236,000 at Gurney’s Inn Resort & Spat in Montauk.

Occupancy costs at NYSUT’s luxurious 218,000 square foot headquarters and conference center in Latham (a suburb of Albany) ran $3.9 million, or $321,000 per month. And, despite the location of its headquarters building, the union spent $440,407 on conference expenses at the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center located just a few miles away.

NYSUT’s political influence on education policy is a result more of of its ability to spent large amounts of money to see its favorite candidates get reelected than of informed debate of the issues.  During the single year covered by the federal report, NYSUT spent $10 million on political activities and lobbying, among the highest of all special interest organizations statewide.  Indeed, in seeking to even further increase its influence, NYSUT went to federal court prior to the elections to try to overturn campaign finance laws limiting how much it can spend on individual candidates.  The judge ruled to keep the existing campaign finances limits.

NYSUT uses dues collected from teachers not just for political donations and operational expenses, but also to support a variety of liberal political and issue-advocacy organizations.  Among the notable contributions is a $5,000 donation to the now-defunct ACORN organization, a contribution that was made in November 2009 after the organization’s scandal had been made public.  NYSUT also propped up the “more-education-funding-is-never-enough” advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), making five contributions during the year that totaled $372,949.

In addition to supporting ACORN and financially propping-up AQE, NYSUT made multiple donations to advocacy groups pushing for higher taxes: $250,000 to New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness; $75,000 to the Fiscal Policy Institute; $10,000 to Citizen Action New York; and, $5,000 to Coalition for Economic Justice.

While the union recently spoke of the need for “shared sacrifice” to address the state’s dire financial situation, those words ring hollow when considering the union’s extravagant spending.  While New York’s hard-working teachers have made significant sacrifices to keep their jobs and a billion dollar funding cut in state education funds on the horizon, it appears to be business as usual for NYSUT union bosses.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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A Property-Tax Cap to Reform Education Funding: It’s Now or Never

December 14th, 2010

By Brian Backstrom

The central issue affecting local education financing is Governor -elect Andrew Cuomo’s proposal for comprehensive property-tax limits, the most sweeping limits on local education revenue in recent memory (here).  Specifically, Cuomo would cap the annual growth of all local property taxes levied by local governments and school districts to the lesser of the rate of inflation or 2 percent.   The plan would require a super-majority of 60 percent of the local legislative body (i.e., county legislature, school board, town council) to exceed this cap.  The Cuomo property tax cap, if enacted by the state legislature, will transform local finances—particularly for school districts—for years to come.

New York’s High Property Tax Burden

The Governor-elect’s plan underscores the substantial property-tax burden faced by residents of New York, rates that drive the highest local tax burden in the nation and one that is 79 percent above the national average.  If you exclude the relatively low tax burden in New York City (which has a huge commercial tax base), New Yorkers are burdened with property taxes nearly double the size of the national average.  From 1998 to 2008, local property taxes in New York increased by 73 percent, more than double the inflation rate.  And local school spending – the largest contribution component to these sky-high property taxes – is climbing at similarly unrestrained rates.

Public Education Most Effected

Because school taxes comprise the vast majority of local property taxes, public education financing will be at the center of the debate on any plan to cap property taxes.  The grumbling from New York’s teacher unions, school boards, and school district officials has started even before the Governor-elect has taken the oath of office.

Cuomo’s plan comes with some proposals to reduce school district expenditures.  But more specifics are needed, and to effectively achieve real savings the reforms will need to include measures that have been sacred cows for the teacher unions, including such things as: repealing the “Triborough Amendments” that require labor contract provisions to continue even after contracts expire while new agreements are being negotiated; eliminating prevailing-wage mandates that substantially raise the cost of public-sector construction; and overhauling the public-employee retirement system to move from a massively expensive defined-benefit system to something such as a 401(k)-style system.  As always, the devil is in the details, and New Yorkers need to know that supporting something such as the toughest property-tax cap to come along also includes paths to fundamental school-finance restructuring that will allow such a tax cap to work.

Past Proposals: Tried and Failed

Decrying the property tax burden is not new.   Gov. Mario Cuomo regularly acknowledged the burden and tried some steps, including having the state assume a greater share of local Medicaid costs and appointing a commission on local government consolidation.  Gov. George Pataki got school taxes temporarily reduced through his STAR tax-cut program but, faced with legislative and teacher union opposition, he jettisoned his school tax cap proposal that would have blocked school districts from raising taxes back up – which they did.  Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed a property tax commission but then summarily ignored the recommendation to enact a property tax cap.  Gov. David Paterson embraced the property-tax cap idea, embodied in a bill passed by the state Senate last summer that would have capped taxes annually at the lesser of 4 percent or 120 percent of the inflation rate, but the state Assembly gave in to teacher-union pressure and lobbying from local government groups and refused to act on the proposal.

Cuomo’s Advantages – and Challenges

The time may have finally arrived to enact long-lasting limits on property taxes that allow virtually limitless and unaccountable increases in school spending.  Andrew Cuomo will have several advantages over past efforts – as well as some new challenges – as he pushes his property tax cap proposal.

Cuomo’s property-tax cap plan was a central tenet of his gubernatorial campaign, an election won by a landslide.  Poll after poll (e.g., Siena Institute) shows strong support by the public for the plan, too.  And importantly, the legislature is poised to act favorably, as the Senate has already passed a version of this when the Democrats controlled that House, the new Republican majority supports the plan, and the Speaker of the state Assembly is sounding congenial for a deal – all of which is in sharp contrast to the Legislature’s past positions on the issue.

Winning approval of a school property-tax cap, however, will mean battling the powerful teachers unions, whose life-blood existence is the property tax.  Multi-million dollar media ads containing all sorts of hysteria and doomsday claims should be expected, along with direct-mailing campaigns in narrowly-held state legislative districts and old-fashioned threats (made publicly and privately) to the re-election of any legislator that supports the cap.

Yet, enacting a limit on school district taxing capabilities will not just mitigate tax burdens, but will force action on reform issues, including greater accountability, changing counterproductive union work rules, and focusing more limited resources into the classroom.  Such changes are worth the fight.

The newly elected governor, the dozen or so newly elected state legislators, and the new leadership in the state Senate are sure to see their political influence rapidly dwindle after their first year in office, as with most new politicians.  The level of influence over policy and politics and the ability to drive real local education financing reform is likely to never again be as strong as it will be in 2011.

That means it is now or never in New York State for enacting a property tax cap.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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NYSUT Battles Against Teachers in Court

December 9th, 2010

Union Refuses to Compensate Teachers for Investment Scandal Losses

by B. Jason Brooks

New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and investment giant ING continue their four-year court battle with public school teachers, denying fair and just compensation to the thousands of teachers who lost hundreds of millions of dollars in retirement savings from an investment scandal uncovered by the New York Attorney General in 2006. The class-action case of Montoya v. New York State United Teachers was first filed by teachers in 2007 noting that the scandal was a breach of fiduciary duty under the federal securities laws which required the union and its chosen investment-house bed-partner to adequately protect retirement assets.

The lawsuit seeks compensation from NYSUT and ING for long-term losses in investments due to ING’s high-expense, low-performance retirement funds that were shadily endorsed, marketed, and promoted by the union leadership to working teachers. NYSUT pushed these inferior investments while ING collected large fees from each teacher participating, resulting in massive long-term financial losses in teachers’ retirement savings. In exchange for this sweetheart deal, ING gave secret multi-million dollar kickbacks to NYSUT.

Approximately 50,000 teachers invested nearly $2.5 billion in the NYSUT-endorsed ING retirement plans. The Attorney General’s investigation found NYSUT making money on union members’ financial losses, multiple instances of lies and deceit, multi-million dollar kick-backs, cover up, and a variety of laws broken. (See FERA’s summary of the attorney general’s investigation findings here.) NYSUT settled with New York State and was stunningly allowed to keep the millions it received in kickbacks after paying a settlement of a mere $100,000 to cover the costs of the state’s 15-month investigation.

Financial giant ING’s settlement with New York State required a payment of just $30 million in restitution to teachers based on investment histories. Teachers were allowed to be paid as little as $100, and the average restitution totaled only $450. According to Forbes Magazine, this compensation failed “to come anywhere close to repaying teachers for the overcharging they have suffered or the years of opportunity they have lost by not investing in cheaper, better-performing products.”

Although NYSUT and ING’s reckless actions preceded the economic meltdown brought on by irresponsible banking and financial practices, the combination of the two have resulted in a double-whammy to the retirement savings of more than 50,000 New York public school teachers.

So far, teachers have not had any luck finding justice, as NYSUT and ING’s legal team have gotten the cases thrown out on technicalities. In an August 2009 decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, NYSUT and ING argued that they can’t be held liable for the financial losses because teachers are school district employees, and as such their retirement plans are governmental in nature and exempt from the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. In other words, even if the union and its investment-scam partner are responsible, they can’t be held accountable under the law.

The case was filed again six months later in state court but was moved to the federal court system based on the union’s argument that the allegations of impropriety fell under the purview of federal securities law. NYSUT and ING’s legal team then went to work again, and persuaded the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District to recently rule that the case should be thrown-out because it was really a class action claim based on state law, not federal.

NYSUT’s continued willingness to deny thousands of dues-paying members restitution for the hundreds of millions of dollars lost in long-term savings as a result of this scandal calls into question whether the union is more concerned with serving the interests of the state’s teachers or protecting its own financial interests.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Public Support for Expanding School Choice Options is Strong in New York

December 2nd, 2010

by B. Jason Brooks

New Yorkers overwhelmingly support a variety of policies that would promote and expand school-choice options in the state.  The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released a new survey (here) on K-12 education issues finding that more than two-thirds of New Yorkers support K-12 tuition tax credits, publicly-funded K-12 scholarships, and public charter schools.  Also noteworthy is a widespread belief that public schools aren’t the best educational option for children and a majority of New Yorkers believe that public education is on the wrong track.

The survey of more than 600 registered New York voters found the following:

Widespread Support for Education Tax Credits: 70 percent of New Yorkers support a plan to provide “tax credits to individuals and businesses if they contribute money to nonprofit organizations that distribute private school scholarships.”  Only 22 percent of those surveyed oppose the idea.

Big Demand for Publicly-Funded School-Choice Scholarships: Two-thirds (66 percent) of respondents favor taking funds from school districts and giving them to parents to pay for their child’s tuition at “public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools.”  Approximately one in four (26 percent) respondents opposed.

High Opinion of Public Charter Schools: Similar widespread support was found for independently-operated publicly-funded charter schools: 68 percent of New Yorkers indicated that they favor charter schools, compared to just a fifth (20 percent) who indicated that they oppose them.

Low Opinion of Traditional Education System: A majority (56 percent) rate New York’s public school system as “poor” or “fair.”  43 percent rated the system “good” or “excellent.”

Education System on Wrong Track: A majority (53 percent) feel that “things in K-12 education in New York…have generally gotten off on the wrong track.”  Just over a third (36 percent) feel that “things are generally going on the right direction.”

