party power

Avella compromises on charter schools to sign off on Senate budget bill

Last January, State Sen. Tony Avella was talking to a reporter in the Senate lobby about a bill he sponsored that sought a moratorium on school closures and co-locations in New York City. The bill had broad legislative support from Democrats, but it needed a few more Senate votes to pass.

“We should see if we can get the IDC into becoming  interested in this,” Avella said, referring to the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats whose formation after the 2012 elections kept Republicans in power. If the IDC Democrats supported the moratorium bill, or better yet they caucused with their party colleagues, its chances of passing would dramatically improve.

Now, a year later, Avella is in a very different position. Last month, the Queens lawmaker defected from the Democratic conference to join the IDC, in a move seen as hurting Democrats’ chances of taking over the Senate.

And when the IDC Democrats signed on to a budget resolution this week that supports, among other education policies, charter school co-locations, Avella vaulted into a new and challenging position. In order to claim a budget win, Avella could have to compromise on some long-held positions.

That includes a belief that charter schools are not an essential sector of education. Back in 2009, when he was mulling a run for New York City mayor, he told a group convened by the leftwing Working Families Party that the city wouldn’t need charter schools if it focused more of its attention on district schools.

“We should make sure that every school has updated equipment, the best computers, the best teachers, and I would make sure that we do that,” Avella sad at the time. “And eventually, you do that, charter schools will just go away.”

So far, Avella said he hasn’t changed his views on charter schools or co-locations. In a statement, he said he had acceded to the charter school provisions of the Senate budget bill because doing so would increase the likelihood that New York City district schools would get extra funding.

“I am voting for this resolution because of the more than half a billion dollars in new funding it asks our state to deliver to non-charter New York City publics schools,” Avella said. “Any legislator stubborn enough to turn down that type of windfall for New York City students and teachers is forgetting about the families who elected them here in the first place.”

The Senate’s proposal includes a bevy of school choice legislation that would bolster more than just charter schools. In addition to giving charter schools access to state facilities aid and making it difficult for Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep charters out of public school buildings, the resolution also includes  a tax credit for donations to private school scholarships that could fund up to $125 million for new students (the credit would be split evenly so that half of donations go toward public school-related programs.

The budget framework is a starting point, seen as mostly symbolic, that will look much different than the final spending plan that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature must agree on before the end of the month. Cuomo said today that the budget resolutions are mostly “political statements.”

“They’re Christmas wish lists,” Cuomo said after speaking at an event in New York City. “You just put everything on there that you want. It doesn’t matter if it adds up.”

But Cuomo also reiterated that one part of the resolution that will be taken more seriously than others is charter schools.

“Some areas are significant and I think the Senate’s language on the charter schools is one of those areas,” Cuomo said.

Avella and his IDC colleagues did not highlight the budget bill’s charter school provisions in their statement. Instead, they focused on the fact that the bill includes enough state funds to fully fund New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for expanding pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.

“This year’s senate budget resolution puts the needs of working families first, by dedicating $540 million for Mayor de Blasio’s universal pre-k and after school program for each of the next five years,” IDC leader Jeff Klein said in a the statement.

Avella’s accommodationist approach drew fire from advocates and elected officials. Queens Democrat Daniel Dromm, who chairs the city council’s education committee, said Avella should have never joined the IDC in the first place.

“I’m disappointed that Senator Avella chose to leave the Democratic Conference and join the IDC,” Dromm said in an interview. “I really feel strong about what it means to be a Democrat and I don’t see how working with the IDC is going to produce any outcomes.”

Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson, part of a parent coalition that helped draw greater scrutiny to the Board of Regents election process this year, said Avella “should resign from the IDC” if he can’t “get the Senate to give up this incredibly inequitable and damaging proposal.” 

Both sides are most likely to lose at least something when the final budget gets hammered out in negotiations. But Avella knows the advantages of being in a leadership position. The Senate leadership last year left him frustrated that his closure and co-location moratorium was going nowhere.

“Well, it’s tough considering that Mike Bloomberg has donated huge amounts of money to the Republican State committee,” Avella said last year. “So it’s tough to get something like this passed even though the Republicans are, technically, in the minority.”

 

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