sold out

State ed reform task force meeting draws a crowd, and some ire

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission’s 10-stop tour swept into the Bronx for three hours today, members got an earful about more than just how to improve the state’s schools.

It was standing-room-only for most of the meeting, one of many conditions that drew grumbling from some in the crowd who said the commission was giving New York City short shrift on their tour. They complained that the venue was too small, the meeting too short, and the one-time visit too few.

About 140 seats were laid out in a cafeteria on the second floor of Hostos Community College, but they filled up quickly. As the meeting got under way, about 20 people remained outside, waiting to be let in by security.

“I think it’s totally unfair that New York City should get one-tenth of the state’s attention when we have more than one-third of the student population,” said Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson.

Observers who have been to all three of the regional meetings so far — the first two were held in Albany and Buffalo —  said today’s attendance was far larger than at either of the two previous events. And Richard Parsons, the commission’s chairman, apologized for the tight space, saying it was the biggest room that the group could find in the Bronx.

Issues over logistics did not overshadow the meeting’s goal: to air suggestions for how to improve the state’s schools while also cutting costs.

Nearly three dozen advocates, researchers, budget specialists, and educators offered proposed a broad range of reforms for the commission to consider when it submits its recommendations to Cuomo in December. Seventeen people were invited to join formal panels that the commission questioned before the meeting was opened to public comments.

Not everybody who wanted to speak was able to. Several people who submitted testimony in advance learned today that there wouldn’t be enough time to accomodate everyone.

For the first time at one of the regional meetings, a panel was dedicated entirely to the discussion about how to improve student achievement “through wraparound services,” or integrating social services such as health care into schools. One panelist, UFT vice president Leo Casey, discussed the union’s initiative to create “community schools,” six of which will launch in the city this fall.

On the panel for “school system structure and management,” panelists proposed redistributing state aid away from wealthy districts and toward needier ones and lengthening the school day and school year.

“There is enough room in the system already to do the job in New York State,” said Elizabeth Lynham, a director for the Citizen Budget Commission, a non-partisan budget watchdog.

New York State spends an average of about $18,000 per student each year, the highest in the country. Lynham said districts that could afford $30,000 on their students should receive less state aid. She referred to an infographic CBC released today that showed disparities in per-pupil-spending among the state’s 700 districts.

Lynham also said savings could be found in the health insurance plans that teachers receive. Teachers spend significantly less on their health insurance premiums compared to other public employees around the state and Lynham said that if unions renegotiated to raise premiums, the state would save $500 million.

To improve teacher quality, many speakers were in agreement that a teacher evaluation system was paramount in New York State, where just a fraction of the districts have one in place. In New York City, the UFT and the Bloomberg administration have yet to hammer out a deal.

Districts that don’t have a deal in place by the end of the year will lose state aid, but several speakers proposed another incentive.

“Since there has been little progress thus far, we recommend the state should create a default evaluation system,” said Tara Brancato, an Educators 4 Excellence member and a teacher at Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy International High School.

Panelists and public speakers were selected beforehand by organizers from Cuomo’s office, who did not explain how they decided who would be allowed to speak. Haimson said she learned that she would serve on a panel after a Cuomo aide asked for her testimony two days ago.

But Mary Conway-Spiegel, a New York City advocate who opposes school closures, said in a comment on GothamSchools that she submitted a testimony about “warehousing,” a topic that State Education Commissioner John King spoke out about today, but was not allowed to speak at the meeting today.

The commission was missing some members from New York City. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan were both scratched from the lineup at the last minute. Another half dozen committee members were absent, including Randi Weingarten, whose teachers union launches its annual convention in Detroit today.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede