BALCONY - Business and Labor Coalition of New York

Taxpayers Benefit If Investors Absorb Risks of Infrastructure Projects

April 9th, 2015

NY times small

By: Michael Likosky, co-head of infrastructure at 32 Advisors.

Few would dispute that America faces an infrastructure crisis as cities, states and the nation remain cash-strapped. Just look at the pending transportation bill, which would vastly underfund our needs, to see how low a priority infrastructure is in Washington.

But investors see opportunities to finance the difference between what we need and what we can afford to pay by, say, upgrading a port and being repaid by fees from shippers.

This is distinct from traditionally financed projects in that the investor can only recoup costs, and profit, as long as the port performs well. And the investor would only pay contractors when the job is done to spec. The contractor would have to cover any cost overruns themselves, rather than going back to the government for pay to complete a project. Ultimately, the private investor, not taxpayers, would bear the risk of poor performance or unexpected delays.

America’s infrastructure needs vary greatly from project to project. Different investors have grown up to finance distinct needs. Private investment can present a genuine opportunity for governments and communities as long as both sides are attuned to the needs and requirements of the other and the right match is made.

Some want only mature infrastructure assets that they can fix up and sell. Some pursue high risk/high return projects in which they will get paid only if their projections are realized and, if not, the government gets a cost-free project. A pension fund, for instance, might be willing to build a project from scratch even if they don’t realize their return for a number of years. Other investors may agree to invest in infrastructure unable to be supported from user fees such as structurally deficient bridges, in exchange for regular payments from government over a period of time.

Solving our infrastructure crisis can be as much about politics as about money, though. Labor groups might be wary of privately financed projects that pay lower wages than the ones several generations of workers have fought to gain. Rural communities might want water, but not if investors demand a high rate of return.

But is being locked in a fight with no winner worth being passed over for investment that supports our economic competitiveness, growth and basic health? We do not simply need more money in the system, but more targeted investment opportunities where the key stakeholders, including financiers, are also willing to think innovatively and work through challenges that often derail projects.

Michael Likosky is the co-Head of Infrastructure at 32 Advisors. He has over fifteen years of experience providing advice to many of our nation’s leaders and acting as an expert in infrastructure and public and private partnerships.

Likosky holds a JD and DPhil (Oxford Law). He is an expert on infrastructure, oil and gas, mining, free zones, human rights, foreign investment, and high technology growth strategies. He has published five books in these areas including three with Cambridge University Press. His most recent book, Obama’s Bank: Financing a Durable New Deal, looks at the Obama Administration’s approach to public-private partnerships. His other books are: Law, Infrastructure and Human Rights; Privatizing Development; Transnational Legal Processes; and The Silicon Empire.

Likosky is an Expert to the Clinton Global Initiative, the OECD, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. He co-chaired California Governor Edmund Brown Jr’s Task Force to Modernize the CA Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, the country’s oldest infrastructure bank with over thirty-two billion dollars lent out to-date. Likosky is a regular contributor to the World Investment Reports, Oxford Amnesty Lectures, and Trade and Development Report.

Likosky’s work has been supported by Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Arts and Humanities Research Board, Surdna Foundation, Markle Foundation, Chatham House, and others.

He advises public officials, private investors, pension plans, and inter-governmental organizations. Likosky has advised US Treasury; US Senators John Kerry (then), Charles Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Bill Nelson; US Representative Rosa De Lauro; California Governor Edmund Brown Jr.; New York State Empire State Development Corporation; CA Business Transportation and Housing Agency; CA State Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank; the cities of Chicago and Newark; D. E. Shaw; Deutsche Bank; Credit Suisse, McKinsey; Goldman Sachs; Standard and Poor’s; broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN), International Development Law Organization; the capital stewardship programs of SEIU, AFT, UFCW, and LiUNA, and others.

He has published opinion pieces and appeared in outlets such as New York Times, New York Times Deal Book, Wall Street Journal, CNN Money, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Reuters, Bond Buyer, American Banker, Institutional Investing in Infrastructure, Infrastructure Journal, PPP Bulletin, Engineering News-Record, Africa Investor, and elsewhere.

Likosky has delivered keynote and featured talks to Project Finance International (Master Class), Bond Buyer’s Annual Transportation P3 event, American Society of Civil Engineers, the US Chamber of Commerce; State Chief Financial Officers Roundtable, Oxford Law, Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, Max Planck-Halle, and elsewhere.

He founded and directed NYU’s Center on Law and Public Finance and was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge, was Professor of International Economic Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and has held fellowships and visiting posts at Oxford Law, NYU Law, Fordham Law, Wisconsin Law, and the University of Bonn.

Since 2008, Likosky has convened the Reinvesting in America Series often in partnership with OECD, Partnership for NYC, Clinton Global Initiative, Citizens Budget Commission, Debevoise & Plimpton, Shearman Sterling, British Telecom, and Hogan Lovells. It features members of Congress; public officials from US Treasury, Defense, Transportation and Commerce; as well as state officials. The series includes small off-the-record discussions and large public events. It alternates between New York and Washington DC.


Real estate developers are wary of changes as expiration looms for popular tax break

April 7th, 2015


Real estate executives said they are being left in the dark when it comes to the details being hashed out by the de Blasio administration for a revised 421-a program.

By Daniel Geiger

It’s the $1.1 billion question that no one in the city’s real estate industry has the answer to.

A state tax abatement known as 421-a that is considered key to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal of creating 80,000 new affordable apartments in the next decade is set to expire in June. Although the industry expects 421-a to be renewed in some form, no one outside the mayor’s inner circle has any idea what a revised 421-a program will look like. The program cost the city about $1.1 billion in tax revenue last year.

“The administration has made clear we do not believe 421-a as it exists today has produced nearly enough affordable housing for its cost to the public,” said a spokesman for the mayor, who would not comment on the administration’s lack of communication with the industry on any revisions. “As with all our programs, our goal is to maximize the amount of affordable housing we can build and reach a wider range of New Yorkers in need.”

The uncertainty has left affordable-housing advocates and real estate executives concerned that a revised 421-a will upend their ability to build economically feasible projects. The lack of details from the mayor’s office as time runs out is a far cry from when 421-a was scheduled to expire in 2006, during the Bloomberg administration.

“For the 2006 renewal of 421-a, Bloomberg put together a whole task force, which represented all the interested parties and met for months beforehand,” said Margaret Newman, executive director of the Municipal Art Society. “You need that kind of process to bring along the real estate community and the affordable-housing advocacy community and to get them to buy in on the changes.”

This time around, Mr. de Blasio’s office has decided to put together its recommendations for the program with little formal consultation with the real estate community. The mayor’s office can suggest changes to 421-a, but ultimately any revisions are in the hands of the state legislature in Albany. According to Ms. Newman and other real estate executives who remember the process in 2006, Albany generally includes changes suggested by the city.

The plan works by allowing developers of apartment buildings to receive significant tax discounts for up to 25 years in return for allotting 20% of a project’s units as affordable housing. In many areas of the city, though, developers receiving the tax break are not required to include affordable units in their projects, which is one reason why the program has come under fire from tenants’ rights groups.

Among the changes expected is an increase in the percentage of affordable units a builder has to deliver to benefit from the tax break. The city is also expected to recommend a revision to rules in which developers are allowed to receive the tax benefit without setting aside affordable units.

