Education Commissioner Releases Guidance For Transgender Students

The Department of Education on Monday released a set of guidelines for school districts to comply with state and federal laws when it comes to discrimination, harassment and bullying of students who are transgender or gender non-conforming.

The guidelines also provide information to school districts for student privacy and the obligation for school leaders to provide students with a safe environment.

“The important thing we must do is to keep children safe,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement. “Children cannot be expected to learn unless they feel welcome, safe, and comfortable at school. Every school should foster that kind of environment for all its students. This new document gives administrators practical guidance to ensure their schools are places where transgender and gender nonconforming students can focus on academics, friendships, and their interests instead of worrying about how they will be treated by school staff and their peers.”

At the same time, the state’s document provides advice and guidance on pronouns, as well as restroom and changing room usage. Education officials said the guidance presents “real-life examples” from New York students and schools.

“All students need a safe and supportive school setting to progress academically and developmentally,” Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said. “The Education Department is committed to providing all students, including transgender and gender nonconforming students, with an environment free from discrimination and harassment. We have a moral responsibility to foster civility in our schools, and to ensure that every student has equal access to educational programs and activities. This document will help schools make that a reality for all of our students.”

The guidance’s release comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a letter in June to the department asking they take corrective measures following a critical report from the NYCLU of how transgender and gender nonconforming students are subject to harassment and violence in New York schools.

Transg_GNCGuidanceFINAL by Nick Reisman

Loeb, Singer Replenish Pro-Charter School Campaign Committee

Hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Daniel Loeb helped replenish the coffers of a pro-charter school independent expenditure committee, contributing $1 million each to the group, according to its recent Board of Elections filing.

The PAC, known as New Yorkers For A Balanced Albany, had virtually maxed out its funds after the 2014 election.

The group had focused almost exclusively on legislative races in support for Republican Senate candidates in battleground races (Democratic candidates, in turn, were heavily supported by the state’s teachers unions).

Republicans gained full control of the chamber after working in a majority coalition with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, an arrangement that allowed the GOP to retain most of the trappings of power at the Capitol.

In the end, charter schools didn’t get everything they wanted legislatively out of Albany, even as Cuomo won broader education reform victories such as making it harder for teachers to obtain tenure and a new teacher evaluation system that is linked to test scores and in-classroom observation.

The cap on charter schools was not increased, but it was redistributed to allow for more growth in New York City.

Both Singer and Loeb have backed Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a staunch supporter of charter schools.

Loeb in the most recent campaign finance reporting period donated $25,000 to Cuomo.

Education Commissioner IDs 144 Schools For Receivership

The Department of Education on Thursday released a list of 144 schools in 17 school districts that have been identified as struggling or persistently struggling schools.

Twenty of those schools are deemed to be “persistently struggling” — making them a target for receivership should a turnaround effort not work.

Schools considered to be struggling account for 124 of the schools identified today.

“In those schools designated as Persistently Struggling, there will be an unprecedented infusion of resources to support school turnaround efforts,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. “This is an opportunity that communities must seize to come together to fundamentally rethink how these schools carry out their obligations to students and families.”

The 2015-15 state budget included the receivership provision that had been pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Schools deemed to be struggling — Cuomo has used the term “failing” to identify them — will be given a two-year “superintendent receiver” that will be charged with making improvement in the school. If not, the district will be required to appoint an independent receive or submit for an appointment with the Department of Education.

For the schools considered persistently struggling, a superintendent will serve as the receiver and be given a 12-month period to use broader authority to move “demonstrable” improvement in the school, with goals established by the commisioner including student performance.

The school would be eligible for a slice of a $75 million state aid package to that would help implement the changes.

“In these schools, whole generations of students have been left behind,” said Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “As a former school superintendent, I know how important it will be for superintendents to use their new authority to develop robust plans to improve student performance. Superintendents have an obligation to act on conditions that have persisted for too long in these schools.”

The New York State United Teachers union in a statement said the discussion over struggling schools “is the wrong one for New York state to be having” and said the aid package falls short.

