BALCONY - Business and Labor Coalition of New York

Charter Schools owe the public a real explanation

February 14th, 2017

By Michael Mulgrew, President, The United Federation of Teachers

If charter schools are really public schools, why is so much of the information about their operations private – even secret? New York needs to do more now — especially with President Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education — to make sure that charters operate for the benefit of the public, not charter operators and their management organizations.

Charters that are allowed to operate without strong oversight can be a disaster for children and their communities. Michigan, home to Secretary DeVos, has let unregulated charters — many of them for-profit operations — proliferate to the point that charters threaten the financial viability of the entire Michigan public school system. Meanwhile 80 percent of Michigan charters show lower student achievement than the state’s neighborhood public schools.

The need for more oversight in New York is clear. New York parents or taxpayers who want to know where public money is going — for instance, how much a charter school pays its top managers — have to dig through IRS filings. Parents who want to know who is donating millions of dollars to a charter chain — and whether those millions are being spent to help students — have to search the internet for clues. Trying to find out how much charters are paying their management organizations — and for what service — is nearly impossible.

As a group, New York’s charter schools are not transparent, despite receiving public dollars, despite requirements that they accept and educate all children, despite parent calls for greater information and accountability in their admissions, financial and student discipline policies.

Many New York charters remain remarkably resistant to public scrutiny. Charter leader Eva Moskowitz – a dedicated opponent of charter transparency – even went to court to prevent the New York State Comptroller from auditing her chain’s books. She couldn’t stop a city audit, however, that showed sloppy financial practices in her operation.

If the system had real transparency, it would give the public a better sense of how charters are doing at enrolling, educating and keeping all children, includes those with the highest needs, and let the Legislature determine real penalties for any charter’s failure to do so.

In New York City, we have charter and neighborhood public schools sharing the same building, yet the public school will have three times the number of special education student and four times the number of homeless children as the charter school.

Real transparency would also let the public know how much charter operators — and their management organizations — actually take home, including payments from board members and other contributors, along with the identities and fees of their vendors. It would help determine which charters actually need free space and which could be tapping their own bank accounts rather than relying on the taxpayers.

The public can go to the city’s Department of Education website for itemized data on every single public school. Why should charters be exempt from the idea that the spending of public money should happen in public?

Expanding charters while reducing oversight will be only part of the DeVos agenda, which will also include voucher schemes and other privatization efforts. If we had any doubt on their impact, just ask Michigan parents, who saw their neighborhood public schools drained of resources by an unregulated, “Wild West” charter sector, which not only failed to perform but weakened all schools. Students, whether urban, suburban or rural, lost. The only winners were those trying to make a profit off of Michigan school children.

But New York has the opportunity now to lead in the opposite direction and to protect a precious resource. To do that, we need to make sure policies for all schools are transparent and public dollars are being spent fairly and for the benefit of all children.


NYSUT, PTA, NYSCOSS Launch “Public School Proud” Campaign to Show the Love

February 13th, 2017

The New York State PTA, New York State Council of School Superintendents  and New York State United Teachers today kicked off a statewide campaign to “show the love” to public education, inviting all New Yorkers to demonstrate individually – and through their school districts, communities and organizations – how important public schools are to society.


The non-partisan, non-political “Public School Proud” campaign is aimed at building support for public schools in the face of ongoing attacks and will complement efforts to gain more state aid for schools and build support for school budgets in May.  The campaign’s kickoff is timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14.  Participants will be invited to show their pride and love for public schools and post on social media using the hashtag #ILovePublicSchools.


NYSUT President Karen E. Magee said the campaign’s components include a special website,, which will serve as a clearinghouse for ideas, pictures and suggested opportunities for participants to demonstrate their advocacy for public schools.


“Our public schools are the foundation of our democracy and the lifeblood of our communities,” Magee said.  “We must support public education; defend it against attacks; and ensure that all students have opportunities to learn and grow in neighborhood public schools.”


NYSUT Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta said the union would be encouraging elected leaders to participate in the campaign.  “We will be encouraging state and local leaders to join us in ‘showing the love’ for public education by wearing buttons and proclaiming their support for public schools.”