But several real estate executives who spoke to Crain’s complained that without an open dialogue among all the legislation’s stakeholders a clearer picture of what is economically feasible—and what isn’t—hasn’t had the chance to take shape as it did with the task force in 2006.

Some say there simply won’t be enough time for the city to put together and lobby Albany for thoughtful revisions to 421-a. If the city bumps up the level of affordable units required for a developer to include in a project to 25% or 30%, developers say 421-a will no longer be beneficial. Projects would no longer be profitable in some areas of the city unless the length of the tax break is extended beyond 25 years, they noted.

Another concern among developers is a rumored effort by the city’s construction unions to lobby for the inclusion of prevailing wages on 421-a projects. Such a requirement would essentially require developers to use more expensive union labor, which many say would make affordable-housing construction difficult.


At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics

April 7th, 2015

NY times small

By Kate Taylor

At most schools, if a child is flailing academically, it is treated as a private matter.

But at Success Academy Harlem 4, one boy’s struggles were there for all to see: On two colored charts in the hallway, where the students’ performance on weekly spelling and math quizzes was tracked, his name was at the bottom, in a red zone denoting that he was below grade level.

The boy, a fourth grader, had been in the red zone for months. His teacher, Kristin Jones, 23, had held meetings with his mother, where the teacher spread out all the weekly class newsletters from the year, in which the charts were reproduced. If he studied, he could pass the spelling quizzes, Ms. Jones said — he just was not trying. But the boy got increasingly frustrated, and some weeks Ms. Jones had to stop herself from looking over his shoulder during the quizzes so she would not become upset by his continued mistakes.

Then, one Friday in December, she peeked at his paper, and a smile spread over her face. After he handed in his quiz, she announced to the class that he had gotten a 90. “I might start crying right now,” she said, only half-joking. “I’ve got to call your mom.”

In its devotion to accountability, Success Academy, New York City’s polarizing charter school network, may have no peer.

Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.

Those kinds of numbers have helped Success, led by Eva S. Moskowitz, expand to become the city’s largest network of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. By next year Ms. Moskowitz, known for her attention-grabbing rallies and skirmishes with the teachers’ union and Mayor Bill de Blasio, will have 43 schools; a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could bring her closer to her goal of 100. That would give Success more schools than Buffalo, the state’s second-largest district.

In a rare look inside the network, including visits to several schools and interviews with dozens of current and former employees, The New York Times chronicled a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores. Teachers who do well can expect quick promotions, with some becoming principals while still in their 20s. Teachers who struggle can expect coaching or, if that does not help, possible demotion.
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Rachel Tuchman, 25, said that during her three years as a teacher at Success, she had friends who worked in the fields of finance and consulting, and she went to work earlier and stayed later than they did.

“You’re being treated like you’re on the trading floor at Goldman while you’re teaching in Harlem,” said Ms. Tuchman, who is now in her first year at Yale Law School.

She also said that she thought the workload was necessary to achieve the results that Success has, adding, “It takes a very specific type of person who can handle the pressure.”

One consequence of the competitive environment is a high rate of teacher turnover. Some teachers who left said that the job was too stressful. Others said they left because they disagreed with the network’s approach, particularly when they believed it was taken to extremes. In an internal email that some former teachers said typified the attitude at some schools, one school leader said that students who were lagging should be made to feel “misery.” Suspension rates at Success schools, compared with public schools, are higher.

Former staff members described students in third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests, either because teachers did not allow them to go to the restroom, which Ms. Moskowitz disputed, or because the students themselves felt so much pressure that they did not want to lose time on the test.

Jasmine Araujo, 25, who joined Success through the Teach for America program, quit after half a year as a special-education teacher at Success Academy Harlem 3. She now teaches at a charter school in New Orleans. “I would cry almost every night thinking about the way I was treating these kids, and thinking that that’s not the kind of teacher I wanted to be,” Ms. Araujo said.

By the Numbers

Ms. Moskowitz and a number of her teachers saw the network’s exacting approach in a different way: as putting their students on the same college track as children in wealthier neighborhoods who had better schools and money for extra help. Success students are generally barred from the city’s best elementary schools because they do not live in those schools’ zones.

“For affluent parents who are concerned about the test scores, they have an exit strategy — their exit strategy is to hire a private tutor,” Ms. Moskowitz said.

No one criticizes those parents, but “when we support our students, we get criticized,” she said.

“And I would argue that it’s not fair that only the kids who can hire private tutors should do well.”

At Success, everyone is measured by whether their students are doing well.

After every networkwide quiz, students’ scores are entered into the Success computer system, which then ranks each teacher. The purpose of this, teachers and principals said, is to identify high performers and to see what practices they are using, and conversely, to determine which teachers might need better practices.

“We’ve never had a conversation where, like, ‘You are 32nd in the network,’ ” said Lisa Sun, the 26-year-old principal at Success Academy Harlem North Central, a middle school. Rather, she said, she discusses with the teacher which skills the students are lacking, as reflected by the data. “ ‘And it’s not because of them, it’s because of you. We have to talk about what you need to fix to make it better.’ ”
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A teacher whose students are performing poorly on assessments, or who cannot maintain discipline, might be moved midyear to another grade, an assistant teacher’s position or tutoring outside the classroom. At the beginning of the year, each class is named after the college that its lead teacher graduated from and the students’ expected year of college graduation. Dana Adnopoz’s homeroom at Success Academy Harlem North Central is Dartmouth 2026. Ms. Jones and her co-teacher have Hunter-Siena 2027.

But because teachers frequently leave or move, one teacher who taught at Success Academy Harlem 3 from 2010 to 2012 and left because she viewed it as overly strict recalled that in the spring of her second year, only a few of the classes in the school were still being led by the teacher whose college they were named after.

This teacher, like some other former Success teachers, did not want to be named criticizing the network. These former teachers said they feared hurting their future job prospects by disparaging a former employer or by being identified as critics of charter schools.

Dawn to Dusk

Each school day, Kristin Jones takes a 5:30 a.m. ferry from Staten Island, where she lives with her mother and two younger siblings, to Manhattan. In the winter, the sun is not yet up when she walks into school at 6:40 a.m.

Growing up, Ms. Jones always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She would tape loose-leaf paper to the mirror on her dresser to turn it into a makeshift blackboard and have her cousin and younger brother pretend to be her students.

Beginning teachers at Success are paid comparably with those in city public schools though instead of a pension, they receive contributions to a retirement account. Unlike public-school teachers, who often have to use their own money for basics like photocopies, Ms. Jones and her colleagues do not worry about supplies. The closets teem with notebooks, folders, pencils and pens. Each middle school student receives an iPad. Success Academy schools are also rich in the kind of extracurricular activities that have increasingly been cut from public schools, such as art, music, chess, theater, dance, basketball and swimming.

Success Academy supplements the public money it receives with money raised from private donors. In its 2013 fiscal year, the most recent for which fund-raising figures are publicly available, it received nearly $72 million in public funds and $22 million in donations.

Because so many administrative functions at Success schools are handled by the organization, principals have a lot of time to observe teachers. When William Loskoch, Ms. Jones’s principal, visited her classroom one day in December, he frequently stopped her co-teacher, Sarah Vistocco, 24, who had started at the network in May, to redirect a discussion or ask her to reinforce the rules.