Untapped Private School Market: Just 29 percent of respondents indicated that they would send their children to public schools if they could select any type of school for their children.  Nearly half (49 percent) of respondents picked private schools.  14 percent would select a charter schools, 7 percent would homeschool, and 1 percent would select a virtual school.

Clueless on School Funding: 40 percent of New Yorkers “believe that public school funding…is ‘too high’ [13 percent] or ‘about right’ [27 percent].”  A majority (53 percent) believe that funding is “too low.”  In a follow up question asking how much respondents thought New York spends annually per pupil, just 7 percent correctly guessed “over $16,000”.  (The most recent national data shows that New York spent $16,794 in 2008, among the highest in the nation.)  Most respondents (60 percent) incorrectly thought that New York spent below $8,000 per student, less than half of the actual amount and the median estimate was $5,000, less than one-third of the actual amount.

More Graduate Than Expected: When asked to estimate New York’s graduation rate, the average estimate was 63 percent, 12 points below the 2007 graduation rate of 71 percent.

School Standards, Structure and Size Most Important in Making School Decisions: The three most popular responses that New Yorkers indicated are the most important school attributes or characteristics for selecting a school include standards and curriculum (23 percent), structure and discipline (18 percent) and school and class size (18 percent).  Only 6 percent identified location and 5 percent identified religious or philosophical mission.

Education is a civil right and every child deserves a high-quality education.  Only when real choice is made available – among public, private, charter, and virtual school options – will that become a reality.  Given the widespread public support for significantly expanding school choice options and the weak opinion New Yorkers have of traditional district schools, the grip state politicians and interest groups that cling to the status quo have on education policy must be broken.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Charter School Funding Survives Legislative Session

December 1st, 2010

By Thomas W. Carroll

Governor David Paterson called the state legislature back to Albany earlier this week to approve several bills and dozens of appointments before his term expires at the end of December.

The most significant piece of the Governor’s agenda was to cut more than $300 million from the current 2010-11 state budget to address a current deficit and to allocate more than $600 million in one-time federal education funding for school districts – the so-called “edujobs” funding.

Tucked away in the Governor’s legislative agenda, however, was a substantial cut in funding for charter schools that would have rolled per-pupil funding back to levels from two years ago, those paid for the 2008-09 school year.  Last year, during the 2009-10 school year, charters had been “frozen” at these prior-year funding levels, but this freeze expired when the current school year began.

Both the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and school boards across the state, particularly in Albany and Buffalo, were pushing hard for the legislature to approve the bill to cut charter funding retroactively.  This move would have steered the money due to charter schools instead to the districts’ coffers.

The argument why charter school funding shouldn’t be separately “frozen” or cut is straightforward:  charters receive money based on a percentage (typically around two-thirds) of how much school districts spend per pupil.  When district spending goes up, charters get more; when district spending drops, charter funding correspondingly and automatically declines based on the formula prescribed in law.  With school districts lowering their spending as a result state cutbacks, charter schools are seeing their formula funding reduced automatically.  The proposed funding cutback to levels from two years ago unfairly compounds the problem.

In a somewhat surprising move, the Senate Majority Democrats attempted to bring to the Senate floor the Governor’s bill that included the charter school funding freeze.  For charter schools in the Albany School District, the bill would have cut current charter school per-pupil funding by more than $2,000 per student.

The bill to cut charter funding was voted out of both the Senate Finance and Rules committees (the latter committee being the last stop before a floor vote by the full Senate).  Democrats on both committees voted for this bill while Republicans voted against it.

The Democrats who voted “yes” on these committee votes (a vote that was anti-charter) included:  Neil Breslin, Martin Malave’ Dilan; Thomas Duane; Ruth Hassell-Thompson; Jeff Klein; Liz Krueger; Carl Kruger; Velma Montgomery; Suzi Oppenheimer; Kevin Parker; Jose Peralta; Bill Perkins; Jose Serrano; Malcolm Smith; Bill Stachowski; Toby Ann Stavisky; Andrea Stewart-Cousins; Antoine Thompson; and David Valesky.

Later in the evening, however, it became clear that the Senate Democratic leadership did not have the required 32 votes to pass this measure on the floor of the State Senate.  At least one Democrat was missing from the Capitol, others remained opposed, and all the Republicans were expected to vote no.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the state Capitol, the state Assembly took no action on this bill.

This favorable outcome for charter schools means that, as a practical matter, the funding “freeze” is now a dead issue – for the moment, at least.

The experience this week in the legislature underscores several key issues:

(1) The state teachers union, despite their occasionally soothing rhetoric, continues to work overtime to do anything it can to curtail or defund charter schools, (even while they attempt to unionize charter school faculty for union dues revenue to itself).

(2) The Albany school board, lead by Dan Egan, continues to press for cutting charter school funding even though Albany’s current charter funding level of $14,000 per pupil is substantially lower than the more than $20,000 per pupil spent by the district.  Similar, unequal funding gaps exist in Buffalo, Rochester and other school districts with charters.

(3) Charter school supporters, including parents, staff and other community members all need to remain vigilant in advocating on behalf of charter schools and need to keep up the pressure on the state’s elected officials.  In the current political environment, simply operating good schools is not enough.  Advocacy is crucial.

The full legislature is unlikely to return for the remainder of this calendar year, but such things change quickly and the funding freeze could be brought up again before the end of the year.  On January 1st, a new governor takes office.  Based on current recounts in two remaining state Senate seats, the pro-charter Senate Republicans likely will add at least one more that would bring their total to 32 of the 62-seat chamber and thus majority control of the Senate.

For now, thanks are due to the New York Charter Schools Association, the Democrats for Education Reform, and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos for their work to defeat this anti-charter school bill.

Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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A Realist’s Response to NYSUT’s $250,000 Ad Campaign

October 27th, 2010

By Brian Backstrom

Are you one of the thousands of New Yorkers who have heard the latest radio ad by the state teacher’s union? New York State United Teachers is spending $250,000 (money taken from working teachers’ paychecks, by the way) to tell everyone that the state’s public schools are just fine, thank you very much, and don’t pay any attention to this year’s political candidates that say there might be a problem or two that might need fixing. NYSUT’s message ignores the significant academic problems that most students are facing statewide. Rather than let the union’s claim that all is well in our public schools go unchallenged, the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability (FERA) responded with the video below. Take a look.

Even a quick review of some of the statewide facts about New York’s public schools reveals an educational system far from the one portrayed by the teachers union:

–  Two-thirds of New York 8th graders lack grade level proficiency in reading and math (2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress).

– Over the last 5 years, New York’s SAT reading scores have dropped 13 points and math has dropped 12 points.  New York’s SAT scores were 17 points below the national average in both subjects in 2010.

–  Nearly 40 percent of New York students failed to earn a Regents diploma on time (Class of 2009).

– 87 percent of New York’s current 9th graders won’t continue on to college and graduate after four years there.

– 25 percent of SUNY and CUNY students are required to take remedial classes (1998-2007).

– New York has the highest education spending in the nation:

  • -  New York’s PK-12 public schools spent $52 billion in 2009-10.
  • -  New York spends nearly $16,000 per pupil, among the highest in the nation and 61 percent above the national average.
  • -  New York ranks 1st nationally in spending for school district employee salaries and benefits.

Any realist can see that all is not well in the state’s public schools.  Yes, the teachers union has its head in the sand.  New Yorkers know that our students are not getting anywhere close to the academic results for which we pay.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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SED Goes Too Far Regulating Charter Schools under Race to the Top

October 20th, 2010

I wanted to clarify why I recommend that charter schools decline to sign a Race to the Top memorandum of understanding prepared by the State Education Department (one article on this topic appears here, which ran in Wednesday’s Albany Times Union).

Up front, let me make clear that the charter schools in Albany I helped establish have long embraced the key principles of Race to the Top, including the extensive use of classroom data to inform classroom instruction and also to serve as a very large factor in teacher evaluations.  And all of the schools happen to exceed the standards set by the Department’s memorandum of understanding, including that at least 40 percent of teacher and principal evaluations should be based on student achievement measures.  We didn’t need Race to the Top or SED to implement these best practices.

But, that does not get around the inappropriateness of what SED is attempting.  The New York charter-school law very specifically prohibits the State Education Department and Board of Regents from imposing additional requirements on charter schools outside of health, safety, civil rights, and student assessments.

I was involved in the discussions around the drafting of this specific language which was meant to protect the ability of charter schools to innovate and protect them from regulatory overreach from SED and other agencies.  Coincidentally, this week a State Court of Appeals decision was handed down blocking the State Labor Department from imposing prevailing-wage regulations on charter schools, another example of attempted regulatory overreach.

SED simply has no authority to set thresholds for the use of data in teacher evaluations in charter schools.  Nor do they have the authority to require us to group teachers by four categories, or require such annual evaluations to be “a significant factor” for “promotion, retention, tenure determination and supplemental compensation.”  Nor do they have the authority to require charters to pursue “the removal of teachers and principals receiving two consecutive annual ratings of ‘ineffective’ after receiving supports from improvement plans.”

Charter schools are exempt from these one-size-fits-all mandates. The fact that many charter schools, including those in Albany, already do much of what SED proposes is no excuse for mandating that it be done the SED way.  Charter schools were authorized to innovate with a great variety of approaches, not to follow mandates from SED.

Lacking the authority to impose, SED instead is trying to bribe charter schools into accepting these mandates by offering some token Race to the Top dollars.

In my view, it’s time to draw a line in the sand.  Autonomy and innovation are too important to the mission of charter schools to toss overboard to get a few bucks from SED.

Tom Carroll
President, Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability
Founder, Brighter Choice Foundation

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Will New York’s RttT Mandates Sideline Charter Schools?

October 19th, 2010

By B. Jason Brooks

As noted here yesterday, there is a lot of chatter among the charter school community about the New York State Education Department mandating that all charter schools participating in the state’s Race to the Top (RttT) program adopt new teacher evaluation criteria.  The mandate may have a significant impact how charter schools are permitted to evaluate, promote, retain, and compensate teachers.

While the State Education Department (SED) denies that the mandates encroach upon the autonomy that was intended for charter schools, a closer analysis of the criteria that charter school teacher evaluation plans will have to meet shows a different story.

Charter schools receiving RttT funds must change or replace their teacher evaluation system to include the following:

● Implement a teacher evaluation system that considers multiple measures for evaluating teacher effectiveness, including at least 40 percent based on student achievement measures.  The details of what multiple measures might be required and how many is left unclear.  Charter schools that base student evaluation solely on student achievement, for example, may be required to scrap their chosen evaluation measures and adopt additional criteria to meet the “multiple measures” requirement for evaluating teachers.

● Schools must create a scoring system that includes as a final product an “effectiveness score” that results in a rank of teachers.  This eliminates charter schools’ ability to include other measures deemed desirable.

● Implement a system that labels teachers based on their effectiveness using the following four rating categories: “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Developing,” and “Ineffective.”  Any variation from these labels must be approved by the State Education Department.

