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.”

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”


What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said