“Our mission is to make every child’s potential a reality, and each and every day our New York schools and educators make this possible,” the PTA’s Gracemarie Rozea offered.  “We are honored to stand with our great teachers to support our public schools and students. The ‘T’ in PTA matters and we all work together to support our children.”

“New York schools celebrate amazing achievements every day for our students.  From art programs, to career and technical education, to our Intel and Siemens award winners, to support for our English language learners and our students with disabilities, our schools do more with less every day,” said PTA Executive Director Kyle Belokopitsky.  “This campaign will importantly highlight the great successes of our students and the great successes in our schools.”


NYSCOSS Executive Director Charles Dedrick said, “The Council is proud to join this effort. Our public schools are truly institutions of, by and for the people.  Our mission is to educate all children, whatever their circumstance, wherever they come from, whenever they arrive.”


Campaign organizers invited other pro-education groups to join the campaign, and indicated others would be doing so in the coming weeks.


New York State United Teachers is a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care.  NYSUT is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.


NYSUT reacts to confirmation of DeVos as education secretary

February 7th, 2017

ALBANY, N.Y. Feb. 7, 2017 – New York State United Teachers today released the following statement upon the U.S. Senate’s narrow confirmation amid bi-partisan opposition of billionaire donor Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary.

“The irony is inescapable: While educators are required to prove they are qualified in order to work in the classroom, the U.S. Senate has confirmed a dangerous ideologue with absolutely no experience or qualifications to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

“Betsy DeVos’ gave puzzling answers to basic questions about federal education policy. Her opposition to accountability for charter schools; unresolved conflicts of interest; and decades-long record of using her family’s fortune to undermine public education led hundreds of groups – and millions of Americans here in New York and across the country – to vigorously oppose her confirmation in phone calls, letters, e-mails and faxes. We are proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with them in defense of our public schools.

“We thank NYSUT members and all of those who fiercely advocated for students and public education during this fight. And, we again thank Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for their leadership on behalf of public education. NYSUT and its members will be redoubling our fierce advocacy on behalf of public education and students. Public education is the foundation of our democracy. Now, more than ever, we must protect it.”

New York State United Teachers is a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care. NYSUT is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.


Mulgrew reacts to confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary

February 7th, 2017

On Feb. 7, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence cast a tiebreaking vote in the Senate to confirm Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary.

In response, UFT President Michael Mulgrew issued the following statement:

This process made clear to parents and teachers across the country what billionaire Betsy DeVos is all about. She has contempt for public education and wants to dismantle neighborhood public schools. We know the DeVos playbook. Now we have to stand together and work to protect what we value — our public schools.


AFT President Randi Weingarten on the Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

February 7th, 2017

Statement of AFT President Randi Weingarten on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

“DeVos’ confirmation battle has a major silver lining: The public in public education has never been more visible or more vocal, and it is not going back in the shadows. This same public—from rural towns to urban centers, from liberals to conservatives—will now serve as a check and balance, and they will be fierce fighters on behalf of children. I am honored to be a soldier in that movement for children.

“It’s telling that even when Trump had full control of the legislative and executive branches, he could only get DeVos confirmed by an unprecedented tiebreaking vote by his vice president. That’s because DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools; a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives; and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school.

“If she wants to work with the educators who work hard every single day—in districts as diverse as McDowell County, W.Va., Detroit, and Scarsdale, N.Y.—to provide children the opportunities they deserve, we renew our invitation to have her visit America’s public schools and see the strategies that work for kids.

“But it’s more likely we’ll now hear the same trashing of public schools that the disrupters, the privatizers and the austerity hawks have used for the last two decades. That makes this a sad day for children.”


Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Pence Breaks Tie

February 7th, 2017


WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos on Tuesday as education secretary, approving the embattled nominee only with the help of a historic tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

The 51-to-50 vote elevates Ms. DeVos — a wealthy donor from Michigan who has devoted much of her life to expanding educational choice through charter schools and vouchers, but has limited experience with the public school system — to be steward of the nation’s schools.

Two Republicans voted against Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, a sign that some members of President Trump’s party are willing to go against him, possibly foreshadowing difficulty on some of the president’s more contentious legislative priorities.

It was the first time that a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination, according to the Senate historian. Taking the gavel as the vote deadlocked at 50-50, Mr. Pence, a former member of the House, declared his vote for Ms. DeVos before announcing that Mr. Trump’s nominee for education secretary had been confirmed.