● Require these evaluations to serve as the base for teacher promotion, retention, and compensation, as well as providing professional development to those receiving unsatisfactory ratings.  Again, this control of “inputs” takes away charter schools’ flexibility to design their own personnel and evaluation models instead of being held accountable only for the ultimate outcome: student achievement.

● Develop and implement an improvement plan for teachers receiving an unsatisfactory rating.  This means that charter schools may be prohibited from removing an unsatisfactory teacher from the classroom without following each of the detailed steps.

It’s fair to say that these burdensome mandates will require charter schools participating in RttT to scrap their current teacher evaluation programs and replace them with new ones that meet the SED-proscribed criteria. S ED’s overreaching on this issue may very well result in a significant number of the state’s charter schools sitting on the sidelines for Race to the Top.

The few-thousand dollars a year each charter school participating in RttT is slated to receive won’t come close to covering the costs of staff time, supplies, paper, and copying that will be required to meet all the new bureaucratic reporting requirements and other stings attached to these grants

Even worse, in addition to these mandates for charter schools participating in RttT, SED has indicated that it intends to apply the same teacher evaluation mandate to all charters that come before the Board of Regents for initial authorization and existing schools seeking reauthorization.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan intended for RttT to drive significant reform among the nation’s chronically failing traditional district schools which have historically excluded student outcomes from being considered a factor in evaluating teachers.  In fact, RttT funding enticed New York’s union leaders and SED to reach an agreement that changed New York’s law that previously prohibited schools from considering student outcomes as part of the criteria for evaluating teachers.

Since 1999, New York’s charter schools have been trailblazers in education reform, implementing school models utilizing longer school days and extended school years, requiring students to wear uniforms, offering single-gender learning environments, using data to drive decision making, and, importantly, utilizing the autonomy granted them to implement their own results-oriented teacher evaluation systems.

SED’s teacher evaluation mandate for charter schools participating in RttT will do more harm than good and may end up embarrassingly making New York’s RttT program largely void of innovative charter schools.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Race to the Top Is NOT Good for Charter Schools

October 18th, 2010

by B. Jason Brooks

Here’s information on an interesting and still-developing story regarding New York’s “Race to the Top” (RttT) federal grant program.  Traditional school districts and individual public charter schools are required to notify the State Education Department today of whether they intend to participate in the program, but Thomas W. Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and founder of the Brighter Choice Foundation (a network of Albany charter schools), issued this memo today (October 18th) in what has become a back-and-forth debate over the value of RttT for New York’s charter schools given all the bureaucratic requirements established by the State Education Department as a condition of participation.

In case you missed it, Tom Carroll sent this message to charter school leaders on Friday (Oct. 15th) to discourage them from participating in the state’s RttT program due to “the administrative, regulatory, and reporting burdens required of schools that participate, and understanding how seriously the program jeopardizes the administrative and operational independence of charter schools especially in the area of teacher/principal evaluations and accountability.”

Carroll’s message apparently attracted the attention of officials at the State Education Department who responded by sending this memo early Monday to the state’s charter school leaders.

Also weighing-in earlier today was the New York City Charter School Center which issued a memo (below Carroll’s response here) encouraging charters to participate in the state’s RttT program.  The NYC Center had previously weighed in on the issue with this memo from last week that had a more neutral tone to it and even included information on how schools could officially withdraw from the Race to the Top program.

The growing buzz among the charter school community has so far attracted attention from the New York Post (“‘Race to Top’ Charter Fear,” Oct. 16) and the blog of Education Next (“Carroll to Charter Colleagues: Just Say NO!,” Oct. 18), the nation’s most influential education journal, as a start.

Stay tuned.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Fall-out Primary Elections – Progress Despite Losses

September 17th, 2010

By NY Ed Reform guest blogger, Peter Murphy

Back in the early nineties, I had my only conversation with the (now deceased) state Senator Warren M. Anderson who, by then, was retired from the New York Senate where he served as majority leader for 16 years.  The most important role for any conference leader (Speaker, majority or minority leaders) is to maintain and add to your membership in the state legislature.  “It is very difficult,” Sen. Anderson told me, “to find good candidates” to run for office.  And, even when you do, it remains a huge challenge to defeat an incumbent.

Defeating a sitting politician for re-election is a rarity.  That is why it has been big news to see sitting incumbents – both Democrat and Republican – around the nation defeated in primaries.  New York state especially has been a notorious safe haven for politicians, especially in the state legislature, where at one time there were more politicians indicted for crimes than were defeated in a re-election bid.  When a sitting politician does lose, it is big news.  In western New York, for example, long-time state Senator Bill Stachowski (D-Buffalo) was easily defeated by his Democratic primary opponent, along with Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte (D-Niagara Falls).

Do these headline-grapping developments signal a change in the electoral behavior of New York voters?  The answer is a firm “not yet.”  Consider the strength of incumbency put on display elsewhere in the state.  Education reformer Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (D-Buffalo) survived his well-organized and well-financed primary challenge, as did his Manhattan colleague, Assemblyman Jonathan Bing.  Both legislators had bull’s-eyes on their backs put there by the state teachers union, NYSUT, and their respective locals, the New York City UFT and the Buffalo Teachers Federation because of their embrace of sensible public education reforms, such as the development of more cost-saving choice-based charter schools.  The union-backed candidates could not defeat either of these incumbents, however.  In other races, the teachers unions were successful by backing two of its favorite incumbent state senators, Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) and Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn), both of whom faced primary challengers by attention-getting education reformers.  Those in office stayed in office, despite very different views on education reform issues.

The very fact that a primary or general election contest can be waged by others not walking in lock-step with the teacher unions, however, is a significant development that has favorable implications for even-handed policies coming out of the legislature despite the losses by education reformers challenging incumbent senators. Indeed, the teacher unions have shown agitation that they no longer are the only participants in supporting or opposing political candidates based on their position on education issues (e.g., here).

As Joe Williams, Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform, told the Washington Times, election results thus far this year show “tremendous progress;” and that “[i]t’s no longer just a special interest determining education policy and who gets elected to represent school issues. The issue has been opened up.”

New York’s elections need to remain “opened up” for true education reformers, candidates willing to step into the arena and defend progress and changes from the status quo in education policies.  Public education policies are inextricably linked the political process, for better or for worse, and that process is what will drive the changes that are so sorely needed in this state.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Albany Conspiracy Theorist Strikes Again

September 10th, 2010

By B. Jason Brooks

CBS 6’s Albany Citizen One blogger doesn’t have her facts straight when it comes to her criticism of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability’s recent NY Ed Reform Blog story on the Albany City School District’s finances and its sitting upon an $8 million surplus.

Out of simple disbelief that the Albany City School District could actually be running a surplus of $8 million while crying poverty and raising taxes, the ACO blogger lazily claimed such a fact was instead unsupported “propaganda.”  As was disclosed in my initial blog story on this issue, the surplus was made public when an official from the Albany City School District presented the district’s finances at a public school board meeting.  The district official said that the 2009-10 audit, currently in the process of being completed, would reflect that the district was operating with a surplus of 4 percent of the $203 million budget.  So much for secret sources and ACO’s wish for a vast conspiracy behind it all.

Additionally, some simple research – evidently not worth Albany Citizen One’s effort – would have found that the district’s statement of carrying-in to this school year an $8 million surplus is further supported by information detailed in Albany’s Property Tax Report Card, a document publicly available on the State Education Department’s website.  SED’s data here shows that the Albany school district anticipated completing 2009-10 with an undesignated fund balance of more than $8 million and that the surplus will continue to grow in the 2010-11 school year.

But hey, why exert the effort when facts will just get in the way of the fraudulent picture ACO wants to paint.

Want more?

Albany Citizen One also claims that the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability (FERA) is a New York City-based organization and that FERA’s NY Ed Reform Blog is targeted towards “downstate readers.”  FERA’s offices and staff are, and have been since the day the organization was created, based in the Capital Region as a simple glance at the address listed on our website shows.  FERA is an independent, nonprofit education reform organization dedicated to improving education in New York State by promoting accountability, stimulating innovation, and supporting school-choice efforts.  Where Albany Citizen One got the notion that FERA is based in New York City or that its blog targeted towards a downstate audience is a mystery.

While Albany Citizen One’s Theresa Grafflin is entitled to her own opinion regarding the highly successful (and much more affordably run) public charter schools in Albany – her repeated rants against them are almost becoming ho-hum – she isn’t entitled to create her own set of claims and present them to the public as facts.  Her amateurish, rambling story full of misspelled words and falsehoods is embarrassing, if not to her then it should be to the host of her blog.  The Albany Citizen One blog is far from anything reflecting news or thoughtful opinion.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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“Segregation” Says the Times Union on Charter Schools

September 8th, 2010

Martin Luther King III and Honorable Arthur O. Eve at Albany's Brighter Choice Charter School for Girls

By B. Jason Brooks

The loaded term “segregation” was recently discussed by the Albany Times Union (here) with respect to charter schools.  Though the story later acknowledged that charter schools are indeed schools of choice, it set the tone in the very opening sentence in a hatchet-job, declarative fashion: “Albany’s charter schools have created a second school system that is almost entirely segregated.”

Of course, Albany’s charter schools do not “segregate” anyone.  It’s not policy, and it’s illegal.  Yet, the story uses this loaded term as if to equate modern-day charter schools that are sought by racial minorities as schools of choice to school districts in the old confederacy that discriminated on the basis of race for many decades.

The story also clumsily cites the University of California at Los Angeles Civil Rights Project as an authority on the subject of charter schools and so-called segregation, even though this group’s recently study on the subject was heavily criticized (here) as “remarkably shoddy” for comparing individual charter school demographics to entire school district data.  The fatal flaw is that school districts themselves have zoned areas determining what schools that students must attend.  In places like Albany, this leads to a wide range of percentages of minorities in individual schools, even in a city where four out of five public school students is black or Latino.

While charter schools indeed serve a higher percentage of racial minorities than the school district as a whole, the charters are located in the neighborhoods where black and Latino families primarily reside.  Accordingly, district schools in those same areas have a comparable percentage of minority students.  For example, the Brighter Choice Charter School for Girls serves 94 percent minority students and the district’s Sheridan Preparatory school just a few blocks away serves the same percentage of minority students.

By contrast, district schools like Eagle Point Elementary and New Scotland Avenue Elementary only serve about 42 percent minority students, even though the district itself serves 80 percent minority students.  Are we to assume these schools discriminate by serving insufficient numbers of minorities?  Rather, it is the result of where students live, though certainly the district must always be mindful to ensure equality of resources and faculty expertise among its schools – something urban districts in New York and nationally have routinely failed at ensuring.

Drop This Faulty Issue Already

The “segregation” issue in charter schools is a canard that should be dropped already.  Charter schools in New York are not mandatory on any student or family, and the vast majority of them are outperforming district schools in the percentages of students meeting state academic standards.  The “segregation” issue has no place and has been thoroughly debunked by authorities in this area who themselves are no strangers to segregation.