When a student was struggling to come up with an adjective to describe the protagonists of two myths the class had read and Ms. Vistocco moved on, Mr. Loskoch, 34, stopped her and went back to the girl to try to draw her out.

When the students were sitting on the floor and he noticed that they were not sitting properly, he interrupted the lesson and said, “Ms. Vistocco, can you reset your carpet expectations?”

Success has stringent rules about behavior, down to how students are supposed to sit in the classroom: their backs straight, and their feet on the floor if they are in a chair or legs crossed if they are sitting on the floor. The rationale is that good posture and not fidgeting make it easier to pay attention. Some teachers who had orderly classrooms and a record of good student performance said, after their first year, their school leaders allowed them to bend the rules somewhat, such as not requiring students to clasp their hands as long as their hands were still.

“We believe that structure and consistency leads to better outcomes,” Ms. Moskowitz said. The network’s rules, she said, were consistent with expectations of students throughout most of the history of American education.

“Maybe some people prefer chaos,” she added. “We don’t.”

Indeed, watching the students at Success Academy Harlem 4 walk to lunch, the scene was anything but chaotic. In their blue and orange uniforms — the girls wear jumpers, and the boys shirts and ties — they walked silently in two lines, starting and stopping at the teacher’s command. If so many children walking in formation was reminiscent of the von Trapp children at the beginning of “The Sound of Music,” the orderliness also meant that no time was wasted.

Likewise, inside Ms. Jones’s classroom, the atmosphere was calm, and she was demanding.

When the students were writing summaries of myths, she scolded the class: “I don’t want to continue seeing names of characters that start with lowercase letters. It’s an indicator of low effort.”

But when she was pleased with a student — as when the boy scored well on his spelling quiz — she radiated pride.

Asked whether she thought the students who were in the red zone would be demoralized, Ms. Jones said, “I’m sure they’re not happy about it.”

“But they’re very resilient,” she added. “And then, as soon as they get a great grade, they’re praised for it,” and, she said, they can see the difference that their increased effort made.

“They don’t want to stay there,” she said. “They want to improve.”

Carrots and Sticks

In 2005, Ms. Moskowitz, then a city councilwoman, ran for Manhattan borough president and lost — in part because of opposition from the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, which was enraged by a series of hearings she held in the City Council that were critical of work rules embedded in the union’s contract.

After the election, she was recruited by a pair of hedge fund managers who were interested in setting up a charter school, and she opened the network’s first, the Harlem Success Academy, in 2006. In subsequent years she opened more schools, first in Harlem and then in other neighborhoods in the city, and now has a total of 9,000 students in schools in every borough but Staten Island.
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The Bloomberg administration gave her free space in public schools, often angering parents and teachers in the schools that had to share buildings with Success. Last year, after Mr. de Blasio briefly blocked three Success schools from public space and threatened to charge the network rent, Mr. Cuomo pushed through a law guaranteeing all new or expanding charter schools in the city free space or money to find their own.

Ms. Moskowitz has used her high test scores to argue that she should be allowed to open more schools, and an effort by Mr. Cuomo to raise the limit on the number of charter schools in the state could make it easier for her to do so.

At any given time, multiple carrots and sticks are used in the quest to make sure every student does well on the standardized tests. This system goes into overdrive in late January, as the annual exams, which begin this year on April 14, approach.

Success did not allow a reporter to observe test preparations, but teachers and students described a regimen that can sometimes be grueling.

To prepare for the reading tests, students spend up to 90 minutes each day working on “Close Reading Mastery” exercises, consisting of passages followed by multiple-choice questions. The last two Saturdays before the exams, students are required to go to school for practice tests.

Students who do well on practice tests can win prizes, such as remote-controlled cars, arts and crafts kits, and board games. Former teachers said that they were instructed to keep the prizes displayed in the front of their classroom to keep students motivated.

Students who are judged to not be trying hard enough are assigned to “effort academy.” While they redo their work, their classmates are getting a reward — like playing dodge ball against the teachers, throwing pies in the face of the principal or running through the hallways while the students in the lower grades cheer.

On the Friday before test preparations began, a calendar counting down the days to the test hung on the wall in Yale 2025, a sixth-grade classroom at Success Academy Harlem North West. The page for Monday was already displayed; in large type, it said: “53 days left.”

Carolyn Farnham, 24, the teacher, asked her students how they felt about the start of test preparations.

“It has the potential to be both really, really dull and really, really stressful,” she said to her students, adding, “That’s certainly not what I want.”

Some students responded that they did not mind because they had done well on the tests in the past. But several said they disliked it.

“I know that it’s here to help us,” one girl, Maliha, said. “But sometimes when people don’t get the best score, they seem to feel, like, really down on themselves. And when effort academy and detention and stuff like that is introduced,” she said, “one gets — me personally — really angry and upset.”

A boy raised his hand.

“I always get a high three or a low three or sometimes a four,” said the boy, Erick. (A three is considered passing, and a four is the highest score.) “What I don’t like is I have to go to school on Saturdays, so I feel like I don’t get rest, and I get a lot of stress in my neck because I got to go like this all the time,” he said, hunching forward like he was looking at a test paper.
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Another girl, Ruqayyah, agreed that test preparations caused anxiety. But “on the other hand, there’s prizes,” she said, “which are really cool and motivate us to do our best.”

“I hope also you want to do your best for you,” Ms. Farnham said, “not just for prizes.”

The network’s critics — including the teachers’ union, which sees Success as taking money and space from public schools — say the network’s high scores are a mirage created, in part, by inordinate test preparation.

The network’s oldest students are still in high school, so it is difficult to gauge the long-term benefits of their education. Halley Potter, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive policy organization, and the co-author of two books about charter schools, said that network’s test scores were impressive, but that the conclusions that could be drawn from them were limited.

“Success Academy’s strong test scores tell us that they have a strong model for producing good test scores,” Ms. Potter said, adding that there could be lessons in Success’s practices for schools that are trying to improve their scores.

She noted that Success schools tend to have fewer nonnative English speakers and special-education students than public schools; those groups tend to score lower on tests. Ms. Potter also said that the network has made trade-offs, including not offering foreign languages until eighth grade, in order to devote more time to math, English and science, the only subjects in which all elementary and middle school students take state tests.

Teachers and principals at Success said that they prepare their students so intensely for the tests because of the opportunities that high scores can present, such as invitations to top public middle or high schools, or scholarships for private schools.

Two documentaries, “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery,” have captured the desperation of parents trying to get their children into Success through the annual lotteries it holds; this year, the network said, it received more than 22,000 applications for 2,688 seats.

Shakeya Matthew’s sons attended Public School 165, on West 109th Street, before getting into Success Academy Harlem 4 this year. Ms. Matthew, 33, said that her younger son had struggled last year in kindergarten and that his teacher seemed overwhelmed. Now, as a Success first grader, he is reading at a second-grade level. She said that she is in more frequent contact with her sons’ teachers now than when her sons were in the public school. Success teachers will call or send her a text during the day or in the evening with news about how one of her sons did on a test or with other updates.

“It seems like they definitely put forth more effort and go an extra mile,” Ms. Matthew said.