The two Republicans who voted against the nominee, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced their opposition to her last week. In back-to-back floor speeches, the lawmakers said Ms. DeVos was unqualified because of a lack of familiarity with public schools and with laws meant to protect students, despite her passion for helping them.

Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski said they had also been influenced by the thousands of messages they had received urging them to reject the nomination.

For many in the education community, Ms. DeVos’s full-throated support for charter schools and vouchers — which allow students to use taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at private, religious and for-profit schools — is emblematic of a disconnection from the realities of the education system. Neither Ms. DeVos nor any of her children attended a public school. And she has never taken out a federal student loan, which is striking when considering she will head a department that is the country’s largest provider of student loans.

Having grown up in a wealthy family and married into the Amway fortune, Ms. DeVos, who has a web of financial investments, has raised red flags among critics who worry about the many opportunities for conflicts of interest. That concern was exacerbated when she became the first of Mr. Trump’s nominees not to complete an ethics review before appearing before a Senate panel.

Despite clamorous objections to Ms. DeVos from teachers’ unions and even some charter organizations that typically oppose them, opponents nonetheless fell shy of defeating her nomination. Most Republicans described her as committed and determined to put what is best for children above all else.

In a fiery speech moments before the vote, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and a former education secretary himself, criticized his Democratic colleagues for opposing Ms. DeVos, accusing them of opposing her because she was nominated by a Republican president.

Mr. Alexander, chairman of the committee that approved Ms. DeVos’s nomination last week in a straight, party-line split, said she had been “at the forefront” of education overhaul for decades. “She led the most effective public school reform movement over the last few years,” he said.

Lacking the votes to block Ms. DeVos, Democrats realized there was little they could do. Having exhausted every legislative option to slow consideration of her nomination, Democrats held vigil in the final 24 hours before her confirmation vote, coming to the Senate floor throughout the night and into the morning to reiterate their objections.

And though they spoke mostly to a chamber empty but for a handful of clerks, pages and other staff members, Democrats pressed their absent Republican colleagues to join them, hoping for an 11th-hour defection that would derail Ms. DeVos’s nomination.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee that approved Ms. DeVos — and a former educator herself — urged disheartened colleagues and advocates on Tuesday morning not to think of their efforts as a waste.

“It’s made an impact here and made a difference,” she said. “And I think it’s woken each of us up in this country to what we value and what we want.”

Shortly after Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that protested the nomination, said the public would now have to “serve as a check and balance” to her policies and be “fierce fighters on behalf of children.”

“It’s telling that even when Trump had full control of the legislative and executive branches, he could only get DeVos confirmed by an unprecedented tiebreaking vote by his vice president,” Ms. Weingarten said. “That’s because DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools, a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives, and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school.”

David E. Kirkland, an education professor at New York University who has studied Ms. DeVos’s impact in Michigan, said he feared she could badly hurt public education across the country and pull resources out of schools in need of federal funding. “Her extensive conflicts of interest and record of diverting money away from vulnerable students and into the pockets of the rich make DeVos completely unfit for the position she was just confirmed to,” he said.

Ms. DeVos has focused on expanding parental choice in education and embracing charter schools, but also on vouchers. Her ideology was a good fit for the education platform that Mr. Trump put forward during the campaign, which called for a $20 billion voucher initiative aimed at low-income children.

But freeing such an enormous sum would most likely require the reallocation of existing federal education money, as well as a realignment of congressional priorities. Vouchers were not part of a sweeping education overhaul passed in 2015, and lawmakers from rural areas, where schools tend to be farther apart, are particularly wary of school choice initiatives.

The Trump administration could potentially advance a more limited voucher program and seek tax credits for private school tuition or home schooling costs.

Ms. DeVos has also indicated that she would dismantle other pieces of the Obama administration’s legacy, potentially including a rule that denies federal student aid money to for-profit colleges whose graduates struggle to get jobs, as well as an aggressive effort to investigate and adjudicate campus sexual assault claims.

