Future of Schools

Haslam signs special education voucher bill

Tennessee on Monday became the nation’s 22nd state to enact legislation allowing public funds to go to private schools as Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a measure aimed at special needs students.

The Individualized Education Act, which easily passed in the Tennessee legislature in April, will provide families of about 18,000 students with severe disabilities the option to forego public schooling for a bank account holding public funds for “education-related expenses,” which can include physical therapy, private schooling, home schooling, textbooks and even college courses after graduation from high school.

The measure will take effect in 2016.

Proponents say the voucher program will improve education for disabled students who opt in by providing them with a customized education that is of higher quality than what they receive in public schools. “No one is better suited to understand a child’s distinct learning needs than a parent, and no one can offer better direction in choosing the right educational options for them,” said Daniel Zavala, state policy director for StudentsFirst, an advocacy group founded by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Others, including educators and special education experts, are concerned that parents will unwittingly waive rights and protections granted to special education students in public schools under federal law, and also that public schools will lose needed funds as a result of the legislation.

Though the Individualized Education Act stands to have a major impact on Tennessee schools, it was not the voucher legislation that dominated conversation throughout the legislative session. A voucher bill for low-income children, expected by many to pass, stalled for the fifth time.

question and answer

New York City lawmakers press Richard Carranza on paid parental leave, counselors, and school accessibility

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza (left) at a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio

Richard Carranza faced his first round of questions from city lawmakers Tuesday since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system — fielding concerns about the education department’s spending priorities contained within its mammoth $25.5 billion operating budget.

Carranza — who is on the same ideological page as the city council’s education leaders — faced a mostly warm reception and earned praise for jumping into the conversation about school segregation, something his predecessor avoided talking about directly and which councilman Danny Dromm called “a real breath of fresh air.”

But council members also pressed the new schools chief on some of the mayor’s spending priorities during the nearly four-hour hearing, including whether there is funding to make sure all schools have counselors, how to ensure more schools are accessible to students with physical disabilities, and whether the department will guarantee teachers paid parental leave in the upcoming teachers contract. (Carranza also announced a $24 million program to boost the city’s health education offerings, part of an effort to get in compliance with city and state regulations.)

Here are three topics that Carranza was questioned about:

Funding to ensure all schools have counselors

Mark Treyger, chairman of city council’s education committee, repeatedly asked Carranza about increasing funding for social workers and guidance counselors: 41 schools would be left without either in the current budget.

Given that the mayor’s budget boosts education spending by nearly $200 million, Treyger said, “$5.2 million to ensure every school has at least one full-time social worker or guidance counselor seems like an obvious choice to me. Why wasn’t this added to the budget?”

The schools chief did not rule out the possibility that funding would be added, but he seemed to push back against the idea that all schools must have either a guidance counselor or social worker. Decisions about whether to add staff are context-specific, Carranza said, adding that “there is local control” and school-level administrators can make hiring decisions.

Paid parental leave

After two Brooklyn high school teachers started a petition calling on the city’s teachers union to negotiate a parental leave policy, the issue has gained traction among local lawmakers — and even the union’s top brass. (Educators who want paid time off to care for their children must currently use sick days.)

Asked about creating a new policy, Carranza signaled the city would adopt one through the negotiating process with the union, whose contract expires this fall — though officials could not say how much it would cost or how the policy would work.

“Obviously we’re not going to negotiate in public,” Carranza said. But, he added, “I will be very supportive of anything that helps [teachers].”

School Access

Multiple city council members pressed Carranza on two very different access problems: Whether the city is spending enough money to update school buildings, most of which are not fully accessible to students with physical disabilities — and whether the city’s elite specialized high schools are too closed off from students of color.

On building accessibility, multiple advocacy groups argue the $100 million set aside in the city’s five-year capital plan to make buildings more accessible should be increased by $125 million. “I have no fully accessible schools in my district,” Treyger said. “This is part of the segregation conversation as well.”

Carranza also faced questions about specialized high schools, which have made virtually no progress enrolling a more representative share of black and Hispanic students in recent years. Carranza suggested that he has seen competitive schools elsewhere use multiple measures to make admissions officers at competitive public schools and “it never diluted the talent pool.”

That would mark a sharp departure from the current system, which awards admission on the basis of a single test. (Some experts say the city has the legal authority to change that requirement at five of the eight specialized high schools, though Mayor de Blasio has disagreed.)

“I want to make sure we’re providing opportunities for the widest number of students,” Carranza said. “All schools should be accessible to all students of the City of New York.”

School safety

Charter schools advocates’ next push: Funding for school security

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams speaks at a press conference related to charter school security funding.

New York City politicians and charter school advocates gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday to demand school security funding for certain charter schools.

Advocates are asking the City Council to revise a city law that funds security at non-public schools with more than 300 students. This minimum enrollment cap and the exclusion of charter schools, they charge, means many charter schools housed in private spaces have to pull funding for school security guards from their budgets that could otherwise be used in the classroom.

“Our tax dollars should protect all our children,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who spoke alongside members of the City Council and charter school advocates.

The push represents a new line of advocacy for the charter sector and touches on a national conversation about school safety. After devastating school shootings this year in Texas and Florida, New York’s lawmakers have been debating the best way to keep children safe in schools.

Now, the charter sector is adding its voice to the mix arguing that school security funding is a critical tool schools use to keep children safe. However, in the absence of security funds, charter schools remain committed to dipping into instructional budgets to hire school safety officers, said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

“I don’t want anyone to think that right now charter schools aren’t safe,” Merriman said.

Charter school advocates have long argued that the publicly funded, privately managed schools, which educate more than 42,000 students citywide in private spaces, do not receive public funding equivalent to that of their district school counterparts. They have suggested a range of solutions to this problem, including altering the state’s funding formula and receiving more money to pay for private space.

If the City Council is not receptive to changes, charter school supporters said they may look to the state for help.

“We think this can pass at the City Council level,” Adams said. “If not…we’ll go to the state.”