Martin Luther King, III, for example, visited the Brighter Choice Charter School for Girls and the Brighter Choice Charter School for Boys and extolled the schools’ success for young minority students (here).  “I commend [Brighter Choice’s] for your outstanding contributions in helping our children fulfill their potential.”  King went on to say:

“Like the American civil rights movement, [Brighter Choice’s] efforts to education what I like to refer as exceptional children as opposed to ‘at-risk’ is about liberation – liberation from prejudice; liberation from socially-imposed limitations; and liberation of the dignity, capabilities and potential for excellence that dwells in the heart of every human being, regardless of their personal attributes and/or economic environment.”

Throughout the past year, the “segregation” attack on charter schools reared its ugly head from charter opponents during the state legislature’s debate on charter schools leading up to it raising the allowable number of schools.  An effective rebuke of this attack was published last April in the New York Post (here), co-authored by former Milwaukee Schools Superintendent, Howard Fuller; and former D.C. councilman Kevin Chavous, both of whom were co-founders of the national Black Alliance for Educational Options.

It’s time to move from this dubious subject.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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NYSUT’s Flip-Flop on Teacher Evaluations and Charter Schools Pays Off

August 31st, 2010

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s decision to appear at the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) headquarters yesterday during his Race to the Top victory lap around the Northeast was a shock to many in education-reform circles.  It was, after all, the teachers union that had successfully fought against using student achievement data when evaluating teachers and opposed expanding the number of high-quality public charter schools — moves that cost New York a grant in the round-one awards made in January, well before the deadline for a 2010-11 state budget.

Rather than get behind these reforms, NYSUT assumed New York’s senior U.S. Senator, Chuck Schumer, could flex enough political muscle in Washington so that the state would win a grant without instituting any genuine reforms such as these (see FERA president Thomas W. Carroll’s Huffington Post blog story “Schumer’s Role in “Race to the Top”: Is the Fix In?“).  Secretary Duncan and the Obama Administration followed through on the promise to require states to adopt real reforms in order to earn the federal grants, however, New York was shut out when the winners were announced.  When the U.S. Department of Education released the official reviewers’ comments on New York’s application, it became clear that the state’s policies limiting the expansion of charter schools and the ban on the use of student achievement data when evaluating teachers ended up costing the state $700 million.

Following New York’s loss in round one, NYSUT wisely recognized that it needed to end its opposition to these reforms high on the Obama administration’s priority list or risk being widely viewed as standing in the way of a generous federal grant during historically tough budgetary times.  As a result, and facing school district spending cuts at the state and local levels across New York, NYSUT packaged and sold a rather breathtaking 180-degree turnaround, noting how it now supported student performance data-based teacher evaluations and an expansion of charter schools, all in the name of meaningful reform.

Now that New York is cashing in what turned out to be a strong round two application, few seem to remember that NYSUT was the primary force in getting a state law passed in 2008 that banned the use of student test scores as one of the multiple factors used for evaluating teachers for life-long tenure.  As the union touts on its website (here), it played a “leading role in securing language that bars the use of student test scores as a yardstick for tenure” and a statement by NYSUT president Richard Iannuzzi himself claiming that “student assessments are designed to assess students, not teachers.”  So much for that.  Now it can claim to have played a leading role in reversing the policy it previously fought for.

When the debate to lift the cap on the number of public charter schools heated up to make the state more competitive for a round two Race to the Top grant, NYSUT struck a new tune, claiming that it hadn’t opposed charter schools.  One only has to see their public comments dating back to 1998 that demonstrates there opposition to the implementation and expansion of these high-quality public schools and union leaders’ routinely mischaracterizing them to turn public opinion against them (see “New York Teachers Unions: A History of Opposition to Public Charter Schools,” May 21, 2010).

New York is doing right by its students and as a result is now reaping the rewards, despite previous positions of the state’s teachers union.  One can only hope that NYSUT is now truly serious about getting behind these reforms, willing to work with superintendents and school boards to implement the new teacher evaluation systems at the local level and once and for all ending efforts to stop charter schools from opening in underserved communities.  Hopefully, Secretary Duncan and other education officials in Washington will keep tabs on the promises New York’s key stakeholders have made in their Race to the Top plans to ensure that NYSUT continues to play nice.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Albany School District Awash in Surplus Cash

August 24th, 2010

by B. Jason Brooks

The Albany City School District board of education last week set the property tax levy for the current school year, 2010-11, in the amount of $107.1 million – an increase of nearly 3.9 percent over the last school year.  This rate increase is certainly not out of the ordinary for school districts, especially given the first year-to-year decline in state school aid in a generation.

Amazingly, this $4 million increase in the property tax levy was approved at the same meeting where it was announced that the school district anticipates an $8 million budget surplus from last year, or 4 percent of the more than $200 million district budget, based on the independent audit being finalized.

The upshot of all this is that the Albany school district is awash in cash.

With an $8 million surplus in the bank, it is questionable why the board raised property taxes by an amount half-again as much, rather than use at least some of this surplus to offset the drop in state school aid.  According to district documents, the rationale for the board to leave the surplus untouched is “to cope with the variable (charter school tuition, loss of State-aid) this year and prepare for the large funding deficits looming in the upcoming budget cycles.”

One key factor in the size of the district surplus for the last school year, 2009-10, was the state put a “freeze” on charter school funding levels at lower 2008-09 amounts, which effectively provided an additional $3 million windfall to the district by denying the funds to charter schools.  This freeze ignored the fact that the district spends one-third more per student than charter schools receive.

Gov. David Paterson proposed the state continue to freeze charter payments at 2008-09 levels, now two years out of date, but this has not been enacted.  Legislation was passed in June that included the charter funding freeze, but the Governor ended up vetoing this bill for other reasons.  The state legislature has yet to take up this funding freeze since the veto and it’s not clear whether it will when it resumes session, which is expected next month.

In addition to Gov. Paterson’s freeze proposal, state Senator Neil Breslin, who represents Albany, has recently proposed his own funding freeze bill to affect just charter schools in Albany.  This bill was criticized on the Chalkboard blog (here) as demonstrably unfair to charter students who already receive less funding than district students, even as they are disproportionately at greater educational risk.

The absence of the charter funding freeze would mean more than $5.5 million in higher payments to charter schools for 2010-11 above the funding levels from two years ago.  The higher charter payments are tied directly to higher school district operations spending in Albany, which totals more nearly $22,000 per student (after removing charter expenses) compared to the $14,000 charter students would receive this year.

With a second charter funding freeze uncertain, it is reasonable to assume the Albany school district is hedging its bets against another charter school windfall that it was gifted last year.  Clearly, with $8 million banked from last year’s budget, the district is in a healthy enough financial position to absorb the higher charter school expenses, especially since the district also requires fewer resources from the ongoing exodus of students to charter schools.  Credit the Albany school board and Superintendent of Schools, Ray Colucciello, for fiscal prudence.  Moreover, the district also will reap additional resources from the $600 million in just-approved federal money for education for New York State.

Imposing another funding freeze on charter schools would allow the Albany school district to “bank” millions of dollars that properly belongs to its resident students attending charters.  With $8 million in district funds available from last year, someone needs to inform Sen. Breslin that his charter funding freeze bill is not only unfair and harmful to Albany’s charter students, it is financially unnecessary for the school district.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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NYSUT in the Political Arena

August 23rd, 2010

By Brian Backstrom

The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is in an all-out effort to find some muscle to flex during this year’s political campaign season.  Most prominently, it has refused to endorse the Democrat nominee for governor, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, along with a number of other lesser officials running for office (here).

Mr. Cuomo probably isn’t losing much sleep over this lack of teacher-union endorsement for several reasons:  1) NYSUT surely shows no indication whatever to endorse his Republican opponent, whether it be former Congressman Rick Lazio or businessman Carl Paladino; 2) Cuomo has plenty of other union support, including prominent private-sector unions such as the AFL-CIO; and, most importantly 3) Cuomo has taken the responsible positions for the state’s future of advocating a 2 percent growth limit on property taxes and supporting the growth of public charter schools, both of which are inimical to NYSUT’s agenda.

The NYSUT-Cuomo relationship used to be much warmer.  Just two years ago, the Attorney General embraced NYSUT as a big reason for his election to that office (here).  But being Governor is not the same as being Attorney General, as Mr. Cuomo has demonstrated he knows, and so he has taken bold and detailed positions on key issues that are designed turn around the state economically.  There is no way to do that effectively without upsetting some of the largest political interests that hold the “business-as-usual” philosophy, which he seems quite willing to do.

NYSUT also is trying to throw its weight around in on other election races.  One prominent example is that of state Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem, who at NYSUT’s behest and with its backing attacked the charter-school movement in a crazed attempt to block the increase the limit imposed on the number of public charter schools allowed across the state.  Sen. Perkins finds himself in a stiff primary challenge, in large part because of this position.  Seeing its political ally in trouble, NYSUT then went to court asking to break legal campaign donor limitations so it could give Sen. Perkins more money to fund his campaign (here).  NYSUT’s spokesman complained of a lack of a “level playing field” because some private individual investors who favor reforms such as charter school have backed Sen. Perkins’ challenger, Basil Smikle.  A surreal position, when you think about it, since those individuals also face all legal campaign donation limits the state has in place.

It’s nice to see NYSUT invoke the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution regarding lifting limits on campaign donations, and I personally am quite sympathetic with that position.  But the court properly rejected the union’s argument to avoid the truly unfair position of changing the rules in mid-stream of an active election.

With its voracious embrace of Sen. Perkins and its break with gubernatorial nominee Andrew Cuomo, NYSUT reveals its view of education reform.  It supports charter school opponents and opposes charter school supporters.  It supports big-spenders and limitless property-tax increasers, and opposes government reformers and property tax-capper.  This trend is replete in NYSUT’s other endorsements, including its withdrawing of support for several Democratic state senators, as reported by the Albany Times Union (here), for their “votes to lift [the] cap on charter schools” along with supporting the property tax cap.

Do NYSUT endorsements really matter?  Perhaps not, as several former legislators could attest.  In the last four years, the Senate Republican Majority disappeared as it lost several elections in spite of their candidates receiving NYSUT’s support.  Considering NYSUT’s refusal to control costly teacher pensions, its opposition to limiting school taxes, and loathing of anything that smacks of education reform, the teacher union’s endorsement may actually prove to be more of an albatross than an advantage this year.

Brian Backstrom is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @nyedreform.

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Buffalo’s Schools a Mess Says State Ed Report; No News There

August 20th, 2010

State Ed ignores bolder solutions; Dr. Williams, Superintendent of Excuses

by NY Ed Reform guest blogger Peter Murphy

The state Education Department recently concluded reviews of several district schools in Buffalo labeled as “persistently lowest achieving” and the results are not pretty.  The Joint Intervention Team was appointed by Commissioner David Steiner and included members selected by the Buffalo district.

The Buffalo News reported on the Team’s devastating findings this week (here).

The schools investigated were: Lafayette HS, International School 45, Riverside Institute of Technology, Burgard Vocational HS, Bennett HS, South Park HS and Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute.