While they may have lost the fight against her confirmation, many advocates said they would continue to fight Ms. DeVos as she serves as education secretary. Some vowed to demonstrate at her public appearances at forums and schools and to seek public candidates friendly to their view to run for local office.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said her union would tap into the vast database of advocates it had built during Ms. DeVos’s confirmation process to help keep her in check. “As soon as she does something alarming, it will be known, it will be seen,” she said. “She won’t be able to hide.”

Mr. Trump’s choice of Ms. DeVos to lead the Department of Education, the smallest of the cabinet agencies, presented senators with a multitude of potential pitfalls. Her background as a prolific Republican fund-raiser who has donated about $200 million over the years to Republican causes and candidates — including some senators, as has been the case for previous presidential nominees — came under scrutiny.

Democrats have also expressed concern about her family’s contributions to groups that support so-called conversion therapy for gay people and her past statements that government “sucks” and that public schools are a “dead end.” Opponents have also focused on the poor performance of charter schools in Detroit, which she championed.

Senators and education advocates from both sides of the aisle also expressed alarm after Ms. DeVos, during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, confused core responsibilities of the Department of Education.

In one notable exchange that spread across the internet, Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, asked Ms. DeVos whether all schools that receive public money should have to follow the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark 1975 civil rights legislation. Under that federal law, states and school districts are required to provide special education services to children with disabilities.

Ms. DeVos said the issue was “best left to the states.”

“It was the most embarrassing confirmation hearing that I have ever seen,” Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, said before the vote on Tuesday. He demanded that Republicans explain how they could still support her.

“If we cannot set aside party loyalty long enough to perform the essential duty of vetting the president’s nominees, what are we even doing here?” Mr. Franken asked.

In a final push that included demonstrations around the country, constituents and advocates swamped Senate offices with calls and missives, so inundating the Capitol switchboard that it disrupted the Senate’s voice mail system.


Wanted: One Republican With Integrity, to Defeat Betsy DeVos

February 4th, 2017

By the Editorial Board

This country needs a few good Republicans — one more would do — to rescue it from Betsy DeVos, one of President Trump’s worst cabinet choices and his pick to run the Department of Education.

The vote to confirm Ms. DeVos is expected as soon as Monday, and the Republican senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine now say they’ll vote against her, citing hundreds of calls they’ve received from furious voters. The result would be a tie that Vice President Mike Pence would break in Ms. DeVos’s favor. The extra Republican vote could come from one of several independent-minded senators; one candidate is Lamar Alexander, an expert on public schools who actually owes the country a good turn because of his failure as chairman of the committee vetting Ms. DeVos to question her closely and to give more time to her critics.

There are few more telling examples of Mr. Trump’s disdain for the federal government’s critical role in lifting up America’s schoolchildren than his choice of Ms. DeVos. She has spent years funneling her inherited fortune into a campaign to replace the nation’s traditional public schools with federally funded charter schools, regardless of the latter’s performance, and supporting vouchers, which help families send children to private or parochial schools and drain funds from public schools that need more, not less, support.

Mr. Alexander didn’t give senators much time to question Ms. DeVos, but it was sufficient to reveal her near-total unfamiliarity with public education law, standards and even problems. A conservative ideologue, she fell back on most policy questions to an assertion that states should make their own rules, even on settled matters of federal law, like access for handicapped children.

She robotically refused to answer whether she would hold charter schools and other public schools equally accountable. She drew national ridicule when she rejected the notion of gun-free zones around schools, saying guns might come in handy for shooting “potential grizzlies” — an answer delivered to Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook shooting occurred.

Betsy DeVos’s nomination is not about making public education more effective, or helping publicly schooled children succeed; it’s about blowing up the system without a clue as to what comes next. Mr. Alexander was secretary of education himself, from 1991 to 1993, and he ran for president twice, speaking out against the influence of money in politics. And while he went way easy on Ms. DeVos in the hearings, he surely knows better than to place her in a job of such importance to the country’s future.

There are other bad cabinet nominees with credentials as dubious as Ms. DeVos’s whose possible ascension to high office should terrify any thoughtful Republican. Among those for whom final votes have yet to be held are Scott Pruitt, Tom Price and Steven Mnuchin, Mr. Trump’s picks for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Treasury. Mr. Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general repeatedly sued the agency he would now lead, showed his contempt for the Senate by repeatedly telling senators to go get the answers they wanted themselves, by filing records requests with the state of Oklahoma. Mr. Price has shown incredibly poor judgment by investing in health care stocks while writing and promoting legislation that would benefit those investments. Mr. Mnuchin, a Trump fund-raiser and financier, failed to disclose $100 million in personal assets as well as his role in an investment fund registered to an offshore tax haven.