“Teachers in these new ‘receivership’ schools are as highly skilled, dedicated and as passionate about teaching and learning as teachers anywhere,” said NYSUT President Karen Magee. “What has been sorely lacking are the resources and support they need to provide equal opportunity for every child. Receivership is nothing but the state shifting the blame and attention from its own failures, over decades, to properly support students and educators in these schools.”

Schools by Nick Reisman

NYSUT: Pearson Offered A ‘Bad Product’

The statewide teachers union on Thursday is cheering the decision by state education officials to dump controversial test publisher Pearson, Inc., in favor of the Minnesota-based firm Questar.

“Pearson offered a bad product and today Pearson got fired,” New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said. “Teachers have called for this for years.”

The Department of Education on Thursday announced Questar Assessment, Inc. was awarded a $44 million contract to develop tests in English-Language Arts and math for grades three through eight.

Pearson has come under fire from both teachers and parents, in part, for its examination questions some considered too opaque as well as monitoring and collection of student data.

But the company was also the most prominent publisher nationally of Common Core-based examinations as the controversial standards were rolled out with hiccups in states like New York.

“It is a first step along the road toward ending New York’s failed testing policies, Magee said. “The Questar contract, in its promise to emulate New York’s successful test-development process for Regents exams, begins to restore the trust and confidence in teachers to do the job right. It says New York is going to trust its own teachers, not a corporation, to develop state tests.”

The Department of Education contract with Questar also nudges the state toward computer-based testing, which NYSUT cheered as well, but with stipulations.

“It should not simply move ‘fill-in-the-bubble’ tests from pencil and paper to the keyboard and Internet,” union Vice President Catalina Fortino. “New York should be listening to and working with all the stakeholder groups on performance-based testing that can more accurately measure what students know and are able to do.”

SED Awards Test Contract To Questar, Not Pearson

The state Department of Education on Thursday awarded a $44 million contract to the Minnesota-based Questar Assessment, Inc. to develop examinations for grades 3 through 8 in English-Language Arts and math.

The contract to develop the tests is significant in part because it was not awarded to Pearson, a private education company that has come under fire from teachers unions and parents for developing Common Core-based examinations nationwide as well as for collecting data on individual students.

“Our students deserve the best, most accurate assessments we can give them,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement. “Teachers and parents should have clear, practical information to help them help their students learn. Our goal is to continue to improve the assessments to make sure they provide the instructional support parents and teachers need to prepare our students for college and careers. This new contract also recognizes how vitally important it is to have New York State teachers involved in the test development process.”

Questar’s contract must still be approved by the attorney general and state comptroller’s offices.

But the move is one that will likely be a relief for state lawmakers, who earlier this year suggested they would make an issue out of awarding Pearson another contract to develop the examinations.

Thousands of students opted out of a round of state math and English examinations in April as parents and teachers raised concerns about the amount of standardized testing in New York classrooms.

The contract is also being awarded as a new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, takes the helm at the department, which is independent of the governor’s office.

Elia, a former public school teacher, has said she will take a collaborative approach with teachers and parents when it comes to testing, but has affirmed her support for the Common Core-based standards in classrooms.

“New York State teachers will be involved in every step of the test development process,” Elia said in a statement. “Teacher input is critical to building a successful state test, and that’s why the new contract emulates the collaborative process used to develop the Regents Exams.”

Last month, lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to spend $8.4 million over two years for printing more versions of state examinations with the goal of eventually cutting down on the number of tests.

At the same time, officials agreed to measures that would allow for the limited release of some test questions that have already been used.

nysed-rfp-15-008 by Nick Reisman

Flanagan Says Senate GOP Will Keep Pushing Tax Credit

Senate Republicans will continue to push for the passage of a tax credit meant to spur donations to schools and scholarship programs after the measure faltered at the end of the legislative session, Majority Leader John Flanagan on Wednesday said.

“I don’t see any reason why we would deviate,” Flanagan told reporters at the Capitol.

The measure failed despite a strong push from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the GOP conference, which previously approved a version of the legislation this year.

The bill faced strong headwinds in the Democratic-led Assembly, where lawmakers were slammed by a pro-tax credit campaign and were previously pushed to back a package of teacher evaluation changes opposed by the state’s teachers unions.