Walking Away

The high-pressure atmosphere at Success leads to substantial teacher turnover, though the precise rate is unclear. According to the latest school report cards, in 2013-14 three Success schools had turnover rates above 50 percent, meaning more than half the teachers from the previous year did not stay.
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But Success officials said that these figures were inflated by the number of teachers who move from one Success school to another, or to nonteaching positions within the network. According to its own numbers, attrition from the network from June 2013 to June 2014 was 17 percent. By comparison, attrition from the city’s public school system in 2013-14 was 6.1 percent, according to the Education Department.

Still, current and former employees said departures were common.

Ariadna Phillips-Santos, 34, taught kindergarten and first and second grades at Success Academy Harlem 5 from 2010 until 2012. Having worked in public schools, she was impressed by the academic rigor and the plentiful supplies. But she was raising a young son on her own, and juggling his care with her long work hours was almost impossible, she said. Ms. Phillips-Santos, who is now a dean at a public elementary and middle school in the Bronx, said she recalled asking her Success principal one day if she could leave at 4:55 p.m. — after the students had been dismissed — because her son’s day care had called saying that he had a fever and was vomiting, and being told, “It’s not 5 o’clock yet.”

Ms. Moskowitz said that Success was accommodating to working parents. She said that Success allowed some teachers and even some principals to work part time and that the network offers a month of paid maternity and paternity leave.

Most of the former teachers interviewed, however, said that they left not because of the workload, but because they disagreed with Success’s approach, which they found punitive.

One teacher complained that she was expected to announce all of her students’ scores on practice tests, by asking those who had scored a four to stand up, followed by those with a three and then those with a two. The teacher and her colleagues persuaded their supervisors not to make students with a score of one stand up, but those students were still left conspicuously sitting down, she said.

At one point, her leadership resident — what the network calls assistant principals — criticized her for not responding strongly enough when a student made a mistake. The leadership resident told her that she should have taken the student’s paper and ripped it up in front of her. Students were not supposed to go to the restroom during practice tests, she said, and she heard a leader from another school praise the dedication of a child who had wet his pants rather than take a break.

“I dreaded going into work,” the teacher, who now teaches in a public school, said.

Other former staff members also described students having wet themselves, in some cases during practice tests. Two former staff members who worked at Success Academy Harlem West, a middle school, in the 2013-14 school year, said that they recalled having to go to the supply closet to get extra underwear and sweatpants, which were always on hand, for students who had wet themselves.

Ms. Moskowitz said that, to mimic the environment of the actual test, when students are not supposed to go to the restroom except for an emergency, Success has all students go to the restroom immediately before practice tests. But students are still allowed to go during tests, she said. She acknowledged that there were sometimes accidents, but attributed them to the challenges of sharing space in public school buildings, which meant the restrooms were sometimes several floors away.
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“We have plenty of kids who don’t always prepare adequately,” Ms. Moskowitz said, adding that “very occasionally there are accidents, and we get that it’s uncomfortable for the student.”

“It’s very emotional,” she said. “Teachers get emotional about it.”

Suspension Rates

Several former teachers and staff members said that they had also been uncomfortable with Success’s suspension rates.

At Success Academy Harlem 1, as the original school is now called, 23 percent of the 896 students were suspended for at least one day in 2012-13, the last year for which the state has data. At Public School 149, a school in the same building, 3 percent of students were suspended during that same period. Statewide, the average suspension rate is 4 percent. (A spokeswoman for Success said that the suspension rate at Success Academy Harlem 1 has since declined to 14 percent, and that several of the newer schools had rates below 10 percent.)

Students who frequently got in trouble sometimes left the network, former staff members said, because their parents got frustrated with the repeated suspensions or with being called in constantly to sit with their children at school.

Ms. Moskowitz said that the question of what was an appropriate number of suspensions was a complicated one, but that the suspension rate in public schools should not be regarded as “the gold standard.” She said that even very young children could do things that required an intervention, such as bringing razor blades to school or cursing at teachers.

“Often the suspensions are really to get the parents and the school to be on the same team, that there’s a serious issue,” she said. “If we don’t intervene, when they’re 13, that’s going to be a bigger problem,” she said.

The network’s critics say that its performance is skewed by the departure of its most difficult students. In a visit last month to a public school where 4 percent of students passed last year’s math tests, and that shares a building with a Success school where 96 percent of the students passed, the city’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said, “We would like to be at that percentage, but we keep all our kids from the day they walk into the building.”

Success students who leave after fourth grade are not replaced because, Ms. Moskowitz said, new students entering at that point would be too far behind their classmates. But even if all those students stayed and continued to do poorly, Success schools would still significantly outperform their neighboring schools on tests.

Dahlia Graham, a teacher who came to Success Academy Harlem 1 in 2009, said that in the public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where she previously taught, there was no clear discipline system. If a student hit another student, he might be removed from class briefly, but then would return, still angry, and disrupt the class again. She said it was a relief when she got to Success, where she said hitting resulted in suspension.
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“It made my life so much easier,” Ms. Graham said.

As for the teachers who said they did not like the environment, Ms. Moskowitz said: “Most of the people who leave are a little angry, like they don’t like their work and they don’t seem happy teaching, and we really can’t have people who don’t love it.”

A Demanding Culture

On April 1, 2012, a leadership resident at Success Academy Harlem 2, Lauren Jonas, sent an email to her fourth-grade teachers.

The email, provided by a former staff member, said that the results on a recent, three-day practice test were “not what we had hoped for.”

“You must demand every single minute,” Ms. Jonas wrote. “You must have higher behavioral and academic expectations than ever before.” Every letter was capitalized.

Nine to 12 students had failed to use the test-taking strategies they had been taught, known as the “plan of attack,” Ms. Jonas wrote.

“We can NOT let up on them,” she continued. “Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

At Ms. Jonas’s school, 64 percent of the teachers the year she wrote that email were not teaching there the next year, according to state figures. Researchers have linked high teacher turnover to lower performance by students on tests, but that is not the case at Success. At Success Academy Harlem 2 last year, 91 percent of students passed the state math tests, up from 76 percent the previous year. At Public School 30, which shares the building with Success Academy Harlem 2, 16 percent of students passed.

Ms. Jonas is now principal of one of the network’s newest schools, Success Academy Harlem North West, a middle school.

When the 2012 email was read to her recently, Ms. Jonas cringed and said that she did not remember writing it. She said that she did not want students to be miserable and described her words as “poorly chosen.”

“I should be certainly more careful in how I’m communicating and how others might misinterpret the meaning behind it,” she said.

But Ms. Moskowitz defended the wording of Ms. Jonas’s email, saying that a reporter was reading too much into it.

“We use that terminology sometimes, meaning, you know, ‘Kids, you got to get it right the first time, and we’re not playing,’ ” she said.

“That is part of our culture — not having kids getting away with just not trying,” she continued. “Everybody’s working too hard. Parents are sacrificing to get up early. Teachers are working really hard. Simply not trying is not part of our culture.”


The education model that fell apart

April 6th, 2015

By Scott Waldman

ALBANY—A few blocks from the Capitol, a cluster of vacant buildings testifies to the rapid rise and quick retreat of Albany’s charter school sector.