The Senate’s constitutional duty to “advise and consent” on presidential nominations was intended by the founders to counter the wrong-headed populist impulses of the House. Voters should remind Republican senators that if they surrender to Mr. Trump on appointees so clearly unfit, they will be relinquishing a historic obligation and tarnishing themselves.


Betsy DeVos, Pick for Secretary of Education, Is the Most Jeered

February 3rd, 2017


By most any measure, the secretary of education is one of the least powerful cabinet positions.

The secretary is 16th in the line of succession to the presidency. Education accounts for a paltry 3 percent of the federal budget, compared with 24 percent for Social Security and 16 percent for defense. And the most recent major federal education law curtailed Washington’s role on testing, standards and accountability, turning much of the firepower in education policy back to states and school districts.

That is what has made the protest movement against Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee to be secretary of education, all the more remarkable.

After an underwhelming confirmation hearing in which Ms. DeVos seemed ignorant of major provisions of federal education law, such as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, some Senate offices reported receiving more calls opposing Ms. DeVos than any other Trump nominee.

At women’s marches across the country on Jan. 21, protesters carried signs ridiculing her as an out-of-touch billionaire. In Portland, Ore., high school students walked out of class in opposition to Ms. DeVos, and in Anchorage, protesters picketed the office of Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, demanding she vote against the nominee.

This week, Ms. Murkowski and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said they would oppose her confirmation, leaving Ms. DeVos one swing senator away from an embarrassing rejection. On Thursday, calls opposing Ms. DeVos so overwhelmed the Senate phone system that by the afternoon, offices were having trouble gaining access to their voice mail messages.

“We are experiencing heavy call volumes in all our offices,” Senator Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Staff is answering as many as possible.”

The opposition has come from some expected sources: well-funded progressive groups, teachers’ unions and the Democratic Party itself, as well as from grass-roots local parents’ and teachers’ organizations.

But as clamorous as these protests have become, Ms. DeVos is also imperiled by a lack of support from constituencies that a Republican nominee might normally count on.

As a philanthropist and an advocate, she has fought not only for the expansion of the charter school sector — a bipartisan cause — but also for school vouchers, which can allow students to carry taxpayer dollars to private schools, for-profit schools, religious schools and online schools.

Nationwide, most charter schools, including those in the best-known networks, like the KIPP schools, are nonprofit. But the opposite is true in Ms. DeVos’s home state, Michigan, where she has wielded great influence over education policy and beat back efforts to increase oversight of charter schools in Detroit.

Research suggests that traditional public schools and nonprofit charter schools generally outperform for-profit charters and private schools that accept vouchers, and some organizations representing nonprofit charter schools have come out against Ms. DeVos. The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association wrote a letter to Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, last month saying that it was “deeply concerned that efforts to grow school choice without a rigorous accountability system will reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”

On Wednesday, the philanthropist Eli Broad, a leading funder of nonprofit charter schools, wrote to Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, and Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic minority leader, opposing Ms. DeVos’s confirmation.

“Before Mrs. DeVos’s hearing, I had serious concerns about her support for unregulated charter schools and vouchers as well as the potential conflicts of interest she might bring to the job,” Mr. Broad wrote, possibly alluding to investments she has made in education-related companies. “Her testimony not only reinforced my concerns but also added to them.”

School choice may not do much to help sparsely populated rural communities, a factor Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski cited in their decisions to oppose Ms. DeVos. And the idea of having children attend virtual schools at a computer screen, while a growing practice, leaves many parents and educators cold.

“In rural Alaska, there is one school, and that’s the hub of the community,” said Alyse Galvin, a mother of four and a founder of Great Alaska Schools, which has organized opposition in the state to Ms. DeVos. “That’s where people hang. It’s where the warmth is. In some of these places, it’s where the only running water is.

“You can’t imagine it if you haven’t been there,” she continued. Ms. DeVos, she said, “hasn’t been there.”

