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Testimony regarding Gov. Cuomo's proposal to implement state takeovers of public schools


Testimony of UFT Vice President for Academic High Schools Janella Hinds before the New York State Assembly Committee on Education

Good afternoon and thank you, Chairwoman Nolan and members of the Education Committee, for this opportunity to present testimony today. My name is Janella Hinds, and I am the vice president of academic high schools for the United Federation of Teachers. It is a privilege to come before you today on behalf of New York City’s public school educators and the 1.1 million students we serve.

The UFT believes that all students deserve great schools. We have worked diligently with our school district leaders and school communities to promote the success of every single child. This mission to provide a quality education to every child guided our inclusion of dedicated time for professional development and parent engagement during the school day in our 2014 collective-bargaining agreement with the New York City Department of Education. It is why we champion initiatives like the Community Learning Schools and the expansion of universal prekindergarten. It is why UFT members annually give nearly $1 million in scholarships to academically excellent and financially eligible college-bound public school students.

Our members are committed to educating the children who attend the schools that the state has designated persistently struggling or out of time.

But in New York City, our educators, school communities and parents have been down this Draconian path before. We’ve had school improvement plans, turnaround schools and school closures. Over the 12 years of the Bloomberg administration, the city closed over 150 schools. The problems were then pushed down the street to the next school to inherit a large number of high-need students without the resources to help them. This approach largely ignored the underlying challenges facing students and their teachers. We’ve lived this, and we’re here to tell you it doesn’t work. If it did, then schools opened in the past 15 years would not be on this list. And if we sound frustrated or upset, it’s because these reforms aren’t based on evidence-based pedagogy, they’re rooted in politics. Private interests have taken a serious interest in public education. There’s a desire to privatize public schools and to nullify collective-bargaining agreements. So that’s our frustration — this ultimately isn’t about making education better for these children.

Let me state clearly that we oppose receivership. We don’t support its underlying premise that removing local control of public schools benefits children. We believe this heavy-handed action detracts from our mission to improve the quality of instruction and support for children facing the greatest challenges. Receivership dances around the root of the problem. Local school districts and educators that serve high concentrations of students living in poverty must deliver better support programs. But they must have the resources to fund those programs.

Further, we believe that receivership is unnecessary for New York City public schools. The state’s receivership law requires that local school districts use a community schools approach to support services and expand learning time, steps that New York City has already taken with its Renewal Schools initiative.

The real intended consequence of receivership — whether designating an independent manager or forcing local superintendents into the receiver role — is to override local collective-bargaining agreements. At the end of the day, it’s leverage to terminate teachers and other educators.

To put our testimony in context, I ask that this committee first focus on how these challenges and their solutions are affected by the governor’s refusal to provide overdue funding as required by the resolution of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Borough by borough, Manhattan community school districts were owed a combined $376 million; the Bronx, $514 million; Brooklyn, $725 million; Queens, $704 million and Staten Island, $154 million, before last year’s budget process. While these totals do not include high schools, two schools that may be familiar to this committee, Grover Cleveland High School and Aviation Career & Technical High School, were owed over $4.9 million and $5.9 million respectively in CFE funds at the start of last year’s budget season.

We don’t doubt that the state lawmakers who supported the law establishing New York’s school receivership program want to see successful outcomes for our students. We can all agree that schools that struggle need help. The prescription for that help is where we depart with the governor.

New York City’s Struggling Schools educate children with the highest needs

So let’s talk about those students. People who want to destroy public education will talk to you about “passing percentages” and “graduation rates” and will tell you that these schools have lower passing and graduation rates than virtually every school in the state.

And, in fact, that may be true.

But, deceptively, what they neglect to point out to you, because they have a political agenda, is that where the scores are the lowest, the challenges are also the highest. It’s not the quality of the teachers or the quality of district support that are driving lower graduation rates and poorer results on state exams. It’s those challenges — challenges such as poverty, homelessness, severe learning disabilities and a lack of proficiency in English.   

