State says districts without evaluation deals to lose funds Jan. 1

The State Education Department will cut districts off from one pot of federal funds within days unless they settle on new teacher evaluations for some struggling schools.

In a move that the state teachers union called “an arbitrary exercise of brinksmanship,” State Education Commissioner John King issued the threat today to New York City and nine other school districts that are receiving School Improvement Grants to overhaul their lowest-performing schools.

King said all but two had not met the requirements to continue receiving the funds — most notably, the requirement to hammer out agreements on new teacher evaluation systems. Those agreements are supposed to be in place by Dec. 31.

In July, city and UFT officials reached an agreement to roll out new teacher evaluations in 33 of the schools, known as “persistently low-achieving” schools. That agreement came a week after the state turned up the pressure on the city and just in time for the schools to receive nearly $60 million in federal funds.

But city officials said today that the agreement was only a “framework” that must be formalized by the Dec. 31 deadline.

If that doesn’t happen, a funding freeze would not only prevent new reforms from being put in place but also could threaten changes that are already underway. Yonkers is warning that SIG-funded teaching positions at some of its schools would effectively be terminated. Some New York City schools have “master teachers” whose salaries are paid out of the federal grant money.

City and union officials say they remain locked in negotiations — which are sure to be tense after a semester when relations between the groups grew strained over the new evaluation system’s rollout.

The stakes are also higher now because a deadline for all city schools to adopt new teacher evaluations is just six months away. King’s ultimatum today applies only to the 33 schools already being overhauled and 11 additional schools that the city must revamp according to federal guidelines. But a similar strategy in June could put hundreds of millions of Race to the Top dollars in jeopardy if new teacher evaluations are still not finalized.

Last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city would not strike an evaluation deal just to keep federal funds flowing. Today, he said city officials were in talks with the union but left the door open to stalemate.

“For months, we have been in engaged in discussions with the UFT around implementing a teacher evaluation model in the SIG schools,” Walcott said in a statement. “We continue to engage in discussions with the UFT, and all parties are cognizant of the deadline.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew sounded a similar note in a statement today.

“We have been meeting with the DOE in an attempt to resolve these issues,” he said. “We have further meetings scheduled this week.”

The state teachers union, NYSUT, said a funding freeze would disproportionately affect schools attended by poor students. Instead of cutting off funding to struggling schools, the union said King should ask federal authorities for more time. More than a dozen states have already gotten extensions, according to NYSUT.

But King signaled that he planned to stick to the deadline, no matter the consequences.

“These funds are targeted to help troubled schools. The last thing the students need is to lose resources because the adults who run those schools won’t fulfill their responsibilities,” he said in a statement. “The clock is ticking. When the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the money drops off the table, and it will be difficult to get it back.”

The other districts at risk of losing federal funds are Buffalo, Yonkers, Albany, Schenectady, Roosevelt, Poughkeepsie and Greenburgh 11. Rochester and Syracuse have turned in materials for the state to review, according to SED. The Journal-News reports that Poughkeepsie is on track to meet the Jan. 1 deadline but that Yonkers cannot and would seek legal recourse if the funding freeze takes place.

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.


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 Spokane, 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.”