Some in the self-described education reform community have greeted Ms. DeVos’s nomination warmly. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group based in Washington, has endorsed her. “Throughout her career Mrs. DeVos has worked to empower parents and give families strong educational options, so they can do what is best for their child,” the group said in a statement when her nomination was announced. “We look forward to working with Mrs. DeVos.”

She has also attracted support from Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and presidential candidate, who supports school accountability and has close ties to for-profit educational efforts.

Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy charter school network in New York City, and herself a lightning rod for using confrontational political tactics, is one nonprofit charter leader who has vocally supported Ms. DeVos. “I don’t personally want to run virtual schools,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “I like seeing the children, and I think building loving communities is something that is personally important. But should they be an option and can they be done well? I believe yes.”

“What we should be worried about is that so many millions of children are not getting a good education,” she added.

On Friday, the Senate voted to advance Ms. DeVos’s nomination to a final confirmation vote, expected early next week. All 48 senators in the Democratic caucus are expected to oppose her. Even with the two Republicans against her, Ms. DeVos could still be confirmed because Vice President Mike Pence would have the tiebreaking vote. But a third Republican “nay” vote would doom her.

It has not helped Ms. DeVos that she exemplifies much that liberals find objectionable about the Trump administration. She is a Christian conservative, an heir to the Amway fortune and a longtime Republican Party donor. At her confirmation hearing, she would not commit to following a number of President Obama’s education regulations, on matters including campus sexual assault and reining in low-performing for-profit colleges.

Then she ran into the political-entertainment buzz saw, which has made maximum use of some of her (unintentionally) humorous comments at her confirmation hearing. Millions of people have viewed a “Daily Show” segment in which Trevor Noah excoriates her as unqualified, focusing on her statement that guns should be allowed in schools to protect children against “grizzlies.” Celebrities including Michael Moore and Olivia Wilde have spoken out against her.

The late night host Jimmy Kimmel said Ms. DeVos “has no experience in education” and noted that her children had attended private schools. If grizzly bears are a problem in public schools, he joked, maybe Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, should be secretary of education.

But Ms. DeVos is not the first nominee to lack hands-on experience in running a school system or to hold controversial views. The first secretary, Shirley Hufstedler, appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, was a federal judge. President Ronald Reagan’s second-term pick, William J. Bennett, had strong ties to the religious right and was known for picking fights on hot-button issues like bilingual education and affirmative action. Yet even these nominees were confirmed with bipartisan support and little notice from the public.

This level of opposition “would have been shocking in Bill Bennett’s time,” said Grover J. Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Education Department official under President George W. Bush. “There was a deference to the president and his ability to have his cabinet appointments, and an institutional respect in the Senate. That has evaporated.

“Poor Mrs. DeVos is a victim of her poor performance in her hearing,” he said, “but also of broader political theater.”


Cuomo’s packed higher ed agenda to meet legislative scrutiny

January 24th, 2017

By Keshia Clukey

ALBANY — The state Assembly and Senate will hear from education leaders Tuesday as they parse through the governor’s at times disjointed 2017-18 higher education agenda and work toward a final budget.

The jewel of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget is a plan for tuition-free college for eligible students at the State and City University Systems’ two- and four-year institutions. Yet through another proposal, CUNY’s senior colleges and SUNY’s comprehensives would be allowed to raise tuition by up to $250 annually.

And while tuition-free college could result in an enrollment increase for SUNY and CUNY, Cuomo’s budget projects a continued decrease in SUNY’s community college enrollment, and therefore a decrease in spending.

“On the surface it can look like a contradiction,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, the union that represents union employees.

But given SUNY campuses’ requests for increased tuition dollars, Cuomo’s budget responded with two seemingly different proposals, Kowal said. “[It] will be up to the Legislature to decide.”

The governor’s higher education proposal was aimed to help “alleviate the crushing burden of student debt,” increasing access and “strengthen the ability of New York’s colleges and universities to excel academically and act as an economic engine for their regions,” according to the executive budget briefing book released this month.

Cuomo’s proposal for 2017-18 includes $7.454 billion in spending for higher education across the state, which includes daily operations, student investment and indirect funding for SUNY, CUNY, the state Education Department and the Higher Education Services Corporation. This is an approximately $383 million increase over 2016-17. Cuomo also plans to slightly increase Tuition Assistance Program grants from $954 million to $990 million, according to the financial plan.