Flanagan chalked the bill’s failure to a “combination of things” but pivoted to touting the passage of a $250 million mandated services reimbursement program for parochial schools.

“The $250 million from this year is really paying back money that they’re are owed already,” Flanagan said. “So, I view that as a very positive step. And yet, I know this: $250 million pales in comparison to almost $27 billion in public funding of education between direct aid and STAR payments. So, $250 million sounds like a lot of money to you and me, but in the context of the budget it is not that much money. However, it will be very helpful to the schools and their children.”

The former education committee chairman was able to insert more funding for the Department of Education — some $8.4 million over two years — for printing more versions of state examinations.

Still, lawmakers did not approve any deadline extensions for school districts adopting new teacher evaluations, which is tied to a boost in state funding.

After the passage of the new evaluation package in the budget, lawmakers introduced a number of measures designed to alter the roll out of the new evaluations.

In the end, no bill was approved, but the Board of Regents indicated it would support granting districts hardship waivers if a deadline can’t be met.

“If you are demonstrating that you’re negotiating in good faith, you can get a waiver,” he said.

NYSUT’s Magee Sees Victories In Tax Credit, Commissioner Change

NYSUT President Karen Magee counts the scuttling of the education tax credit as well as changes in the Board of Regents and installation of a new education commissioner as victories for the statewide teachers union.

Speaking with reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday, Magee touted the boost in school aid approved in the $142 billion budget as a plus for NYSUT as well.

“We look at the education tax credit (not passing) as a huge win,” Magee said. “We look at the ability to bring record aid to the schools as a win.”

NYSUT didn’t get everything it wanted this year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo successfully pushed through changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law that link the performance reviews to testing and in-classroom observation as well as a stronger tie to tenure, which is now harder to obtain.

Teachers deemed to be poor performing over several years can be fired, regardless of tenure, under the changes.

Still, NYSUT was able to beat back the tax credit, which it staunchly opposed, but was backed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Senate Republicans and the governor.

In its place, a $250 million reimbursement package for parochial schools for mandated services was approved at the end of the legislative session.

“If we use the term winners and losers, I would say we’re winners at this point in time,” Magee said. “We defeated the education investment tax credit.”

At the same time, Magee touted “shifts” in the membership of the Board of Regents – ostensibly appointed by the Democratic-led Assembly – as well as the state’s education commissioner. Mary Ellen Elia this month officially took over for John King, a charter school supporter who went to work for the Obama administration. Yesterday was her first day on the job.

“Those are positives, because we look forward to having real conversations about education,” Magee said.

Education Reform Report Pushes Common Core Changes

A report released on Monday by an education reform organization points to progress made by students under the controversial Common Core education standards.

The report, released High Achievement New York, is also making a series of recommendations designed to increase access for teachers and parents to view student test results and provide more adaptive testing.

The report is also pushing for aligning teacher certification with Common Core-based standards and the creation of an independent review panel to assess the quality and effectiveness of state examinations.

Backing the recommendations include a number of figures in the education reform movement, including the statewide business lobby.

“Implementing landmark education reforms is never easy, and the Common Core standards and aligned assessments are no exception,” said Business Council President Heather Briccetti. “This report shows that higher standards are working, while at the same time highlighting areas that need improvement. We always knew this was going to be a challenge and adjustments would have to be made. But we cannot lose sight of the goal, which is to ensure our students receive a quality education that equips them with the problem-solving and analytical skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century workforce.”

The report comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers agreed to a package of changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system that ties performance results to standardized testing as well as makes it harder for teachers to obtain tenure.

Enacting the changes, linked to a boost in state aid for school districts, have not been without political headwinds, and the Board of Regents has backed a “hardship” exemption for some school districts that pushes back the enactment deadline.

HANY Up to Challenge Report by Nick Reisman

Cuomo Not A Fan Of Education Department, Tisch Says

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo leans on the state Department of Education to aggressively combat transgender discrimination in schools, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch on Tuesday said his administration had not provided needed funding to oversee such issues.

