race to the race to the top

City waiting for charter cap resolution before signing RttT bid

With just over a week until the state’s Race to the Top application is due, the city is playing a game of chicken with the state legislature to pressure lawmakers into raising the cap on charter schools.

Today was the deadline for school districts to sign onto the state’s Race to the Top application, signaling they will participate in the state’s reform plans and making them eligible for a slice of the federal funds.

But the Department of Education of New York City —the state’s (and country’s) largest school district — has not yet agreed to the plan, taking advantage of a last-minute state extension of the deadline.

“We’re awaiting action on the charter cap,” DOE spokesman David Cantor said.

The more school districts that sign onto a state’s application, the more points the state earns in the competition for grant funds.

If New York City refuses its buy-in to the state’s plan, it could potentially cripple New York’s bid for the grant, which could deprive the state of a badly-needed $700 million in funding. The governor is currently withholding nearly $600 million in school aid from districts around the state, a move he defends as an attempt to stave off state financial insolvency.

State education officials had originally given school districts until 5 p.m. today to sign a Memorandum of Understanding indicating that the district agrees to participate in the state’s Race to the Top reform efforts. This afternoon, the state education department had received MOUs from over 600 of New York’s 698 school districts, and others continued to arrive, state education department spokesman Tom Dunn said.

Nevertheless, today state Education Commissioner David Steiner extended the deadline until next Wednesday.

“[S]ome of you have explained that, for very good reasons, you cannot meet the due date of today, January 8,” Steiner wrote in a statement to school districts. “We want to ensure that everyone is represented and that New York’s application demonstrates very strong local support.”

Along with refusing to sign onto the state’s plan, the DOE has not spoken to the city teachers union about whether it will agree to the plans. States also get points for having union support for their applications, but a spokesman for the UFT, Dick Riley, said the union hasn’t been shown the plans.

The city’s reluctance to move forward pending action on the charter cap issue will undoubtedly hang over Albany as the legislature prepares to take up the bill Governor David Paterson introduced yesterday, which would eliminate the cap altogether. The governor said he wants the bill passed by January 14, the day after the state education department’s new deadline for districts to sign onto the plan.

It’s still unclear how quickly the notoriously slow-moving legislature will move on the bill. Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson has announced his support for raising the cap (though not for eliminating it) and several other Senate leaders have done the same.

But so far Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been mum on whether he will support the cap lift. Many of the proposals included in the governor’s bill are radioactive issues for the powerful state and city teachers union, which oppose lifting the charter cap and moving up the expiration date for a provision that prohibits using student test data in teacher tenure decisions, another feature of the bill. Representatives from upstate districts, many of which have been more wary of the growth of charter schools than the city, may also be reluctant to lift the cap.

By contrast, from the city’s perspective, the governor’s legislation may not go far enough.

In November, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on Albany to enact a wide-ranging program of reforms that go well beyond what the governor has proposed. In addition to eliminating the charter cap, the mayor wants the state to mandate that school districts use student data to evaluate teachers, eliminate seniority regulations that govern the hiring and firing of teachers, and legally allow the city to lay off excessed teachers after they have spent a year without finding a teaching position.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today that it was possible the city would not agree to sign onto the state plan. But she said the success of the state application depends both on the city’s assent to the plan and the successful passage of legislation to bring state law in line with the grant program’s priorities.

But Tisch also said she was optimistic the legislature would pass a version of the reform bill.

“I believe everyone understands we’re at a critical juncture,” she said. “I am having a realistic attitude about the ability to move this in a time sensitive way…but I believe there is enough time.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

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

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.