The proposal also includes $163 million for the “Excelsior Scholarship Program,” which would allow eligible full-time students to attend the state’s two- and four-year public universities tuition free. It would also cover tuition for students enrolled in five-year programs. The proposal phases in the eligibility requirements, providing tuition-free public college to students from households earning $100,000 annually in fall of 2017, then up to $110,000 in 2018 and $125,000 in 2019. The program is “last dollar,” meaning the state would cover tuition owed by students after the application of federal Pell and state TAP grants. It does not cover additional costs, like books and fees, which SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher on Monday said SUNY is looking into.

The scholarship dollar amount is accounted for in the budget proposal mostly through scholarships, as well as a modest TAP increase and an increase in community college operating aid, according to the Division of Budget.

Though the proposal was praised by education groups and many lawmakers, there’s concern, especially among Senate Republicans, about the cost and potential impact on private colleges, which could see a corresponding decline in enrollment.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, last week said his conference needs to take a hard look at the cost, adding that he thought $163 million was a low estimate.

The Division of Budget believes the cost estimate is reasonable, given that it’s a last dollar plan and the cost of tuition and fees in New York are low compared with other states, about 20 percent below the national average. The state also already contributes a sizable amount through financial assistance programs, according the Division of Budget.

Zimpher touted the proposal in her State of the University address Monday, and speaking with media after said it’s up to the Legislature to unpack what the cost entails.

“I don’t know their calculations. I trust that they’ve put a great deal of thought into this,” she said of the administration. “I think the support the governor’s given us in the executive budget…ought to speak volumes about the governor’s support for public higher education, and I think it does.”

The tuition proposal freezes tuition rates at the 2016-17 level for scholarship recipients, and it’s unclear if that would change each year.

“There would be real problems for campuses which would have to eat the difference between future tuition and what the state would be ‘paying,’” Kowal said.

Full-time, in-state tuition is $4,800 at CUNY’s community colleges and $6,330 at its four-year colleges for the 2016-17 school year, according to CUNY. The resident undergraduate tuition rate at the SUNY’s state-operated campuses is $6,470 as of 2016-17, according to SUNY data. Tuition at SUNY’s community colleges is $4,366 on average.

The SUNY Board of Trustees, in its own budget recommendations, called for the ability to increase tuition. An extension of the original SUNY/CUNY 2020 plan, known as “rational tuition,” failed to make it through the Legislature the last two sessions, with lawmakers instead freezing tuition rates for the 2016-17 school year, coinciding with an election year.

Cuomo presented a revised version, which would allow the four-year senior colleges and state-operated campuses to raise tuition up to $250 each year.

State direct operating aid for the SUNY state-operated campuses has declined, from $767.2 million in 2010-11 to $676.4 million in 2016-17, according to SUNY numbers. Division of Budget spokesman Morris Peters had previously said the state’s annual support for SUNY overall has increased by more than $600 million during the Cuomo administration.

The governor’s proposal calls for a $153 million increase in spending for the SUNY state-operated campuses, including campus operations and employee fringe benefits. It also includes $550 million in critical maintenance funding.

As for CUNY, Cuomo’s budget calls for selling a building used by the city system to “offset” a reduction in operating funds for the system’s senior colleges. The plan includes a reduction in state operating support for CUNY’s senior colleges: from $1.21 billion in the 2017 fiscal year to $1.14 billion in the proposed 2018 fiscal year, down $63 million. But a summary of the senior college spending in the budget briefing book does not include the reduction in the financial plan, but an increase of $30 million.

Cuomo included $284 million for infrastructure improvements and critical maintenance at the senior colleges, all of which was lauded by CUNY Chancellor James Milliken, who in a statement called it a “significant investment,” not mentioning the building sale.

Kowal also argued that the tuition-free plan would mean public universities will have to add staff and resources to meet an assumed rise in enrollment, in turn necessitating a bigger state investment in the school systems.

Cuomo’s proposal, though, shows a decrease in spending on community colleges, going from $751 million in 2016-17 to $731 in 2017-18. The decline is mainly attributed to a decrease in enrollment at SUNY community colleges, which had an increase during the recession as people went back to school and is now declining as they re-enter the workforce.