Among the findings in the Department Team’s report are:

  • Chronic absenteeism of students and teachers;
  • Students suspensions are rampant for seemingly minor infractions, and suspended students often do not return to school;
  • Direct instruction was not observed and was not a constant theme;
  • Test data from assessments is not shared among staff to help guide instruction as needed;
  • Insufficient textbooks to support a curriculum;
  • Too few parents involved in their children’s education;
  • Animosity is manifest between the district and Buffalo Teachers Federation; and
  • Teachers need more professional development to be effective.

Does anyone doubt that if these criticisms were the stuff of charter schools instead of district schools, the State Education Department would move quickly to shut them down?  In fact, the state already has closed two charter schools in Buffalo (Sankofa and Steppingstone) for reasons that could have just as easily appeared in this report about district schools.

Rather than respond boldly and outline a dramatic course of reform, however, Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent James Williams – even now after five years on the job – offers a bevy of excuses, including the ol’ shift-the-blame game: it’s Albany’s and Washington’s fault.  Dr. Williams thinks the problem of ineffective instruction and school management stems not from ineffective leadership, but rather that the district has to focus so much on compliance issues that it must “chase the money” from the state and the federal government.

This excuse-making is breathtaking.

Not only does Dr. Williams oppose some of the major reform recommendations in the reports, he acknowledges to the Buffalo News that the state’s review simply “verified what we already knew,” and that there were “serious teaching and learning problems” and “leadership problems.”  He claims to have known all this already but simply stood around and did nothing that corrected the problems?

Dr. Williams did call for concessions from the Buffalo Teachers Federation to free up money for more professional development.  Fat chance.

While on that subject, there interestingly was no reaction to the state’s investigation from long-time teachers’ union head and reform opponent Philip Rumore about why teachers weren’t teaching properly and why so many were chronically absent.

Sure to make the likes of Dr. Williams and Mr. Rumore even more uncomfortable, while the report is certainly eye-opening and useful, it still doesn’t go far enough.  For example, replacing the principal of International School 45 or recommending the principal of Riverside “be given a schedule detailing where he needs to be” is not the stuff of turning around persistently low performing and dysfunctional schools.  Even the recommendation to have an outside management company replace the administration at Lafayette High School is not enough to cure the ills there.

Superintendent Williams is certainly not the only one responsible for this educational malpractice.  And the State Education Department needs to stop playing “small potatoes” by ignoring the elephant in the room:  Buffalo has no real accountability since no one gets fired for these glaring problems.  There are no consequences thanks to a rigid teachers’ contract agreed to over the years by a majority of city school board members that kowtow to union demands.

The state’s report has made a good start, but reforms in Buffalo need to get far bolder and leaders need to become far more forthright, as the Buffalo Public School District seems to be beyond feeling embarrassed.

So who are the students actually supposed to count on these days?

Maybe the answer is to keep developing more charter schools in Buffalo – if the folks entrenched in the district are unwilling to admit their mistakes and the resulting problems and take the actions necessary to truly overhaul these schools. The students there deserve not some 10-year cycle of discussions and unfulfilled promises, but rather a whole new choice in a school.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Implications of New One-Shot Federal Education Money

August 19th, 2010

By B. Jason Brooks

Earlier this month the U.S. Congress passed a bill to appropriate $10 billion in new education spending for states to mitigate teacher layoffs throughout the country (here).   This bill will back fill cutbacks by states and localities due to the weak economy and diminishing one-time funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a.k.a., the “Stimulus Bill.”

This education jobs bill (“edujobs”) came under fierce debate, with President Obama saying, “we can’t stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe.  That doesn’t make sense.”  Opponents of the bill contend that the new spending, which amounts to $26 billion in total spending, adds still more debt and fattens public sector payrolls while private sector job growth remains anemic.

During the enactment of this education jobs bill, President Obama prevailed on Congress to remove offsetting cuts in funding to his education reform proposals that were also contained in the bill.  These cuts were originally proposed by the House of Representatives at the behest of Appropriations Chairman, David Obey (here).  The bill signed into law preserved funding for planning and implementation grants for the Charter Schools Program and left funding levels for the competitive Race to the Top program unchanged.

Still, federal funding to offset teacher layoffs for this year is not all good news for states and localities. New York stands to gain $608 million which will offset the $1.4 billion school aid reduction imposed by Governor David Paterson this year.  The state legislature is expected to return to Albany by the end of September to appropriate the new federal money for school districts.

States have a choice to distribute funds either based on existing distribution of Title I funding, which is targeted mostly at low-income, urban school districts; or through traditional school aid formulas.  It would be surprising if New York failed to adopt the latter method so that all school districts share in the funds, allowing incumbent state politicians take credit for helping “bringing home the bacon” for schools close to election day.

Beware the Lure of One-Shots

One-shot revenues always bring a downside, that is: here today, gone tomorrow.  With the burgeoning federal deficit, it is highly unlikely Washington will be able to afford to continue subsidizing state and local budgets this way.  That means New York’s budget for next year will have an added $600 million hole unless the economy improves and state tax revenue with it.  The current funding cutbacks are in part due to the temporary one-shot funding provided by the 2009 federal Stimulus bill.

Additional concerns raised with this new money include whether school districts actually need the funding.  As the Empire Center for New York State Policy recently documented, school district payrolls have increased substantially in the last decade while student enrollment has declined.  Furthermore, school district budgets were already adopted in May and largely factored in Gov. Paterson’s $1.4 billion in education funding cuts.

With school district budgets settled and district downsizing implemented, it’s worth questioning if this new money is really necessary.  In fact, arguably the best use of this new funding would be for districts and states to deposit in a “rainy day” fund or reduce annual interest costs by retiring debt.  The problem is that both actions are expressly prohibited by Congress in the new bill.

New York should take all the federal money it can get, but the state and school districts cannot and should not put off right-sizing their budgets and payrolls for lean economic times to continue.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Pres. Obama v. Rep. Obey on Education Funding

July 3rd, 2010


Education priorities:  whose will prevail?

by NY Ed Reform guest blogger Peter Murphy

The U.S. House of Representatives on July 1st followed through on cutting Race to the Top funding by $500 million, and another $300 million between the Charter Schools Program and Teacher Incentive Fund, thanks to Rep. David Obey, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who led this action.

It’s fitting that a congressman with 41 years seniority (that being Mr. Obey) would ram through cuts in reforms programs to help finance this “edujobs” bill to subsidize teacher salaries of local school districts.

National and state education reform organizations strongly opposed this action (e.g., here), and this fight is far from over.

The Obama administration opposed the House amendment to the education appropriations bill to switch funding (here) by stating that if these cuts in reform programs remain, “the President’s senior advisors would recommend veto.”

This is a nice first step from the administration, but it’s not enough. The President is sounding equivocal by supporting both the edujobs and his reform programs, wanting it both ways. The climate in Washington, however, has turned sour on higher and higher spending, and Congress is under pressure to make choices and prioritize without adding to the federal budget deficit.

Chairman Obey should not be confused with being a fiscal hawk when it comes to spending, and he’s certainly no education reformer. But his actions to shift funding around are a step in the direction of tacit fiscal prudence.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan need to remind everyone that their education priorities matter more than David Obey’s. As the appropriations process advances to the U.S. Senate and then conference committee, the White House will need to come out more strongly to protect against this kind of congressional tampering to preclude Congress from calling his bluff.

Draw the line in the sand, Mr. President: whatever funding amout is agreed to subsidize district teachers must not come out of your education reform agenda – period.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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“Prevailing Wage”: Profiteering at Schoolchildren’s Expense

June 10th, 2010

By NY Ed Reform guest blogger Peter Murphy

It’s that time of year again on the legislative calendar when the labor unions try and get the state legislature to mandate higher costs on building projects by mandating so-called “prevailing” wages be paid by more public and private entities. The AFL-CIO and building trade unions already by law get “prevailing” or higher union wage rates on most publicly-financed projects, which is one reason taxes and the cost of living are so high in New York compared to most other locations.

The New York Post today contains an article yet another “prevailing wage” bill to impose these higher construction costs on charter schools. This bill, being pushed by several unions, already passed the Senate Labor Committee this week. I pointed out several obvious objections, primarily the fact that charter schools do not get public funding for construction and facilities costs, unlike school districts which do. In addition, charter schools already have their operating funding frozen at 2008-09 school year levels, leaving even less money to operate the school or finance capital expenses.

In the absence of a state mandate for prevailing wage, what happens? Does the laborer get cheated and ripped off and denied a living wage? In a word – no. In fact, any and every construction project not subject to prevailing wage, including those by charter schools, is paid based on a mutually agreed upon contract by both parties – the charter school and the company or companies doing the work. It’s called negotiation in the marketplace. Imagine that.

Racist Roots of Prevailing Wage Laws
New York is one of at least 41 states that impose prevailing wage laws on most publicly-financed projects, along with the federal government (the “Davis-Bacon” law). Prevailing wage laws, in fact, have an racist history to them as they were used to steer projects to white-dominated unions at the expense of minority workers that were not members of unions. This ugly history has been documented by George Mason University Law Professor David Bernstein and others. Prof. Bernstein also wrote specifically on New York’s dubious prevailing wage law, which was published in a 1997 article in the Civil Rights Law Journal.

Diverting Charter Funding from the Classroom
The bottom line is this: a state imposed higher cost from “prevailing wage” has to come from somewhere. In the case of charter schools, it would come from scare operating funds that would be diverted from regular educational expenses; or, with higher costs, the planned facilities project may not get done at all and no one would benefit no one, including the unions pushing this bill.

Even the teacher unions are pushing prevailing wage mandates on charter schools, notwithstanding that it would mean less money for the classroom and teachers in particular. Such misplaced priorities from NYSUT and the UFT only demonstrate that union corporate (oops, I mean “solidarity”) matters more even if it means less funding for the very individuals they purport to care about.

With cutbacks in state education funding and continued lack of facilities funding for charters, it is the worst possible time for the state legislature to advance a bill that would substantially raise costs in order to appease the labor unions. The difficult fiscal climate faced by charter and all public schools unfortunately hasn’t given the unions any pause from trying to profiteer no matter how much it harms the ability of charter schools to educate students.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Will National Standards Create A Rising Tide That Lifts All Boats?

March 13th, 2010

risingtideBy B. Jason Brooks

While praising the release this week of draft national education standards by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Operators, the New York Daily News (here) and other news outlets should have at least offered the caution deserved and the caveats necessary to put this effort, and its potential results, into proper perspective.

The effort of 48 states (Alaska and Texas are not participating) and the District of Columbia to set common, high-quality learning standards is indeed praiseworthy on many fronts: it seems just and fair to say as a nation that we hold a student in Arkansas to the same educational expectations as a student in Maine, for example.  Being able to evaluate each state’s progress toward these common learning standards using a common measuring stick would be nice, too.

This first public release of the proposed voluntary national learning standards raises many questions that need to be fully addressed, however, before we rally every school child, parent, and teacher in America around them.

First, the jury is still out on how rigorous the proposed standards are and if the strength of these standards will be increased or watered-down after the public comment period.  Claims by some that the national standards will set “a bar higher than even the highest standard currently set by any single state” simply aren’t true; while education officials in Minnesota commended (here) the standards in English language arts, they noted that the draft math standards would represent a step backwards for that state, for example.