Once heralded as a new beginning for children living in grinding poverty and stuck in a long-troubled school district, Albany’s charter system has so far failed to live up to that promise. Five of the 12 charter schools that opened in the last decade have already closed, and others are being skeptically eyed by state officials.

The failures of Albany’s charter sector reflect some of the significant questions that surround Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push to expand the state’s charter sector in this year’s budget.

Charters were designed to rattle a public school system that graduates far less than half its student body in most of the state’s major cities and that has proven remarkably resistant to major change. Cuomo has offered a full-throated endorsement of charter schools, appearing at a massive rally last year and enacting new protections for the sector in last year’s state’s budget. This year, Cuomo wants to expand the sector even more, over the objections of Democrats in the state Assembly and their traditional allies in the state teachers’ union.

In Albany, all of the charter schools currently operating were supported by the Brighter Choice Foundation, created by Pataki-era officials who helped write the state’s charter laws. Once considered a gold standard of charter operations, two Brighter Choice middle schools were closed by the state’s Charter Schools Institute after just five years in operation, because 80 percent of the students were not proficient in English and math. Other charter schools in Albany, including an all-girls high school with a graduation rate of 51 percent, could be shuttered in the near future for poor performance.

In total, Albany taxpayers have spent more than $300 million on the city’s charter schools in the last decade, Albany school district spokesman Ron Lesko said. Many of those schools have now been closed.

“We didn’t need to spend scores of millions of dollars to find out that the work our teachers and staff do and the staff in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and New York City, and every city in poor communities in America is doing is hard work,” he said. “There is no quick and easy fix and privatizing education is no answer and that’s been proven here.”

The failure in Albany has shown the disruption that charters can cause to public school systems and surrounding neighborhoods. The Brighter Choice middle schools set to close were built just a few years ago, near the foundation’s headquarters. Half of a city block was leveled and residents were displaced from their homes.

The closure of those schools has created an administrative nightmare for the Albany city school district, which must now establish an entirely new middle school in the next six months to handle the almost 400 charter school students who were enrolled in the failed Brighter Choice schools.

Albany was once among the top 10 districts in the nation when it came to the percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools. Just a few years ago, more than a fifth of the city’s 10,000 public school students were enrolled in charters.

The Brighter Choice schools are supported by the Brighter Choice Foundation, once headed by Tom Carroll, a lobbyist for education reform and a former Pataki official who helped write the state’s charter school law. Carroll was a prominent critic of one of Albany’s first charter schools, New Covenant Charter School, which he did not create, and which he argued should be shuttered because it reflected poorly on the rest of the city’s charter sector. Carroll criticized the school, which started in trailers on a vacant lot in Albany, for growing too quickly and never developing its curriculum. Its closure, over the objections of Governor George Pataki, drew significant media attention.

The Brighter Choice schools, Carroll said, were designed to be better, the answer to New Covenant failings, small and with a “relentless focus on standards and results.” Carroll, who earned more than $400,000 annually from the nonprofits he created to encourage charter growth, raised more than $15 million from the Walton Foundation to help build Albany’s charter schools. He also turned to hedge-fund billionaires including Bruce Kovner to bring outside money for help growing Albany’s charter sector.

Carroll declined to comment for this story.

But Carroll has struggled too. At the Brighter Choice middle schools he helped create, as well as at two other schools his foundation supported, state charter officials determined that Carroll’s grand vision of a better education alternative never came to fruition and voted to close them. Before the Charter Schools Institute voted to close the schools, Natasha Howard, the institute’s managing director of programs, said she saw teachers allowing students to sleep in class without opening their textbooks, according to the Times Union.

“Renewing these two schools would send the message that SUNY trustees accept that status quo,” she said, according to the paper.

The state comptroller quickly followed with an audit questioning why $115,779 in payments were made by the school to the Brighter Choice Foundation for “legal assistance, advocacy, curriculum design and test administration” without any evidence that it received anything of value for those services.

Charter proponents say the closures demonstrate the accountability of the charter sector, since troubled schools can face real consequences, including their closure.

Privately, Albany city school district officials have acknowledged that charter competition has spurred changes to the public school curriculum, the addition of extracurricular activities and more intense focus on student achievement. Some Albany schools also extended their school day and provided students with uniforms.

In many cases, charter schools have also provided stability to students who come from unstable home environments, offering them clean uniforms, two or three meals a day and a safe building that was open to them for up to twelve hours a day, including weekends and much of the summer. One Albany charter, the Kipp Tech Valley Middle School, regularly sends students to some of the northeast’s top boarding schools on full scholarships.

For a time, Albany’s charters created such a highly competitive market for students that forced the public school system to run advertisements on public buses, and to sell off schools that it no longer needed.

Now, the Albany city school district is again looking to create space for hundreds of charter students returning to the system. Lesko said the district is interested in purchasing the soon-to-be shuttered charter schools, just as it did with the former New Covenant Charter School building.

Meanwhile, the taxpayer funds that paid for the charter schools, often through leases far above market rates, has essentially evaporated.

The head of the Albany Charter Schools Network, which is allied with the Brighter Choice Foundation, declined to speak about the closure of the network’s two schools, and replied to questions about what lessons could be learned from the closures with a six-sentence response.

“Our mission is to create opportunities for children, especially those historically underserved,” wrote Mubuso Zamchiya, chief executive officer of the Albany Charter Schools Network. “Albany is the right place at the right time for that mission. Charters are working to stay on track toward achieving that mission.”


Richard Brodsky: Amend the budget process

April 2nd, 2015

What’s been most interesting about the emerging budget deal is watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo maneuver himself out of a self-created box.

His budget proposal was the most intense use ever of the governor’s extraordinary power to frustrate the Legislature. Governors can eliminate the pesky Legislature’s power to amend his proposal by including policy decisions in the text of the spending language. It’s a bad system, it’s un-American, but it’s Court of Appeals-sanctioned and Cuomo used it to the hilt.

DREAM Act, minimum wage, ethics, unlimited spending power, the tuition tax credit, teacher evaluation and much more were submitted so that the Legislature had two awful choices: Accept it unchanged or … delay the budget.

Tough-guy Cuomo announced it was “my-way-or-the-highway” on all this stuff. The budget theater was fun. He publicly hugged the Assembly speaker, publicly announced that Shelly SIlver was still in charge, threatened teacher unions and their monopoly, the usual stuff. But he never backed off on his real power to dictate outcomes.

Then, just as things got tense, he pulled the plug on everything. No DREAM Act, no tuition tax credit, a study of teacher evaluation, no minimum wage and modified ethics proposals. There are a lot of disappointed interests who had banked on victory, not on the merits but on the assumption that the governor would bully them over the finish line. Not so much.

There are two explanations of why he voluntarily stepped back from using his constitutional authority.

First, he’s a statesman who understands the role of compromise and negotiation. Nothing is impossible. In fairness, there’s a residual cynicism about this explanation, but we can always give the governor the benefit of the doubt.

Second, the long-term politics required him to back off. He started off by trying to jam the new speaker, Carl Heastie. He could have won, but Heastie turned out to be a shrewder negotiator than Cuomo had guessed. No need to embarrass a guy he’s going to need later in the session and next year. And there’s some political value in reaching agreements over time rather than all wrapped up in the budget. This is a more likely explanation.