Cuomo’s proposal includes $478 million for SUNY’s community colleges, a decrease of 5.2 percent over the previous year, but increases CUNY community college spending by 1.6 percent, from $248 million in 2016-17 to $252 million. CUNY’s enrollment has been more stable in recent years, according to the Division of Budget.

The state community college system gets about a third of its funding from the state, a third from the community (usually the county) and a third from students, so when state aid doesn’t adequately cover costs, the county or tuition need to rise to meet the baseline.

“It’s very important to maintain the base operating support to make sure the programs and services that people have access to are as strong as they can be,” said Randy VanWagoner, president of Mohawk Valley Community College and the New York State Association of Community College Presidents. Community colleges may not see as much of the benefit as they would have had four-year colleges not been included in the proposal, he said.

There are other factors, including changes at the federal level, that could drastically change the state’s financial situation, which Kowal hopes the Legislature will be mindful of.

“It’s a starting point to the discussion,” he said.

In coming weeks, after discussing Cuomo’s plan, the Senate and Assembly will come out with their own budget proposals. Discussions will follow as the governor and Legislature aim to pass a final budget by the April 1 deadline.


Trump Administration Voucher Scheme — a Threat to New York City Children

January 24th, 2017

by Michael Mulgrew, President, The United Federation of Teachers

Students in more than 1,200 New York City schools would face higher class sizes, have fewer teachers and lose after-school academic and enrichment programs if President-elect Donald Trump makes good on a campaign promise to pull billions of federal dollars away from public schools to pay for private vouchers.

While Trump has yet to specify where the administration would find the money to start a national school voucher program, Republicans have previously tried to use a source that provides New York City with $500 million a year — federal Title 1 funds that are designated to help students in poverty.

More than 700,000 students — overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic — attend the 1,265 city schools where Title 1 funds help defray the costs of teachers, guidance counselors, aides and administrators. Should the Title 1 money disappear, Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton, New Utrecht, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Madison high schools would lose nearly $9 million in total, while Francis Lewis, Hillcrest, Bayside and John Bowne high schools in Queens would lose a total of more than $6 million.

More than 900 elementary and middle schools across the city would lose funds, over a dozen of them roughly $1 million each.

New York City traditional public schools that would lose the most Title 1 funding:

Title 1 funding by New York state assembly, senate, and congressional districts:

If the school system had to make up a $500 million loss of Title 1 funds, more than these schools would suffer. The damage would spread through the system, raising class sizes even in non-Title 1 schools, threatening academic enrichment programs, guidance, art and music and other services our children depend on.

The diversion of public funds from public schools — through charters, vouchers or both — is a pattern already embraced by high-level members of the new administration.

Vice-President-elect Mike Pence strongly backed a voucher program as governor of Indiana. The nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has played a leading role in undermining public education in her home state of Michigan.

The trouble is their voucher and charter plans don’t work.

A study from the University of Notre Dame found that the Indiana’s voucher program was a windfall for private schools, most of which attracted white students, but on average the students’ performance suffered compared to their peers in public schools.

As the Brookings Institution noted in reviewing studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and other jurisdictions, “In Indiana, a student who had entered a private school with a math score at the 50th percentile declined to the 44th percentile after one year… A case to use taxpayer funds to send children of low-income parents to private schools is based on an expectation that the outcome will be positive. These recent findings point in the other direction.”

Vouchers are not the only issue. DeVos is a major contributor to New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools and a supporter of the charter movement in general. But the charters in DeVos’s home state of Michigan are a mess, with 80 percent performing worse than traditional public schools. Yet DeVos — a billionaire whose family has also opposed workers’ rights, gay marriage and has contributed heavily to a variety of other right-wing causes – has led the way in resisting any attempts to regulate or improve charter performance.

While public schools lose resources and charter students lose ground, the big winners in Michigan have been investors in for-profit charters and private schools, including those with their own financial resources, that now get public funds.

The failed education policies of Pence and DeVos drain resources from the traditional public schools, while in too many cases proving an empty promise for students and their families.

That’s why New York cannot afford to let such failed policies take hold here. We New Yorkers need to come together to protect our public schools, and fight off attempts to charterize, voucherize and eventually privatize our public schools.