A recent New York Times story (here) notes that implementation of national standards could face resistance from states that already have high-quality standards and assessments.  Massachusetts, for example, is widely regarded as having world-class learning standards and assessments, and that state’s consistent top-ranking performance on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests lead to justified questions about what lesser national standards would offer there.  Additionally, previous drafts of the voluntary national English language arts and math standards have fallen well short of the top state standards in these subjects once all stakeholders weighed-in.  This latest effort could suffer a similar fate without sufficient vigilance and dedication, both commodities too often lacking when the policy reforms meet the political world.

The push for national standards must accommodate the desire by states to implement even better learning standards, as Minnesota, Massachusetts, and several others already have.  This important issue unfortunately seems to have been side-stepped.

Second, the virtuous new way of thinking about education created by the No Child Left Behind reforms – specify what children need to know and then measure if they have learned it – is not guaranteed, at least not yet, by this week’s announcements on national learning standards.  Even if the standards are acceptably high, a similar collaborative and cooperative effort will need to occur to develop assessments aligned to these standards and set thresholds for passing scores that ensure students will be held to high expectations.  It remains to be seen if governors and state education commissioners will have the courage to follow through and implement rigorous assessments.  The well-regarded NAEP exams – commonly referred to as the “gold standard” in assessments – reveal that a whopping 68 percent of the nation’s 8th graders score below proficient in math and 70 percent fail in writing.  Will similarly embarrassing failure rates – the hard truth, actually – be allowed by states’ political leaders, or will they work to soften the exams or the passing thresholds to achieve the desired appearance?  This tricky work, the heated discussions, and the difficult decisions are a ways down the road yet, though they will play a significant and fundamental role in the overall success or failure of the national standards effort.

Third, the proposed standards covered only English language arts and math (encouragingly, the proposed English language arts standards included literacy skills needed to understand scientific and math-based concepts and activities).  By avoiding the development of standards for science and social studies, the common-standards movement may have avoided being derailed by so-called “culture wars.”  Standards-development efforts in the past showed that deciding on when to begin teaching algebra is less controversial than whether to teach about multiculturalism and evolution or creationism.  As such, states are likely to maintain their own standards in science and social studies for a long time, regardless of whether these standards are any good.  Where the new standards would increase a state’s expectations in math or English language arts, progress will have been made.  But folks need to understand that this isn’t the complete fix-it solution.

While the national standards reform movement currently shows promise, a great deal of work and political courage will be necessary in order for it to create the rising tide that will lift all boats.  The standards need to not only be on par with the best state standards currently in use, but would do well to represent world-class expectations.  Common assessments, to be used on all students nationwide, need to be developed that comprehensively measure student learning of these standards.  And states will need to have the courage to accept rigorous cut scores despite the potential of widespread failure rates.  If these all fall in place, then we can celebrate. For now, there is much more work to be done.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Obama Backs Central Falls Turnaround Plan

March 10th, 2010

obamaBy B. Jason Brooks

Last month this NY Ed Reform Blog commented (here) on the decision by the Superintendent of Schools in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to fire all teachers, administrators, and counselors at its chronically low-performing high school.  Superintendent Frances Gallo, with the state’s backing, was making good on her threat to fire all 93 staff positions for the teacher union’s refusal to work an extra 25 minutes at the pay rate offered for that extra time.

This story, spotted early by NY Ed Reform, subsequently became a national sensation for the simple reason that it’s so rarely – if ever – occurs in public education.  Abysmal graduation rates and 7 percent of 11th grade students meeting math standards doesn’t normally get anyone fired in public schools.  It’s much easier to finger-point at something else like poverty or bad parenting.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said the firings at Central Falls High are “a failed approach.”  In fact, every prior approach tried by Supt. Gallo was rebuffed by the recalcitrant teachers union, which called her bluff.  But the superintendent wasn’t bluffing and she’s gotten national praise for her actions, including from President Obama himself (here).

The president stated that while such firings should be a “last resort,” he backed the decision, saying “if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show any sign of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”  Education Secretary Arne Duncan reacted to the firings by praising the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education and Supt. Gallo for “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”

There’s the rub.  Putting students first, if it means anything, has to include putting adults other than first.  That’s what the Obama administration’s school turnaround strategy is about for dealing with the worst 5 percent of schools in each state.

No one should be surprised by President Obama’s reaction to the Rhode Island firings.  One year ago today, in his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the President make clear his education agenda included real accountability measures to support teachers while also holding teachers accountable in the interest of students:

[J]ust as we have to give our teachers all the support they need to be successful, we need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers and to the schools where they teach.

Superintendent Frances Gallo got the message.  So, apparently, did the Central Falls High School faculty that was headed for the exits.  The teachers have since relented and accepted the new rules, including spending more instructional time with the students.

Things in a school – even a really bad school – shouldn’t get to the point where the only way to enact a turnaround plan is to fire everyone who works there.  Hopefully, Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School will serve as an instructional model, and it will become commonplace rather than the exception that the adults in school buildings put themselves and their needs after those of the kids.  In that way only will genuine reforms be able to be instituted by administrators and teachers working together – all in the genuine interest of the school children.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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The Path for NYS to Win Race to the Top

March 4th, 2010

By Thomas W. Carroll

New York State’s inclusion in the 16 Race to the Top finalists announced today by the U.S. Department of Education was the big surprise of Round 1.

New York’s inclusion is a testament to the high-quality application developed by State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Regents Chancellor Merry Tisch.

But, the goal here is to win, not nearly be included among the finalists.  A staggering $700 million is at stake.

The only thing standing between New York being a mere finalist and a winner are two issues: New York’s “data firewall” and the need to raise the state’s charter-school cap.

The winners will be announced in early April 2010.

The obvious play here is for quick legislative action on the two outstanding items.  Admittedly, this will not be easy, given the state of political chaos in Albany at the moment.

Also, it’s unclear whether legislative action now will be considered in a Round 1 decision.  But, at a minimum, taking action now would position New York State for an almost guaranteed win in Round 2.

Those who urged no action — on the theory that New York would never win anyway — are contradicted by today’s announcement of New York as a finalist.

New York is in shooting range now.  Let’s not shoot blanks.

(For my prediction of the likely winners in Round 1, see my recent analysis in City Journal.  Six of the seven states I predicted made the list of finalists.  These six states very likely will be the eventual winners.)

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NYSUT’s Stimulus

March 2nd, 2010

By NY Ed Reform guest blogger Peter Murphy

The New York State United Teachers last week unveiled yet another radio and television advertising campaign (here) its effort to get state lawmakers to spend more on public education.  The union dues generated by 600,000 members can buy a lot of air time, and NYSUT has never been shy of doing so – this time spending $1.5 million.

Last fall, the union spent a tidy sum to block Gov. Paterson’s proposed mid-year cuts in school aid to districts.  That success, however, came with a price.  Next year’s education cuts are now that much larger from the state’s failure to reduce spending this year.

Make no mistake: NYSUT’s ad campaign is about more money for its membership.  The pretenses of its ad campaign – about creating a better economy and a more skilled workforce – mask this reality.  NYSUT cleverly ties spending more on public education to spurring economic recovery in New York.  “Business leaders will go out of state to hire skilled workers…or they may not be in a position to create any new jobs at all,” said NYSUT president Richard Iannuzzi.  But state lawmakers shouldn’t fall for this ruse.

NYSUT wants higher state taxes, including an estimated $3.2 billion from the financial services industry through a stock transfer tax and other measures, and has recently endorsed (of all things) selling wine in liquor stores.  Anything that brings more money into the state coffers, apparently NYSUT is for.

New York State already is among the highest taxed states in the nation.  Not unrelated, New York also has among the highest public employee payrolls in the country on a per capita basis.  Education is a big component of this: according to the Empire Center, the state spends more on education per pupil than any other state and 65 percent higher than the national average.

Meanwhile, last year federal stimulus package spending added $1.8 billion to education that, according to NYSUT, saved 18,600 education jobs.  And yet this year alone, the state raised taxes by at least another $4 billion.

Considering the negative impact of taxes and deficits on the state’s business climate, and the bailout already offered to the state’s public education sector, it’s hard to swallow NYSUT’s line that even higher taxes and even more education spending will help New York’s economy.  If it did, New York’s economy should be booming already.

Instead, what is booming is the public education industry.  A recent Schenectady Daily Gazette editorial describes teachers and other public employees as having “become a privileged class.”  The editorial notes that average education employee salaries exceeds the average worker outside of New York City and the job security, pensions, and health benefits are all more generous as well.

State legislators must weigh bowing yet again to NYSUT’s demands for more taxes and more spending with demanding that everyone in the public sector take a hiatus from spending binges in the simple interest of creating a better economy in the state.

At the very least, if additional education spending is contemplated, any new funds should be tightly tied to real reform efforts.  The best place to start would be to endorse the state Regents’ agenda submitted as an application for a federal Race to the Top grant.  The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow would be as much as $700 million in federal funding if New York’s reforms are deemed substantive enough.  New York had a shot at these funds in January, but the reform efforts were spiked by – guess who – NYSUT.  Evidently, even this massive amount of new federal funding wasn’t worth it to the teachers’ union if it came tied to more accountability and greater transparency.

But you won’t find any of that in NYSUT’s new ad campaign.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Streamlining Mandates and Paperwork? Dream On.

March 2nd, 2010

paperwork3By B. Jason Brooks

Early this afternoon, the Senate Education Committee will again take up the proposed “School Paperwork Elimination and Reduction Act” in the form of bill number S.3874. This bill deals with issues tracing back eight years ago when the legislature directed the Commissioner of Education to report on plans for streamlining paperwork requirements and reports required of school districts.

The Education Department, in 2003, followed through with a report which documented that school districts were required to submit about 150 reports, plans and applications annually to the Department – requirements that built up over decades. This bill would eliminate a fraction of these requirements and, in some cases, would still require districts and BOCES to prepare reports but have them available rather than submit them to the state (acknowledging that no one in the Department would bother to read them anyway, I suppose).

Still, enactment of this bill makes sense and is a reasonable first step in what Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch promised will be Department regulatory review of all mandates on school districts. Perhaps Commissioner David Steiner’s appearance today before the Senate Education Committee will spur enactment.

Awaiting Modest Paperwork Relief: 8 Years and Counting

The frustrating aspect of this modest bill is twofold. First, why has the legislature – specifically, the Assembly – refused to pass this bill? The Senate has done so repeatedly since 2005 while the Assembly has refused. Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the Education Committee Chair, has taken up this bill and passed it out of her committee from which it has languished in the Rules Committee. Second, if the legislature, after eight years still cannot follow through on its own directive to the Education Department, what hope do school districts have for any real mandate relief?

Public Charter Schools Face with More Mandates

Then there are public charter schools. Many legislators have fallen for this nonsense from the teacher unions calling for more “transparency and accountability” for charter schools, ignoring the fact that charters are held to more rigorous accountability than any district school. The Education Department, for example, explains much of this accountability in the state’s Race to the Top application (see here).

