How Bloomberg could still win missing millions for failing schools

Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Albany last week for the State of the State address. Gov. Cuomo and the state legislature could help New York City release frozen federal school funds. AP Photo/Mike Groll

Today Mayor Bloomberg will give his State of the City address at a Bronx high school, following an embarrassing suspension of nearly $60 million in federal education funds that the city had planned to use to fix ailing schools. But education experts say it would be a mistake to assume that the mayor has given up on securing those funds, called School Improvement Grants, and that the Bloomberg administration may still pursue the release of the money from the state.

The New York State Education Department won a total of $310 million in federal School Improvement Grants and insisted that districts receiving the funds implement a plan for evaluating the performance of teachers and principals. Negotiations between the Bloomberg administration and United Federation of Teachers collapsed late last year without agreement on evaluations. The union wants arbitration for a fired teacher to be managed externally, while the Department of Education contends it should be taken care of within the education system.

As a result, the Bloomberg administration currently can’t enforce teacher evaluations at all, because state law stipulates at least 20 percent of each teacher’s review must be conducted through a method negotiated between the union and the school district, and in compliance with the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Option one would be to enlist Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to change the state law, which would free the Bloomberg administration to devise an evaluation method for fired teachers that can be implemented without treading on the union contract.

Gov. Cuomo signaled on Tuesday that he would take action to ensure New York school districts comply with the demands of federal school funding programs. At stake is nearly $700 million New York State won from the feds under the separate Race to the Top competition, all of which could be jeopardized by the standoff between the Bloomberg administration and the UFT. “Despite the powerful interests working to protect the status quo at the expense of our students’ success, this state must become a national leader in student performance,” said Cuomo in a statement.

David Bloomfield, Professor of Educational Leadership, Law and Policy at the CUNY Graduate Center, says a legislative change is possible but unlikely, given that a much larger pot of Race to the Top money could actually be put in jeopardy as a result. “The Race to the Top application required that there be cooperation with the unions,” he said, “The whole exercise is to trigger the federal money and I don’t think that’s possible.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has also so far resisted cooperating with the governor to ensure that New York State gets its Race to the Top funds.

More likely, says Aaron Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, under a provision in the current union contract the city could form what are known as school-based committees to evaluate teachers on merit. They could then replace up to half of the faculty as they wished for some of the schools that are supposed to have received funds under the School Improvement Grants program. Eleven out of the 33 schools whose federal improvement grants are in limbo have been slated to go through such an overhaul with the help of the money.

This so-called “turnaround” option provides an alternate path for Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, because while the Department of Education is not allowed to fire the teachers under the contract it can remove them from their school and position, and replace them with new instructors. “It’s called being ‘excessed,'” explained Pallas. Excessed teachers would be placed into the Absent Teacher Reserves, and would continue to receive full salaries and benefits.

Why would the union go along with the mass relocation of members from a troubled school? Because losing half may be better than losing all of them. Low-achieving schools – and the 33 New York City schools that qualify for School Improvement Grants are often, by definition low achieving – are at risk of being closed by the city Department of Education with no union consent.

The details of how DOE could put the turnaround option to work still aren’t clear. Neither the UFT nor the Department of Education would comment on how turnaround would be executed. But conflicts clearly would not go away. “The UFT will not want its members to have to vote on discharging other members,” notes Pallas. “So I don’t know how these school-based committees will work in practice.”

The teacher’s union declined to discuss school turnaround or other possible scenarios.

But today in what is likely to be a State of the City speech rich with pledges on education, the mayor could detail his plans to reboot failing schools.

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