It just shows how bad New York’s constitutional budget arrangements are. The governor ought to propose. The Legislature ought to have the power to amend. Instead, the governor makes a last-minute political calculation. If the governor hadn’t shown flexibility this week, there were only two outcomes: Either a budget full of bad proposals beyond the reach of improvement by the Legislature, or a late budget.

For years, a late budget was held up as proof of a dysfunctional, my-goodness-why-can’t-they-do-their-job-on-time legislature. The public and interest groups alike made it impossible for the Legislature to use the only power left to it by the Court of Appeals — delay. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t fair. But it was political reality.

This is no way to spend more than $140 billion. So good for Cuomo for averting a constitutional stalemate, and to Heastie, Skelos and Senate Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein, too. Let’s hope that the interests that banked on thwarting democracy in order to triumph will see the error of their ways. And let’s hope that the powers that be will finally agree to restore democracy to the budget process.


New MBPO Small Business Report Presents Ideas to Help Manhattan’s Storefronters

April 1st, 2015

Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer

Small businesses are the economic heart of New York City, especially the street-level retail stores and restaurants that keep things running 24/7 and provide the everyday necessities and comforts New Yorkers rely on. But with high rents, corporate competition, and real estate development, these businesses—what we call “storefronters”—are facing serious challenges over and above the ones small businesses typically grapple with.

To help more small businesses succeed and thrive, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office today released a report—Small Business, Big Impact: Expanding Opportunity for Manhattan’s Storefronters—at the Upper West Side storefront of The Halal Guys, small business entrepreneurs who’ve worked hard to become a stunning success story.

Our report makes recommendations that would help storefronters by taking the pressure off lease renewals, modernizing policies governing street vending, helping established small businesses threatened by rent increases by encouraging “condo-ization” of storefront space, and creating “low-intensity” commercial districts.

I was joined by Council Member Robert Cornegy, our ally in developing small-business-friendly legislation, and Noel Hidalgo, co-founder the NYC Transparency Working Group. We also heard from Halal Guys co-founder Mohamed Abouelenein, who spoke of New York City’s essential role in the expansion of his successful food cart chain into storefronts in Manhattan and around the nation and the world. He and his partners could not have done it anywhere else.


Movement to Increase McDonald’s Minimum Wage Broadens Its Tactics

March 31st, 2015

ATLANTA — On a recent Friday, Kwanza Brooks, a $7.25-an-hour McDonald’s worker, climbed into a 14-person van to take a four-hour ride from Charlotte, N.C., to Atlanta.

As she and other workers headed south, Ms. Brooks, a short, fiery woman, swapped stories with her companions about unsafe conditions and unfair managers. Upon arriving, they joined more than 400 other people — including home care aides, Walmart workers, child care workers and adjunct professors — at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been a pastor.

The gathering on March 21 was in part a strategy session to plan for the fast-food movement’s next big wave of protests, which is now scheduled for April 15. But the meeting was also seeking to be something far more ambitious. Through some strategic alchemy, the organizers hoped the gathering would turn the fast-food workers’ fight for a $15 hourly wage into a broad national movement of all low-wage workers that combined the spirit of Depression-era labor organizing with the uplifting power of Dr. King’s civil rights campaign.

On the campaign’s first day of strikes two and a half years ago, 200 fast-food workers walked out in just one city, New York. But in the wave of actions on April 15, organizers say more than 60,000 people will join strikes and protests in 200 cities nationwide. They also predict there will be strikes and support actions in 35 other countries.

Organizers say they expect 10,000 people at the Fight for 15 protests in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, with many college and high school students joining the actions. They chose April 15 because the date, 4/15, sounds like “for 15.”

“When we started it was very hard to get people to sign up — they were scared, ‘I might lose my job,’ ” said Ms. Brooks, who became a fast-food worker after funding for her job as a youth counselor was eliminated. “But this movement is really growing. People who didn’t know who we were, they now know who we are.”

Whether from Burger King or Walmart workers, much of the talk was about not being able to make ends meet. Some members of the Black Lives Matter campaign joined the session, and so did three octogenarians who spoke about participating in the famous 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, during which Dr. King was assassinated. To drum up support for the April 15 protests, several fast-food workers have gone on “freedom ride” bus trips to Tulane, Vanderbilt and other colleges, while pastors at dozens of churches in New York, Chicago and Detroit plan to tell congregants about the protests.

McDonald’s, the movement’s main target, has shown no signs of bowing to the demands to raise pay or invite in a union. With its sales languishing and having recently replaced its C.E.O., the company has much else to worry about. McDonald’s says the series of one-day strikes has barely affected its restaurants, adding that hardly any workers walked out.

“These events have not been ‘strikes,’ but organized rallies designed to garner media attention for which demonstrators are transported to various locations,” said Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, a McDonald’s spokeswoman. “Historically, very few McDonald’s employees have participated in these organized events.”
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While the movement may not be close to persuading McDonald’s to adopt a $15 minimum wage, even the campaign’s critics acknowledge it has achieved some of its goals by prompting a national debate about low-wage work and nudging various cities and states to raise their minimum wage.

“They have contributed to the wins in the ballot initiative in different states and localities,” said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research center. “We saw the ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage passed even in Arkansas, and we see cities such as Seattle having a $15 minimum wage. So they’re succeeding in that way.”

Ms. Furchtgott-Roth argued that the so-called Fight for 15 would ultimately hurt many of the low-skill, entry-level workers that it is trying to help, saying that pushing up wages beyond what the market can bear would lead to less hiring.

The Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest and most activist unions, has quietly pumped more than $15 million into the movement, helping to hire dozens of organizers to rally fast-food workers nationwide.

The S.E.I.U. has been increasing pressure on McDonald’s. It helped arrange for a coalition of European and American unions to accuse McDonald’s European operations last month of avoiding more than 1 billion euros in taxes by having royalty payments go through a small Luxembourg-based subsidiary. In response, the European Union’s directorate of competition has begun a preliminary inquiry on McDonald’s tax practices.

Brazil’s two biggest labor federations sued McDonald’s largest franchisee in Latin America as well, accusing it of time-clock fraud, unsanitary working conditions and failure to pay unemployment insurance. Those charges could lead to fines of up to 30 percent of annual sales.

The franchisee, Arcos Dorados, said it was “absolutely confident” that its labor practices complied with all laws.

The S.E.I.U. helped persuade the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel to accuse McDonald’s of being a joint employer with its franchisees, a move that could make it jointly responsible when franchise operators illegally fire workers or cheat them on wages. McDonald’s, with the support of many similar restaurant chains, is fighting this action.

Two weeks ago McDonald’s workers in 19 cities filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, saying they had been burned on the job — while filtering grease, for instance — because of a lack of training and protective equipment. McDonald’s said that it would review the allegations and that its franchises “are committed to providing safe working conditions.”

Hinting that they have other weapons in their arsenal, the movement’s strategists voice confidence that McDonald’s will at some point move toward them on wages. Mary Kay Henry, the service employees’ president, said, “I have no idea how this breakthrough will occur — it’s possible it will happen as we prepare for their shareholders meeting in May.”
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That may be wishful thinking, but with Walmart and several other companies starting to raise their base pay in response to public pressure and tighter labor markets, McDonald’s may eventually feel compelled to join in.