Yet, while the legislature, led by Senate Education Chair, Suzi Oppenheimer, appears to be finally moving on paperwork reduction for districts, Sen. Oppenheimer wants to add superfluous mandates on charter schools with a separate bill S.6925. Thus, charter schools with less money than districts could face more requirements having nothing to do with the Education Department’s goal of “results-oriented, standards-based education system.”

Slowness and contradictions abound – our state legislature at work.

B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.

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Closing Charter Schools

February 24th, 2010

by Thomas W. Carroll

closedThis week, the Charter School Committee of the State University Board of Trustees voted 3-1 to close New Covenant Charter School in Albany.

New Covenant opened as one of the state’s first three charter schools in 1999. Since then, the school for the most part has been financially unstable and poorly governed, posting miserable academic results in most years. Victory Schools, which has been managing the school the last few years, has done a good job of trying to turn the school around, but the school was in such a deep hole when they took it over, they have been unable to make enough progress in the intervening years to meet the State University’s high academic benchmarks.

The final vote of the full board of trustees will be held on March 23rd.

Regardless of the final outcome, the drama of New Covenant underscores a serious weakness in the approach taken by the State University and the Board of Regents when it comes to charter-school closure decisions.

While a closure will be widely viewed as SUNY reasonably upholding high standards, SUNY’s decision indisputably will strand hundreds of New Covenant students, who clearly do not want to be sent back to low-performing district schools in their neighborhood. Similar scenes have played out across the state whether the school is being closed by SUNY, the Regents, or a local district.

Obviously, SUNY has the right — indeed obligation — to close any school it deems a failure. But, it also has an obligation to the stranded students.

So, what’s the answer?

SUNY and the Regents need to consider making closure decisions earlier in the school year (perhaps even in the prior year), and they need to invite applications for those willing to create new promising schools in the same neighborhood. A passive “let ‘em eat cake” approach simply isn’t morally defensible.

From a legislative perspective, the state charter-school law should be changed to allow expedited review of “replacement” schools and of charter amendments that would allow existing successful schools to expand to make room for stranded students. Also, the state legislature should consider whether to grant stranded students priority in charter-school lotteries, and whether to exclude “replacement” schools from the state’s charter cap.

This approach would allow state chartering entities to uphold high standards and minimize the very real human cost of closures.

Thomas W. Carroll is president of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability.

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Putting Students Before Adults

February 19th, 2010

By NY Ed Reform guest blogger Peter Murphytrump150x178

“YOU’RE FIRED!”

The Donald wanted to own that not-so-original phrase which he says so well on NBC’s “The Apprentice.”  But there’s nothing too novel about folks getting fired in private industry.  Had Mr. Trump been acting as a superintendent of schools, however, he would have had a much stronger case trade-marking that phrase.

Almost no one gets fired in public education.  That’s one big reason for New York City’s “rubber rooms” full of non-working teachers (blogged about by yours truly here earlier this week), and why there have been so few instances of chronically failing schools being successfully turned-around by revamped teaching and administrative staffs.

That’s also why a recent story about a failing high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, (here) is so incredible.

Frances Gallo, the superintendent for Rhode Island’s Central Falls School District, just did her best Donald Trump imitation by saying she was preparing to fire her entire high school faculty – all 74 teachers – effective at the end of the current school year.

The state’s Education Commissioner, Deborah Gist, ordered that the Central Falls High School – labeled one of the “worst-performing high schools in the state” – be fixed immediately or risk closure by the state.  The “worst-performing” label is well deserved: in 2008, only 3 percent of 11th grade students were proficient in math, and only 7 percent were proficient the following year.  Less than half of Central Falls students graduate.

Superintendent Gallo responded appropriately and boldly.  A “transformation” model for improving the high school was developed that consisted of six reforms: extending the school day by 25 minutes; each teacher would eat lunch with students once a week; a schedule would be implemented where teachers would assist tutoring students before or after school; teachers would participate in weekly instructional planning sessions; a two-week training session would be held before the school year started; and, a more rigorous teacher-evaluation system would be implemented.  Joined with these reform efforts, each teacher would receive a $3,400 increase in their pay.

Despite the obvious benefits that would be delivered to the high school students under this plan, the local teachers union evidently didn’t feel that the adults in the building were being given a big enough slice of the pie.  This despite the fact that the average Central Falls teacher salary reportedly already is around $75,000, a whopping three and a half times the average salary of city residents.

So Superintendent Gallo said she would implement Plan B: the “turnaround” model offered by the state which requires the removal of the entire staff at the school and a “re-start” for the next school year (up to half of the exiting staff may be rehired for the next school year).  Supt. Gallo said the teachers union’s knee-jerk opposition showed a “callous disregard” for what was so clearly needed at the school and a reasonable compensation offer.

To no surprise, the union is fighting the terminations.  But reasonable people – the state’s education commissioner, Superintendent Gallo, parents, students, and the taxpaying public – appear to be out of patience.  The commissioner makes a final decision on the turnaround option next week.

What the Central Falls story demonstrates is the difficulty in engaging entrenched union interests in attempting to turn around a chronically failing school.  Maybe we really can’t get the schools we need trying to change the schools we currently have, and just starting over is the best chance our kids have.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Teacher “Rubber Rooms” Are Here To Stay

February 18th, 2010

chalkboardBy NY Ed Reformer guest blogger Peter Murphy

New York City’s “rubber rooms” have continued to draw much needed public attention.  These rooms are infamous holding places for literally hundreds of teachers removed from the classroom who are awaiting an arbitration hearing, or who were cleared of some charge but simply refused to accept an administratively prescribed reassignment to a classroom.  Of course, union contract provisions require that taxpayers continue to foot the bill for full salaries and benefits for these teachers even though they don’t serve a single student, sometimes for years.

On February 15th, for example, the New York Post published opinion articles by City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (here) and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (here). There is no love lost between these two titans, and diminishing public funding for education has made an adversarial relationship worse.

On the issues of reassignment centers, that is, the “rubber rooms,” is that both men expressed interest in speeding up the hearings process by either authorizing full-time administrative law judges (Klein’s position) or adding more investigators and arbitrators (Mulgrew).

That’s where their similarities end; which is why rubber rooms are here to stay.

Klein wants the best teachers for students, and the power to summarily remove bad ones.  What school administrator doesn’t?  He proposed to remove a teacher from the classroom and the payroll and to restore lost pay with interest if a teacher is exonerated.  No union leader could agree to such a deal if the current union contract protects an accused teacher’s pay pending a decision by an arbitrator.

Mulgrew wants teachers who are removed from classrooms to be put to work in administrative offices.  I doubt the administrator’s union would go for that.  Mulgrew also wants any teacher “unfairly charged” to be allowed to return to the classroom.

That’s the rub.  A principal or superintendent can remove a teacher from the classroom for reasons that can be hard to prove before an arbitrator.  A union is expected to protect teachers in such situations unless and until management proves its case.  Management, on the other hand, doesn’t want dubious teachers to continue in classrooms, even if it can’t ultimately reach a bar of termination in an arbitrator’s mind.

This gap will be hard to bridge, which is why the infamous rubber rooms are the agreed upon purgatory – and likely here to stay.

Peter Murphy is Policy Director for the NY Charter Schools Association and writes The Chalkboard Blog and may be followed on Twitter @PeterMurphy26.

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Increasing the Number of Students with Disabilities Served by Public Charter Schools

January 6th, 2010

By Thomas W. Carroll

In recent months, the New York State Board of Regents (led by Chancellor Merryl Tisch) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), New York City’s teachers union, have called on public charter schools to enroll more students with disabilities.

Over the weekend, the UFT specifically proposed legislation (view report here) to mandate that each charter school serve precisely the same percentage of students with disabilities as the average for the local district’s schools.  This would serve, in a sense, as a special-education enrollment quota.  The UFT-proposed enrollment quota is the wrong way to meet a legitimate goal.

For a little perspective, charter schools in New York State enroll a disproportionately higher share of African-American students, Hispanic students, and economically disadvantaged students than their local school districts.  Nonetheless, it remains true that students requiring special-education services generally are, in total, underrepresented in individual charter schools.

The UFT’s quota idea is not new; it was floated in 2007 during negotiations over a lift of the cap on the number of charter schools.  The final compromise, as part of an overall bill that raised the number of authorized charter schools from 100 to 200 schools statewide, was to require charter schools to make a “good faith” effort to recruit special-education students.

This “good faith” provision has been difficult to implement well because charter schools are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability, making it impossible to treat students with disabilities any differently in the admissions process.  In fact, state chartering entities have forced charter schools to delete any questions about disability status from their admissions applications and have refused any charter schools’ proposals to establish a special-education admissions preference, making efforts at targeted student recruitment even more difficult.

So, what we have is: (a) a clear and widespread desire to do more matched with (b) a set of restrictions guaranteed to ensure charter schools can’t do more.

Here are seven ideas to solve this conundrum.

First, allow charter schools to give overt preference to students with disabilities in their admissions lotteries. Right now, charter schools are prohibited from considering disability status in any way regarding admission decisions.  The proposed change could be made by modifying Section 2854.2(a) of the New York Education Law to add a clause that reads: “provided, however, that nothing in this article shall be construed to prevent a charter school from granting an admissions preference to students with disabilities.”

Second, allow charter schools to contract with regional Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) to provide some special-education services, just as school districts are allowed to do. Right now, district schools – especially small ones without a sufficient density of students with any one particular disability – are able to group students across schools and district lines by contracting with BOCES to provide necessary services.  Districts also use BOCES to provide instruction, often in district space, for students with rare disabilities, such as for students who are visually impaired, where the district may not have qualified staff to provide the required services.

Through a drafting oversight in the original charter school law in 1998, BOCES are not authorized to contract with charter schools for any purpose.  BOCES and the State School Superintendents Association favor correcting this oversight.

This could be done by simply adding the phrase “charter school” to the list of authorized contractors enumerated in Section 1950.4(h) of the Education Law, and by adding a subdivision that would allow BOCES “to enter into contracts with any charter school, to the same extent and for the same purposes as such contracts with public school districts are authorized. Such charter schools are hereby authorized and empowered to do and perform any and all acts necessary or convenient in relation to the performance of any such contracts.”

Third, allow charter schools in districts with more than one charter school to create multi-school consortia to provide special-education services. Right now, this is inadvertently prohibited by language in the charter-school law that does not allow a school’s students in any one grade to be educated at more than one school location.  This quirky provision was intended to avoid a single charter from being used to create multiple schools.  But, this provision has served to limit charter schools from working together to serve students with disabilities.  This could be fixed by amending Section 2853.1(b-1) of the Education Law to add a provision that stipulates “a charter school, located within a city with more than one charter school, that provides special education programs and services to its students at different locations pursuant to paragraph a of subdivision 4 of section 2853 of this Article shall be deemed to be operating at a single site.”