In fact, even in New York City, where virtually all schools serve large numbers of students who are at risk, the Struggling Schools stand out. Consider for example:

  • On average, one in every ten students in New York City middle schools has lived in temporary housing in the past few years, but in the Struggling Schools the rate is double, more than two in every ten.
  • Similarly, the struggling middle schools serve about twice as many English language learners (20 percent) and twice as many high-need students with disabilities in self-contained classrooms (12 percent). 

The high concentrations of students with challenges in particular schools is as much a problem as the individual challenges themselves, which is why we recommend that the state focus its energies on addressing enrollment issues and holding schools harmless from drastic consequences until those enrollment issues are addressed. 

Our city’s teachers absolutely embrace these challenges, and they know every child can be successful.  But when schools are under-resourced and over-punished, teachers also know that they will bear the brunt of political, rather than educational, decisions. Ultimately, it becomes harder and harder to attract and retain teachers for the very kids who need them most.

Renewal Schools in New York City, ahead of the state 

One of the great ironies of the state receivership law is that it seeks to take schools out of the hands of New York City's district management, even though the state copied the DOE’s management policies when it created the law. After all, the overwhelming majority of the schools designated as struggling in New York City are already part of the city DOE’s Renewal Schools program. So go figure: the law demands that schools removed from a district’s control and placed in receivership must become a community school. But that good idea came from our city’s Renewal Program where all schools are community schools.  The law also strongly encourages extended learning opportunities. Again, New York City Renewal Schools (through the partnership of the UFT and the DOE) are already implementing that. We also have strong policies and practices in place to support teachers, hold them accountable, and make sure schools are properly staffed.

And, in spite of so many needs in so many places, the de Blasio administration is working to get these schools the resources they need. In spite of the difficulties in obtaining the education funding from the state stipulated in the CFE settlement, the de Blasio administration is investing more than $750 million in the Renewal Schools over three years. The city is also pairing its Renewal Schools with nonprofits and agencies that will deliver health services, counseling and other services to students and families.

The city’s School Renewal Program, which is only one year old, is already showing signs of progress.  

Brooklyn’s PS 29, the Betty Shabazz school, ranks in the city’s bottom 5 percent on test scores, just like all receivership schools.  But it also ranks in the top five percent for level of student needs, with greater student need than 97 percent of schools citywide. One in every four children has been in temporary housing within the last few years. Nearly one in three children requires special education services. These are daunting challenges, but because of the Renewal program, the teachers, the school leadership and the DOE are working together to bring real changes to this school.

As a community school, Betty Shabazz is working with the Partnership for Children to offer counseling and other support to students. With targeted reading programs, teachers are able to give additional reading and writing help to students during the extended learning time. Almost all classrooms now have smart boards, and all teachers finally have laptops.  Teachers are also receiving more professional development. Under new leadership, the school now has administrators that actually teach demonstration lessons, a real game-changer for teachers at the school.   

Fannie Lou Hamer Middle School (PS 286) in the Bronx is engaging both students and their families in ways that will make a difference in academics at the school. After this District 12 middle school tied incentives to its attendance initiatives, the needle began moving in a positive direction. Families are involved in school life and parents can take English language classes.  This spring, parents participated in the DOE’s annual school survey at twice the rate of the previous year, a sure sign of better family involvement in the school.

PS 286’s extended learning time provides additional instruction and remediation opportunities for all students. But the time also includes peer counseling and art offerings. John Hopkins and the Children’s Aid Society, the CBO partners at the school, provide attendance, extended learning and social work support

Aggressive, strategic intervention is more effective than high-profile receivership

Renewal can work – but renewal takes time. These schools require a proactive and purposeful intervention built on sound education practice. Most critically, schools designated as Struggling or Persistently Struggling require an influx of tailored supports and resources. The children and their parents deserve a strategic approach that targets and removes the barriers to achievement and successful outcomes.
In lieu of receivership, we recommend the following:

  • Instituting a broader, more systemic approach to combating poverty and inequities across New York State districts;
  • Changing enrollment practices to reduce high concentrations of high-need students in particular schools;
  • Holding schools with the highest concentrations of high-need students harmless from punitive interventions such as school closure and receivership;
  • Expanding the way school success is measured (i.e., the Demonstrable Growth metrics in the proposed regulations) to aspects of school improvement beyond just test scores, so that children in high-poverty schools get the fully rounded education they deserve rather than endless rounds of test prep;
  • Ensuring that the state Education Commissioner, and not a statistical formula, makes the determination of whether or not a school is placed in receivership;
  • Ensuring that schools that are already implementing the very programs that receivership purports to encourage (such as the community school models and expanded learning time) are not placed into receivership;
  • Infusing proper support and dedicated resources as a proactive approach, as the New York City Department of Education is doing through its School Renewal Program;
  • Offering real support and interventions that are right for our students, including extended learning time; roles for teacher leaders; adequate professional development; support from specialists in literacy, language and special education; and strong community partnerships that support academic, mental and physical wellness; and
  • Reinforcing collective-bargaining agreements supporting the local control of school districts.

Receivership has not been the cure-all promoted by education reformers

To further understand why we oppose taking the drastic step of using receivers to manage struggling schools, let’s examine how receivership has not been the cure-all promoted by so-called education “reformers.”

For instance, the Indiana State Board of Education jumped on the receivership bandwagon and farmed out school oversight of four persistently low-achieving schools in Indianapolis and one in Gary to independent education management organizations in 2012. A review by the Indianapolis Star reveals a negative impact on funding and enrollment and finger-pointing between the district and the receivers on accountability. Most troubling, enrollment plummeted 35 to 60 percent at the four Indianapolis schools taken over by charter operators, severely reducing school budgets. In one case, an exasperated outside receiver threatened to quit, and in the Gary school district the for-profit Edison Learning sued the state over unpaid utility bills for the school it manages. According to the state’s own grading system, the majority of the schools in receivership still earned an F.

Many New York State educators and policy makers are familiar with the high-profile takeover of the Roosevelt school district on Long Island in 2002. It is not a ringing endorsement for state receivership. According to a 2013 report by Newsday’s John Hildebrand, the $300 million investment over nine years yielded moderately improved budget deficits, but student performance has largely lagged behind other Long Island districts.

Conversely, moderate improvements in academic outcomes and teacher retention in Lawrence, Massachusetts were driven by significantly increasing resources (both human and financial capital) and professional development. In the Massachusetts case, teacher turnover was kept to a minimum, the receiver negotiated with the union, and increased investment and resources were delivered at the school level. But this case is the exception, not the rule.

Receivership is a disruptive intervention designed to punish school communities and score political points. Most critically, its remedies are ineffective. These approaches aren’t specifically aligned to the particular school population, fail to address enrollment practices that result in a small number of schools absorbing a disproportionate number of high-need students, and ignore the impact of poverty and academic deficiencies. Likewise, blaming teachers – rather than supporting them – and nullifying collective-bargaining agreements will impede recruitment and retention at struggling schools. Receivership is an end-run around local control and a taxpayer- funded step toward privatizing public education.

Our city’s struggling schools need serious intervention. But parachuting in outsiders with heavy-handed, scorched-earth policies is not the answer. The students in these schools need intervention programs, trained support staff, enrichment, access to opportunities and the time and commitment of adults with expertise.

We remain optimistic

We are optimistic about the future of public education in our city. Our Renewal teams are aggressively implementing their plans in collaboration with the administration for the benefit of our students. Based on our 2014 collective-bargaining agreement, educators have a voice in securing relevant professional learning opportunities to help them master their craft. There’s a renewed respect for parent engagement.

Accountability under the current city administration is a two-way street. Superintendents are now responsible for providing the school leaders and educators within their district with the tools and support they need to improve teaching and learning.

We don’t believe New York City schools need outside nor superintendent receivers. We urge your committee’s support to keep schools under local district control and remove the specter of receivership as the favored course of intervention.

What our schools need to make them better is the investment of proper resources — not receivers.

Related Topics: Struggling Schools