Before last May’s shareholders meeting, more than 1,000 protesters demonstrated outside McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., and more than 100 were arrested at a sit-in. Organizers say this year’s protests might be bigger.

Some of the S.E.I.U.’s two million members have grumbled that this campaign might do little for the janitors and hospital workers who belong to the union. But Ms. Henry said the movement had already succeeded in raising wages for workers beyond fast food.

“There is no longer an internal debate,” she said. “This movement is changing our political debate. The movement is changing what employers think they can get away with. The movement is making cities and states raise minimum wages.”

The campaign’s ripple effects, she said, helped persuade San Francisco to approve a $15 minimum hourly wage and Chicago to adopt a $13 minimum. She said it helped persuade the Los Angeles school district to agree to pay all its employees at least $15 an hour.

Joining in, the Chicago Teachers Union recently demanded that janitors and all other workers in that city’s public schools be paid at least $15 an hour. Ms. Henry noted that the Multnomah County Board in Oregon had established a $15 minimum wage for the county’s employees, many of whom now earn $11.99 an hour.

Angelo I. Amador, the National Restaurant Association’s vice president for labor policy, criticized the demand for $15. “It goes way beyond anything being considered at the federal level,” he said, pointing to President Obama’s call for a $10.10 minimum wage. “It’s not going to have a good effect.”

He said a $15 wage would reduce restaurant employment and push up menu prices.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said it was striking that the Fight for 15 movement seemed to be making substantial gains on one front even as labor unions suffered serious setbacks in other areas, including the passage of so-called right-to-work laws in Wisconsin and Michigan’s barring of any requirement that workers pay union fees.

“This movement is way beyond fast food,” Ms. Henry said. “We aren’t going to stop until the service sector in the U.S. becomes the foundation for the next American middle class.”


Bill de Blasio Is (Mostly) Happy With Education Deal in State Budget

March 31st, 2015


Mayor Bill de Blasio today said the tentative state budget deal will bring additional millions in school aid to New York City and allow him first crack at fixing failing schools—but lamented the absence of an extension of mayoral control and legislation to fund tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants.

“I think I made my views known on mayoral control of education, I made my views known on the Dream Act. I was hoping both of those issues would be addressed here and now, but they have been postponed,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters today at City Hall. “We’ll obviously continue our efforts to get the Dream Act passed and mayoral control of schools renewed for a substantial period of time.”

Education policy was among the most contentious issues within the budget negotiations between Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Republic Senate Leader Dean Skelos. Mr. Cuomo had declared he would boost education funding by just over $1 billion only if the legislature agreed to adopt his reform plans—which included state receivership of failing schools, an increase in the charter cap, new teacher evaluations based on state exams, and changes to teacher tenure. The budget includes the funding boost, though not every one of Mr. Cuomo’s proposed reforms.

Mr. de Blasio had strenuously disagreed with the plan for a state takeover of the city’s worst-performing schools. (Mr. Cuomo’s describes those schools as “failing,” Mr. de Blasio’s office opting for the kinder “struggling.”) Earlier this month he said that allowing “bureaucrats 150 miles away trying to determine the fate of our children sounds like a formula for a disaster.”

The tentative agreement reached last night will allow New York City first crack at turning around those schools, through the mayor’s $150 million “Renewal Schools” program, which he has touted with school visits three times this month. Mr. de Blasio said today it’s a program he is “very personally involved in the management of.”

“Per this budget agreement the city will continue to play the primary role in determining the ways to best address those struggling schools,” Mr. de Blasio said.

But the option of state receivership of those schools if the city does not success is still within the budget, according to reports. The mayor said his turnaround plan has “never been tried before” and that he was confident it would work under the leadership of Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina.

“We also know that the tentative agreement makes clear that every step of the way, the action is led by the chancellor, and that’s what we thought was important here, at each stage of the decision-making process, the chancellor plays a big and shaping role,” Mr. de Blasio said. “And I feel confident that we’ll be able to get done what we need to get done to turn the schools around.”

With mayoral control of city schools set to expire this year, Albany will have to take up the matter after the budget. Mr. de Blasio originally called for a permanent expansion of his control over schools, but that was met with resistance from Mr. Cuomo, who called for a three-year extension, and Senate Republicans, who Senate education committee chair Kevin Flanagan said were “agnostic” on the issue. The Assembly has since proposed seven years, and Mr. de Blasio has said he will work for the longest term possible.

Despite Albany Republicans saying mayoral control ought to get a full hearing in the Senate, Mr. de Blasio today called the push for mayoral control “a bipartisan agreement if ever we’ve seen one.” He and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican and a frequent foe, penned a joint letter to Albany urging the extension of the policy. He said he did not believe that his campaigning for a Democratic takeover of the State Senate last year, which did not come to pass, would endanger the passage of policies like mayoral control.

“This is the only effective way to reform education, and the alternative is to go back to a system that was rife with corruption,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We’re going to win the day on that issue, I believe in my heart, regardless of things that happened last year.”

The budget will boost statewide education funding for $1.4 billion, of which Mr. de Blasio said he anticipates New York City will receive a “substantial share” that will go toward general education funding. Mr. de Blasio had also called on Albany to drastically increase the city’s education aid as called for in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit, which has not happened.

“It is not obviously the same as addressing the core inequality as created by the absence of a resolution in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, this is not a follow-through on that commitment by the state, but it does look like a substantial step forward for school aid,” Mr. de Blasio said.

The state also come up a bit short on its funding for universal pre-kindergarten, providing the same $300 million it did last year, less than what the city had requested, though the mayor declined to provide specifics.

“There will be a differential. We can handle it. But we’ll have more to say in the [city] budget,” Mr. de Blasio said.

Also missing from the state budget deal is Mr. Cuomo’s proposal to increase the cap on charter schools, which will be taken up after the budget. Mr. de Blasio, who railed against charters getting rent-free space as a mayoral candidate, has previously said the cap is fine where it is.

Exact details on teacher tenure and evaluations are still emerging, but teachers’ unions, who have been loudly opposed to the governor’s plans, have painted the budget compromise as a victory.

“The hedge-fund billionaires and Governor Cuomo haven’t gotten their way. The Legislature today, led by the Assembly, reached an agreement on a package of education proposals that will immediately increase state aid to schools, provide that teachers are evaluated on more than a single student test score and ensure local oversight of struggling schools,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said.

Mr. Mulgrew said his union would be working with the State Education Department on a formula for teacher evaluations. Karen Magee, president of state teacher’s union New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, said the Assembly “mitigated some of the worst elements of Gov. Cuomo’s toxic agenda after parents and teachers stood up to his bullying.”

Mr. Cuomo, meanwhile, touted the reforms last night.

“After decades of leading the nation in education spending but lagging in results, New York will set an example for all other states with a complete overhaul of the entrenched education bureaucracy. These reforms—accompanied by an unprecedented financial investment—will put students first by bringing accountability to the classroom, recruiting and rewarding our best teachers, further reducing over-testing, and finally confronting our chronically failing schools,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.


Deal Is Reached on New York State Budget; Ethics Measures Are Included

March 30th, 2015

New York Times Logo


ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders on Sunday night reached an agreement on the next state budget, capping weeks of deliberations over issues like deterring public corruption and improving public schools.