“The present governor does not seem to be a fan of the department,” Tisch said in an interview on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom. “I think every governor during their term in office is frustrated by their role in the state education department. But that being said, that should not be a reason to defund the department or not to give it the resources that are adequate in order to fulfill its obligations to the citizen of the state.”

Cuomo has been at odds with the department on a variety of issues, ranging from the roll out of the Common Core education standards to a push to ease the impact of the newly adopted teacher evaluation measure, which was approved as part of the state budget.

Tisch said the department remains mindful of bullying and student harassment, but not being able to hire the staff to provide broader oversight on a range of issues makes such a task daunting.

“I think everyone is very mindful of bullying,” Tisch said. “We have done a lot of work with superintendents around the state, with school districts around the state, talking about anti-bullying policy.”

Tisch pointed to last year, when the state charged the department with overseeing the implementation of new pre-Kindergarten programs without additional staff, which she said amounted to an unfunded mandate.

“We were given the responsibility without one extra penny to handle that responsibility,” she said.

The chancellor also knocked what she said was an effort to make SED into essentially a punching bag, primarily by the Cuomo administration.

“The state education department is not an executive department of government and therefore when it comes to time to fund the state education department, often there is no one carrying that water to get appropriate levels of funding to create appropriate levels of staffing so the education department can in fact what it is constitutionally under its authority to do,” she said.

Cuomo is not the first governor to be frustrated by a lack of control over education policy in the state. The Board of Regents is in essence elected by the Democratic-controlled Assembly, which in turn appoints an education commissioner.

Cuomo indicated late last year he wanted to take a more active role in SED policy and a top aide raised the possibility of pursuing broader control over the department in a letter to Tisch and then-Commissioner John King.

Instead, Cuomo placed an emphasis on a new teacher evaluation system, whose adoption was linked to education funding in the budget. School districts must enact the new criteria by November or lose out on a boost in state aid.

The Board of Regents this month indicated it would allow for some districts demonstrating hardships in enacting the new evaluation system to extend the deadline to do so without losing the funding.

Tisch acknowledged in the interview the debate over the law, which she called a “very troubled, unattractive piece of legislation” would continue into next year.

NYSUT: Education Reform is “Far From Over”

The state’s largest teachers union said in a statement Friday that while there were “significant advances” for educators this session, they’ll be back next year for more.

The bill to end this year’s legislative session included several reforms to the state’s education policy coupled with rent regulations, property tax relief, and more.

Under the new law, test questions will be disclosed and available for teachers, though there have been conflicting reports as to whether they’re allowed to discuss it with colleagues and administrators.

A committee will also be tasked with reviewing curriculum, including the Common Core learning standards. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said yesterday they’ll be looking at whether state exams are age-appropriate and if the timeline of those tests is effective.

During his closing remarks Thursday night, Flanagan said the reforms are the product of concerns from both parents and teachers across New York.

“This week, we came to a resolution on issues that we all heard about while we were home during the budget and our break,” Flanagan said, “and we tried to do reforms that were parent and student centered, and I believe we accomplished that. And there was no way that was going to happen if we didn’t listen to our constituents.”

NYSUT chalks all of these changes of up as a win for this session, but says they’re committed to easing the burden on teachers and students that comes with state-mandated policies.

“The battle for the future of public education is far from over,” NYSUT said in a statement. “In concert with parents, NYSUT will continue to oppose over-testing, press for fair evaluations and redouble our efforts to provide students and educators, from pre-k through post-grad, with the tools they need to excel.”

The final deal did not include a delay for the development of a new teacher evaluation system, meaning districts who are not able to meet the requirements by the November deadline will have to apply for a waiver.

Lawmakers also ended up ditching a proposed $100 million for struggling schools as part of the deal, an idea pitched by Governor Cuomo earlier this month. Yonkers Public Schools will still receive $25 million in aid, but the remaining $75 million was left out.

But the governor did secure more aid for private and parochial schools. The Education Investment Tax Credit (or Parental Choice in Education Act) was not included, but $250 million will go to non-public schools to cover mandates from the state.