Fourth, require district schools and charter schools to transfer promptly any academic records related to students requiring special-education services when such students transfer schools. A set time line such as 10 business days upon receipt of request could be established.  In the case of transferring students, delays in record transfers can impair the ability of the receiving school to provide appropriate special-education services.

Fifth, once the reforms noted above are enacted, mandate that charter schools that are serving less than a set percentage of the host district’s special-education average, say 75 percent, provide an admission preference to students with disabilities. Even if it made sense, the union’s proposed quota system won’t work because charter schools can’t admit students that don’t apply.  Alternatively, establishing an admission preference would help ensure that students needing special-education services who did apply would be nearly guaranteed admission.

To this end, Section 2854.2(a) of the New York Education Law could be amended to add a clause that reads: “provided, however, that charter schools determined by the State Education Department to be serving less than 75 percent of the local district average for special-education students shall be required to grant an admissions preference to students with disabilities, which shall supersede any other preference granted other than to siblings of existing enrollees, until such point at which the 75 percent threshold is attained.”

Importantly, setting the threshold that triggers this mandatory enrollment preference below the district average recognizes that, as has been shown in studies by the State Education Department and others, districts tend to over-classify some students for special-education purposes – particularly African-American and male students.  It would be wrong to encourage charter schools to perpetuate this over-classification problem by tying them to the same inflated threshold.

Sixth, grant any charter application that would serve special-education students aggressively a priority over any other charter application. Presently, the New York charter-school law grants an approval preference to applications serving students “at risk of academic failure.”  A new and higher application approval preference should be granted to applications for special-education charter schools (like the New York Center for Autism Charter School), or to applications for schools that can demonstrate they would offer extensive special-education programming.  This would require amending Section 2852.2 of the Education Law to require granting “the highest preference to applications that demonstrate the capability to provide high-quality education to students with disabilities.”

Seventh, require annual publication by the State Education Department of special-education statistics for charter schools and district schools. This report should break out for each school the number of students with disabilities, by grade and by classification, allowing policymakers and others to track whether these reforms are having the intended effect.

Taken together, this set of proposals would create the additional capacity within charter schools to serve more students with special-education needs, encourage the creation and approval of schools that better serve special-education students, and create a mechanism for monitoring progress.

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Passing of Torch from Shrewd Negotiator to Blunt Instrument

January 3rd, 2010

mulgrew2The UFT Under New Boss Moves to Disembowel Charter Schools

by Thomas W. Carroll

In recent years, Randi Weingarten — as president of the United Federation of Teachers – attempted to reposition the UFT as a progressive union that did not fear charter schools, and in fact embraced them.  Weingarten’s boldest move in this regard was her decision to open a UFT charter school.

In her last years as UFT president, Weingarten attempted to distance herself from the more viscerally anti-charter state teachers union, the New York State United Teachers, which one suspects she viewed as out of step with the new national education-reform zeitgeist.

Now, as president of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten is continuing her efforts, most recently with clever packaging of a recent New Haven teachers contract hailed by President Obama (see my column on this contract here).

I haven’t always agreed with Weingarten, but I always respected her sense of strategy, her ability to frame issues, and her perfect ear for how far the political process could be bent in her union’s direction.

Over the weekend, however, we got a glimpse of a new UFT.  Michael Mulgrew, the new UFT president, issued with much fanfare a blistering report offering charter-school “reforms” that would disembowel charter schools in New York City and beyond.  Not a subtle passage in the 16-page document.  All red-meat for the anti-charter union masses as he attempts to position himself for re-election in spring 2010, after failing to secure a city teachers contract from the Bloomberg administration.

The report, issued on the Christian Sabbath, was timed to come out before the start of the 2010 legislative session.  Early action on a cap hike is anticipated as the state finalizes its Race to the Top application due January 19th.

With a new UFT leader, gone is Weingarten’s velvety smoothness.  Mulgrew’s report had all the subtlety of an ironworkers strike.

The shrewd negotiator has been replaced by the blunt instrument.

Some of the crasser proposals include the following:

  • mandatory unionization of all charter schools (so much for “teacher voice”);
  • elimination of the State University (which ironically awarded the UFT charter to Weingarten) as a chartering entity;
  • a ban on the use of professional educational management organizations;
  • government price fixing of the fees that charter schools could pay nonprofit charter management organizations;
  • government control of management salaries (even if paid for with private funds);
  • mandated payment of union wages on all construction contracts (even though the state provides no building aid for charter schools); and,
  • admissions quotas for charter schools that would mandate that each school enroll at all times exactly the percentage of special-education students, free-lunch students, and English language learners as does the local district average (although no such requirement applies to district schools, whose school-by-school numbers vary widely).

The full report can be found here.

The UFT’s point is not actually the advancement of any specific proposal, but rather to throw out there as much mischief as possible to gum up charter schools – even if it tanks union-represented charter schools in the process.  Mulgrew is not even pretending that he is open to charter schools.

Weingarten, not fearing electoral defeat, would not have risked tanking New York’s Race to the Top application merely to make a political point.  Instead, I suspect she would have offered a few key demands in exchange for a cap hike.  And she would have gotten them.

Mulgrew — by overplaying his hand and doing it in such an openly crass way — risks killing New York’s chances at $350 million to $700 million in much needed educational dollars.

What remains to be seen is whether the Governor and state legislators, in the midst of New York’s mounting fiscal crisis, are so cavalier, too.  Let’s hope not.

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The UFT’s Conspiracy Theories

December 23rd, 2009

by Thomas W. Carroll

The United Federation of Teacher’s Leo Casey – in two recent blog entries on its edwize.org blog (The Charter Challenge and We Were Born – It Just Wasn’t Yesterday) – tackles the subject of charter schools and what he perceives as “right wing” influence in its ranks.

Leo, although feverish at times, is a nice guy, so I thought I would give his arguments serious thought and offer my response.  Peter Murphy of the New York Charter Schools Association responds elsewhere (Living in Make-Believe – and Malice)

First, in Leo’s two pieces, the “dog that doesn’t bark” is perhaps the most interesting feature.  Leo leaves out that NYSUT and the UFT supported a $50 million cut in expected charter-school funding last year through what was called a “funding freeze.”  This is the only cut in school funding the teachers unions have ever supported, and was an interesting move considering Leo’s stated desire to “organize the unorganized charter school teaching force.”  Some teachers might wonder why they should pay dues to a union that is trying to cut their funding.

While Leo urges charter schools to serve a broader cross-section of students, he leaves out that NYSUT this year blocked giving charter schools the ability to contract with BOCES to provide special-education services, as districts currently are allowed.  No mention either that NYSUT – at this very moment — is attempting to stop a lift in the cap on charter schools (the cap of 200 schools will soon be exhausted) and put in place “hard caps” that limit the number of parents who may choose charter schools in any specific community.

This anti-charter activity runs counter to the teachers unions’ efforts to be viewed as a positive friend of charter schools.

Second, Leo correctly notes “charter schools have become an increasingly important and permanent fixture of American education.”  The UFT is in the vanguard among unions in recognizing this obvious fact.  I am glad we are no longer arguing over this.

Third, Leo overstates his case when he rails about the alleged “right wing” dominance of charter schools.  Most charter schools’ trustees, principals, and faculty members are not remotely conservative or “right wing” and most are likely Democrats or Independents.  Charter-school parents are mostly African-American, Latino, and economically disadvantaged – also not voting blocs normally associated with right-wing politics.  So, Leo’s “right wing” description falls flat.  Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a conservative here or there, but, hey, they are people, too – even if Leo finds them distasteful.

Fourth, Leo only applies the “progressive” label to Green Dot charter schools (which in New York only runs UFT-organized schools), teacher-led cooperatives, and “a growing number of unionized charter schools.”  Now, while Leo uses the phrase “right wing” too broadly, he is much too miserly when dispensing the tag “progressive.”  Isn’t it interesting that one needs to be unionized or union friendly to be considered progressive?  I never realized that the terms were synonymous.

Fifth, Leo refers to me as a “charter school luminary.”  Wow, my mom would be proud – although perhaps Leo was being sarcastic.

Lastly, I think Leo’s attempt to tar and feather people who disagree with the UFT on some issues goes a bit overboard, and distracts from what’s really important.

What we all should focus on is finding ways to create enough good schools – district, charter, or private – so that every child in New York State is attending a school of which we all would be proud.  Right now, that isn’t the case.  And, that problem is a much bigger concern, I would argue, than seeing who fits Leo’s litmus test of being a UFT-approved “progressive.”

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D-Day for Legislative Action on NYS’s “Race to the Top” Plan

December 22nd, 2009

statecapitolJanuary 19th.  That’s the deadline for state legislative action on key elements of New York’s Race to the Top application.

The New York State Board of Regents recently gave approval to an impressive educational-reform plan developed by Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and State Education Commissioner David Steiner.

The Regents plan includes dozens of measures that would raise the cap on charter schools, overhaul teacher-preparation programs, create merit pay for teachers, institute a new data system to track student and teacher performance, and close failing schools.  (See my recent Op-Ed column in the New York Post.)

Although much of what the Regents approved requires no legislative action, some major items do, including a lift in the state’s charter-school cap, reworking the state law that governs the removal process for bad teachers, and replacing the state’s “data firewall” with a new approach that allows student results to be a central factor in evaluating teachers.

Under the reviewer guidelines for the Race to the Top program, actions taken by state legislatures after January 19th will not count for “round one” applications.  And no one knows how much money will be left for the “round two” applications filed in June 2010.  Thus, it is crucial for New York’s state legislature to act before January 19th.

If legislative approval is secured, New York would be in a highly competitive position relative to other key states.  If not, New York will be sunk.

The price tag for inaction will be from $350 million to $700 million in lost federal funds.

This loss would come on top of Governor Paterson’s school-aid cut (via an illegal withholding of 10 percent of state aid to schools), and a scheduled dropoff in stimulus dollars of $2 billion according to estimates by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Amid all of this, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has made the calculation that they would rather the state lose much needed Race to the Top dollars – even in the midst of the state’s severe fiscal crisis – than be forced to reconsider its long-held opposition to many of the items approved by the Regents.

Right now, however, the real obstacle is not the teachers union, but rather political inertia and dysfunction.

The Governor, after indicating he would unveil a Race to the Top bill last week, instead simply endorsed a lift of the charter-school cap but did nothing to actually advance that outcome.

Similarly, the Senate Democratic leadership favors lifting the charter-school cap, but to date has only provided rhetorical support – not legislative action on the Senate Floor.

The Governor is not set to deliver his State of the State Message until Wednesday, January 6th, 2010 – a mere 13 days before January 19th.  Action during that short 13-day window will require discussions to begin in earnest now.

Time – like the state’s cash balance – is running out.

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New York Ed Reform Blog Unveiled

December 19th, 2009

Looking for the latest news, fresh commentary, and detailed analysis on New York education reform?  You can now find it at FERA’s New York Ed Reform blog.  FERA researchers and guests will regularly be offering their views on what’s going right and wrong in New York’s schools, highlight the latest reform initiatives, and summarizing news at the State Capitol, in the Big Apple, and the entire Empire State.

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