The pact includes education reforms as well as several new ethics measures that Mr. Cuomo proposed in response to the seemingly never-ending series of scandals in Albany. The marathon of malfeasance was punctuated in January by the arrest of Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, who at the time was the Assembly speaker, on federal corruption charges.

The budget, which still needs the formal approval of lawmakers, would be the state’s fifth in a row passed by the April 1 deadline. All of those spending plans were crafted by Mr. Cuomo, who has proudly boasted of his perennial punctuality in a capital where budgets had been chronically late.

“With this agreement, we address intractable problems that have vexed our state for generations,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.

Mr. Cuomo had proposed a $150 billion spending plan. The fine print of the full budget had not been completed by late Sunday night, and details were scarce on much of its contents.

But Mr. Cuomo, who tried to persuade lawmakers to approve big policy changes as part of the annual spending plan, made large concessions to secure what would most likely be an on-time budget. He dropped a proposal to raise the minimum wage and a plan to offer state tuition aid to undocumented students, called the Dream Act. Both were opposed by Republicans, who control the State Senate.

Mr. Cuomo also jettisoned a proposal to create new oversight for cases when unarmed civilians are killed by the police; a tax credit meant to ease the burden of high property taxes; and new policies on sexual assault that would apply to all of the state’s colleges and universities.

One component of the governor’s budget proposal that did survive was doling out a $5.4 billion windfall resulting from settlements the state reached with financial institutions. The governor’s office said $1.5 billion of that money would go toward an upstate economic development program; another $500 million would go toward expanding broadband access.

In the final days of budget talks, Mr. Cuomo worked to overcome disagreements over two particularly contentious policy areas he wanted to address in his budget: education and government ethics.

The governor had dangled a $1.1 billion increase in education aid in exchange for the Legislature agreeing to pass a series of reforms, including tying teacher evaluations more closely to students’ state test scores, making it more difficult for teachers to receive tenure and allowing the state to take over low-performing schools.

Teachers’ unions energetically opposed the governor’s proposals. School administrators and parents objected to the proposal on teacher evaluations, saying that it would increase the focus on testing. Lawmakers criticized his effort to tie school funding with the approval of policy changes.
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In the end, the budget will include an even larger increase in education aid – about $1.6 billion, according to Assembly Democrats. Cuomo administration officials said the budget would establish parameters for teacher evaluations that would result in a more rigorous evaluation system; the changes would be left to the State Education Department to work out.

The budget agreement would lengthen the time before teachers are eligible for tenure to four years, from the current three; Mr. Cuomo had proposed a five-year wait.

A compromise was also struck on school takeovers: Chronically low-performing schools will be given one, or in some cases, two years to improve; if they do not, local districts will have to appoint new management.

The budget also contained several changes to ethics measures, which Mr. Cuomo had said were essential for him to agree to a spending plan.

The issue of cleaning up Albany has hampered Mr. Cuomo’s time as governor. Most notably, he has faced a federal investigation into his decision to close down the Moreland Commission, an anticorruption panel that he formed in 2013 after a previous series of scandals, but agreed to disband as part of last year’s state budget deal.

The arrest of Mr. Silver once again catapulted ethics reform to the top of his agenda — though government watchdog groups said his proposals fell far short of what was needed to deter misconduct in the capital.

Administration officials said the ethics changes would require lawmakers to disclose more about the income they earn on top of their government salaries, including broader disclosure of legal clients. Mr. Cuomo’s effort to seek more disclosure had rankled some legislators who work as lawyers.

The budget also expands a pension-forfeiture law; further restricts the use of campaign funds for personal expenses; and puts in place new oversight for lawmakers’ travel expenses. Legislators, who earn base salaries of $79,500 and have not received a raise since 1999, also could see that change: The budget creates a commission that would study raising their pay, though no pay hike could take effect until 2017.


House Passes Bill Changing Medicare Fee Formula and Extending Children’s Insurance

March 26th, 2015

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The House overwhelmingly approved sweeping changes to the Medicare system on Thursday, in the most significant bipartisan policy legislation to pass through that chamber since the Republicans regained a majority in 2011.

The measure, which would establish a new formula for paying doctors and end a problem that has bedeviled the nation’s health care system for more than a decade, has already been blessed by President Obama, and awaits a vote in the Senate. The bill would also increase premiums for some higher income beneficiaries and extend a popular health insurance program for children.

The legislation, which passed on a 392-to-37 vote, embodies a rare and significant agreement negotiated by Speaker John A. Boehner and the House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, two leaders who are so often at odds with each other.

Mr. Boehner’s strategy of working out a significant legislative compromise with Ms. Pelosi is a break from his previous attempts to mollify his most conservative members in the House.

The speaker made an unusual appearance during a floor debate Thursday morning to praise the bill as benefiting Medicare patients, children and taxpayers. “Normally we’d be here to admit we are going to kick the can down the road one more time,” he said. “But today, because of what we are doing, we are going to save money 20, 30, 40 years down the road.” Then he added, ”This is what we can accomplish when we’re focused on finding common ground.”

Ms. Pelosi again demonstrated that even as the leader of a minority party that is at times restless for fresh leadership, she has the ability to simultaneously win policy fights for Democrats while persuading them to accept hard losses.

The bill puts in place “the first real structural entitlement reform in nearly two decades” Mr. Boehner said this week, and ends “one of Washington’s most infamous budget gimmicks.”

“Don’t look now but we are actually governing,” said Representative Renee Ellmers, Republican of North Carolina.

On the House floor Thursday morning, Democrats and Republicans both praised the bills and the process, sounding strikingly similar in their comity.

“It’s not a perfect bill,” said Representative Ami Bera, Democrat of California, who is a physician. “But I came to Congress to put people first. I came to Congress to work across the aisle in a bipartisan way to put our country first.”

Representative Dan Benishek, a Republican from Michigan who is also a physician, said, “Today’s legislation may not be perfect,” but “I urge all my colleagues to support this common sense, overdue fix.”

Senate Democrats have been resistant to provisions in the bill that preserve restrictions on the use of federal money for abortion services and extend a children’s health program for only two years, but they are expected to eventually work with Senate Republicans to pass the measure.

The timing was uncertain and the final vote would be put off until after an two-week recess scheduled to start Friday.
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Doctors face a 21 percent cut in Medicare fees on April 1 unless Congress takes action. Medicare officials could stretch the deadline and delay the cuts for about two weeks.

Since 2003, Congress has passed 17 short-term bills to block cuts in Medicare doctors’ fees, which are calculated under a formula that defines a “sustainable growth rate” linked to growth of the overall economy. The Boehner-Pelosi bill repeals that formula.

Under the bill, Medicare would pay doctors based on their performance, rewarding them for high-quality work rather than the volume of services. The Children’s Health Insurance Program would be extended for two years, rather than the four years sought by Democrats. More money also would be appropriated for community health centers, with a restriction for abortion services.

To help offset the costs, some higher-income Medicare beneficiaries would be required to pay more expensive premiums for coverage of doctors’ services and prescription drugs. But about two-thirds of the costs would be added to the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would add $141 billion to federal budget deficits in the coming decade, compared with existing law.

“From beginning to end, this bill is about access,” said Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas. “Access for our seniors, access for those who use our nation’s 9,000 community health centers and more than eight million children who receive their care at some point during the year through the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”